Things I wish I knew before grad school

academic advice
By Nina P.

Graduate school is an incredibly rewarding, full experience. Here are a few things I wish I had known before starting the journey:

Listen, Listen, Listen.

To your advisor, to your lab mates, to your professor…you’re here to absorb. There's going to be a lot that you don't know during grad school. Heck, isn’t that the whole point? Though things will feel new and potentially scary, it's important to remind yourself that everyone had to start somewhere. A great way I found to jump-start my path in a new project was to begin reading as many relevant review articles on the general field as possible before diving into specific articles. This helps give you a sense of the common themes and trends, and also familiarizes yourself with the field’s particular verbiage. 

Speak up for yourself!

If you don’t understand something, if you are struggling with a project, if you don’t like the way someone is treating you/your instruments/your time, if you are not getting along with your PI… you need to communicate this! Nothing is worse than bottling things up and just hating the whole process. Pay attention to which communication style works best for whoever you are trying to speak with. Learning how people react to different communication styles and adjusting your approach accordingly can go a long way to fostering a positive and productive working relationship. 

Rarely do projects go exactly as you intended.

Cultivate an ability to pivot. Look at your results with unbiased eyes; if they aren’t the results you wanted, try to see what feels like a failure as an opportunity: what other areas could this result be interesting for? It’s helpful to have a vague sense of what other people are doing in tangentially related fields. Another tip to spark inspiration could be to look up labs that work on similar materials and see what solution they are trying to solve. Maybe your material can be even better solution to theirs or maybe it gives you an idea to look into a new field.

Be respectful and professional to everyone.

You’re starting your career and the way you carry yourself in the lab/department is important. Start building good habits with how you deal with you boss and coworkers. While we’d love to be best friends with everyone in our workplace, chances are there will be some personality clashes. Graduate school is a golden opportunity to begin (or continue) to work on those interpersonal, workplace skills. 

Working with undergraduates can be tremendously rewarding.

Be sure to set clear expectations as you embark on mentorship—not everyone will be coming in with the same expectations of what working in a lab is like! Make sure to have a chat before you begin work with your undergraduates and listen to what their expectations are. Be honest about your own expectations as well. Starting off on the same page will help you get to the science faster and foster a more enjoyable process! 

Write everything down in a lab notebook.

Nothing is more frustrating than having to go back and troubleshoot an experiment because you forgot to write down conditions or parameters. Getting a good system in place for keeping notes will help save you time when it comes to writing. 

Presenting to an audience can be quite daunting.

You will get more comfortable with presentations over time. Trust the process and solicit feedback from your PI and your colleagues. A great talk also starts with great preparation, so make sure to carefully think about what preparation style works for you. Personally, I need a detailed written outline of my talk before going ahead and putting slides together. Find what works for you (experiment!) and know that we all start out giving wonky talks. With practice and preparation, it gets better!

Make time for yourself.

It can be difficult to find that work/life balance. In whatever quantity works best for you, make sure to find time to do the things that you like. You may feel guilty for taking personal time, but taking time off will help you a lot in the long run and make the whole experience more enjoyable.


academics study skills MCAT medical school admissions SAT expository writing college admissions English MD/PhD admissions GMAT LSAT GRE writing strategy chemistry physics math biology ACT graduate admissions language learning law school admissions test anxiety interview prep MBA admissions academic advice premed homework help personal statements AP exams creative writing MD career advice study schedules summer activities Common Application history test prep philosophy computer science secondary applications organic chemistry economics supplements PSAT admissions coaching grammar law statistics & probability psychology ESL research 1L CARS SSAT covid-19 legal studies logic games reading comprehension dental admissions mathematics USMLE Spanish calculus engineering parents Latin verbal reasoning DAT excel mentorship political science French Linguistics Tutoring Approaches academic integrity case coaching chinese AMCAS DO MBA coursework PhD admissions Social Advocacy admissions advice biochemistry classics diversity statement genetics geometry kinematics medical school mental health quantitative reasoning skills time management Anki English literature IB exams ISEE MD/PhD programs algebra algorithms art history artificial intelligence astrophysics athletics business business skills careers cold emails data science internships letters of recommendation poetry presentations resume science social sciences software engineering study abroad tech industry trigonometry work and activities 2L 3L Academic Interest DMD EMT FlexMed Fourier Series Greek Health Professional Shortage Area Italian Lagrange multipliers London MD vs PhD MMI Montessori National Health Service Corps Pythagorean Theorem Python STEM Sentence Correction Step 2 TMDSAS Zoom acids and bases amino acids analysis essay architecture argumentative writing brain teaser campus visits cantonese capacitors capital markets cell biology central limit theorem chemical engineering chess chromatography class participation climate change clinical experience community service constitutional law consulting cover letters curriculum demonstrated interest dental school distance learning electricity and magnetism enrichment european history executive function finance first generation student freewriting fun facts functions gap year genomics harmonics health policy history of medicine history of science hybrid vehicles hydrophobic effect ideal gas law induction information sessions institutional actions integrated reasoning intern international students investing investment banking lab reports logic mandarin chinese mba mechanical engineering medical physics meiosis microeconomics mitosis music music theory neurology neuroscience office hours operating systems organization pedagogy phrase structure rules plagiarism pre-dental proofs pseudocode psych/soc quantum mechanics resistors resonance revising scholarships school selection simple linear regression slide decks sociology software stem cells stereochemistry study spots synthesis teaching technical interviews transfer typology units virtual interviews writer's block writing circles