The Race to the Publish Line – How to get through your grad school marathon

August 9, 2013 | Posted by Fraser Tan in Grad School Help |
Photo Credit: Jan Willem van Wessel, Stijlfoto on Flickr

Photo Credit: Jan Willem van Wessel, Stijlfoto on Flickr

I went to graduate school immediately after finishing college at a small liberal arts college. I had a great research experience there, with a caring involved mentor who oversaw my every move, who engaged me at every moment, and pushed me at every step of the way.

I arrived at Stanford full of the boundless possibility of science, eager to be overseen, engaged and pushed just as much as I had been in college. In retrospect, I was a young naïf entering the world of research at a top tier institution.

Graduate school proved a very different research experience than I’d had before. My purported mentors were often busy, even absent. My real mentors turned out to be the people working the benches with me. My professors, even those with the best of intentions, rarely had the same time to spend with me as my undergraduate professors had. I had to learn to push myself, to engage myself, and, in many ways, to mentor myself. I didn’t do any of those things very well.

Every marathon runner knows you don’t start out sprinting. You want to set a steady rhythm, a pace you can maintain for the grueling 26 miles you need to cover. Graduate school is like that marathon – don’t sprint out the door!

In this series, I will try to address what I’ve learned about running the grad school marathon. I hope this helps at least some of you avoid the same things that slowed me down. Posts will be featured weekly on Wednesdays, so stay tuned!

Future posts of this series include:

How do you set a pace?

Doing experiments is not a simple jog around the track with one foot in front of the other. Experimental science is more like a trail run; you watch for obstacles, carefully place each foot, and prep for the big hill. Planning ahead – even a little obsessively – can help you set and keep a healthy and productive pace of experimentation, and avoid experimental collisions.

How do you maintain a good pace?

The best way to maintain a good pace is to maintain your health, both mental and physical. The best way to do this is through the ever-elusive work-life balance. (This is a slight misnomer, in my opinion, because work is definitely a part of life, and for those of us who choose research, more a part of life than for most.) Each person has a different balance, but when that balance is out of whack, everything, including your work, will suffer.

How do you keep track of your stats?

Marathoners keep track of their exercise regimens and their times; graduate students need to keep track of their data. In high school, we were taught the golden rule of a spiral bound paper notebook – take that rule and trash it! Your lab notebook should be a dynamic entity, tailored to best suit your needs for data collection, data tracking, and data finding.

How do you deal with other runners on the road?

No matter how isolated you think your project is, you work in a collaborative environment, and projects these days are often larger than one person can handle on their own. Reach out for help, get collaborators, outsource work you can’t do yourself, and leverage all the resources you have to get all that work done. And, quid pro quo, help those around you. The more helpful you are, the more likely people will help you. That applies from collaborations all the way down to simple lab maintenance. Keeping everything shipshape is your responsibility.

How do you deal with the Wall?

Everyone hits it, no matter who they are. Being prepared for it is important. Make no mistake – graduate school is a grueling experience. It’s not just a job – it is a calling in which we have invested most if not all of our self-worth. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it – even the most driving of PIs don’t want you to feel incapacitated. Talk to your Student Health Center, surround yourself with good supportive friends, and make sure you have ways to manage the inevitable stress.

After the race is won – how do you prepare for life after grad school?

By now you’ve probably heard; the job market sucks. There are pitifully few positions open for the hordes of newly minted PhD holders in academia. But a PhD opens many, many more doors than we realize; I stepped through one of those myself! Explore all the options early, and when you decide where you want to go, prep yourself for that field by taking advantage of all the resources your school has to offer.

About the author

Fraser supports our customers on Science Exchange. She completed her graduate and postdoctoral studies at Stanford University and served on the Marketing and Development Team for BenchWise.org before joining Science Exchange..

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