6 Tips for the First Year of Grad School

The first year of graduate school can feel like an expedition into uncharted territory. There is an abundance of excitement and wonder, some confusion and mistakes, and plenty of personal growth and development. Having recently begun my second year of grad school here at Caltech, I thought that I would share a few pointers, by no means comprehensive, that were either crucial to my first year or that, in hindsight, might have had a significant impact. Organized into two sections are my six tips. The first section focuses on items that can be implemented and measured in a clear, practical way, while the second section is centered on concepts more impalpable.

Practical Tips

1. Start a Research Library

When you start performing research in a new area, a huge fraction of your time is dedicated to reading and struggling to understand all key concepts from various noteworthy scientific papers. These readings will form the foundation of knowledge that is built upon for your years as a researcher and are regularly starting points for new research endeavors. Because these articles will be useful for years in the future, I’d advise to develop a way of organizing what you have read and your thoughts on each article. The method you choose will be unique and can range from a filing cabinet to note cards to the plethora of computer programs (End Note, Mendeley, Zotero, etc.).

2. Apply for Grants:

The eligibility guidelines for many grants for PhD students limit applicants to first or second year graduate students; as such, this is something that should be at the forefront of your mind your first year. Having external funding obviously provides financial benefits, but often these are minute since students are normally guaranteed funding for their studies at their chosen institution. There are a number of other benefits to applying and being selected for a grant. First, in just applying, students further develop scientific writing skills that are essential for the remainder of their lives and learn to frame their research interests in a way that is understandable to general scientific audiences. In being selected for a grant, the benefits can be immense, ranging from increased academic freedom to previously unavailable research opportunities (GRIP and GROW for NSF GRFP Fellows) to annual travel stipends and mentorship opportunities (DOE CSGF). There are a number of grants available, but I would recommend starting by looking into the NSF GRFP, the DOE CSGF and the Hertz Fellowship. Additionally, there are many institute specific fellowships that might be relevant for your work and merit your attention.

3. Use Rotations

You have likely heard many times the importance of choosing an advisor whose research piques your interest and whose advising style will promote your success. Accordingly, the act of selecting an advisor is frequently emphasized as the single-most important decision of the first year of a PhD program. My advice would be to take a test drive when offered.

To justify the importance of this, I’ll share my own experience in selecting a research group. I had elected to attend Caltech with intentions of working with a specific advisor and upon my arrival, I began my first rotation in that group. I enjoyed the work, the advisor, and the group and intended to do my second rotation in the same group before officially joining at the end of my first year. At the advisement of a senior graduate student, though, I decided to branch out and try something entirely new and do my second rotation in the Chan group studying quantum chemistry. I’d always had an interest in this area, but was completely inexperienced in the research and thought it would simply be a challenging experiment before returning to the group I intended to join. Surprisingly, I found myself becoming more and more interested in the research I was doing and, perhaps more importantly, found Prof. Chan’s advising style to match my learning style. I looked at the research projects available in each group and eventually decided, contrary to my initial intentions, to join the Chan group. Because of this, and because of benefits I’ve heard other students express, I would recommend taking advantage of rotation opportunities in your program.

Intangible Tips

1. Create a Balance for Yourself

Yesterday, I had a conversation with a student in my cohort in the Chemical Engineering program here where we discussed the intense drive we both feel to work constantly. When you begin your first semester as a grad student, you will likely feel like you are being pulled in every direction. You might begin by focusing on excelling in some rigorous coursework, then realize you need to put more time in as a TA because some students are beginning to struggle. Suddenly, you hit a roadblock in your research and spend nights scouring papers or stay late in the lab trying to flex your creativity before you realize the NSF GRFP proposal is due and you still have revisions to make. The point is, with the gargantuan amount of work to be done, balancing research, coursework, teaching, and your personal and social life becomes paramount.

Though these problems seem universal, and apparently don’t diminish upon completion of a PhD, there is clearly no universal solution. Because of this, I’ll share a few examples from people I’ve met. The first unique solution I heard was at orientation, where in a panel on work-life balance, a student indicated that he would work long hours when a storm was coming so he could spend the best surfing days at the beach without feeling like his research was neglected. Alternatively, a neighbor recently told me that he initially treated grad school as a 9-5 job, but found he spent too much time waiting for lab equipment and wasn’t able to make the progress he had hoped for. He now works abnormal hours to avoid wasting time while others use the equipment and has become more efficient in completing his work. Personally, I find it useful to keep a regular schedule, but allow for flexibility for weeks with extra demands, such as before a presentation or exam or when I am grading assignments for a class I am TAing. In general though, this is something to consider throughout your life, because maintaining an effective balance can improve all aspects of your life.

2. Learn From More Experienced Researchers

As you arrive at graduate school and join a research group, it is important to recognize that there is a huge pool of knowledge available for outgoing and inquisitive students. Senior researchers, whether they be more experienced graduate students, post-docs, or faculty members, are key resources in becoming an expert in your field. With coursework, I found it important to develop a good relationship with a few TAs. By attending their office hours, discussing questions with them, and emailing them when needed, I was able to get the help on assignments or studying for exams that I regret to say I neglected during my undergraduate education. Often times, graduate courses have lower enrollment as well, which means that each TA is able to dedicate a more significant amount of time to helping individuals.

Within your research group, it can be crucial to begin developing working relationships with more experienced members. After joining the Chan group, I was encouraged to branch out, ask questions, and attend group activities to get to know the other members of the group. I also found it extremely useful to talk individually with some group members, before I joined the group, and ask them about their experiences and for any advice they might have for incoming students. I have also learned that I can occasionally spend hours working on a program (such as getting a program to compile), but by simply asking an experienced colleague, the solution can be found in minutes and I can move on to more important tasks.

3. Remember You Are Only Beginning

My last tip can be one of the most difficult to implement. Leaving your undergraduate program, you will likely feel as though you have learned a great deal and are proficient in your area of study. As you begin advanced coursework and research, the limit of your knowledge becomes rapidly apparent. I quickly realized that I had much to learn in some areas and that there was a significant learning curve to start innovating in my field. It is easy to become caught up with all of the concepts and theories to be mastered and become concerned with the mountain of learning left to climb. As such, I’d advise students to enjoy the journey. Learning is a long-term endeavor and will be a constant for your career as a researcher. There is a huge amount of satisfaction and happiness to be found in developing new skills and I have found one of my favorite parts of my first year here at Caltech to be when I’ve just mastered a new skill or achieved a goal and basking for a few moments in the thrill of success before jumping towards my next project.

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