The First Months of Graduate School

Fire Ants, from XKCD

About the author: Connor is a PhD student in Biomedical Engineering at the University of Delaware.  He received his Bachelors in Biomedical Engineering with a minor in Mathematics at the University of Buffalo in 2016.  Connor has interned with both Franco Consulting Engineers and East Coast Orthotics and Prosthetics.  He has been a part of Killian Lab since 2016 and has focused his research on how various FGFs influence the development of muscle.

“What is graduate school?”  What appears to be a simple question was left unanswered for me for quite some time.   I’ve read books on the subject, interviewed students, and interviewed professors, all of whom described graduate school as a formless profession that has different qualities at different times.

I kept trying to understand what it is, but the real question is: “How do I approach graduate school?” In truth, graduate school is hardly school; yes, there are classes that are required, but most time is spent working.  The first few months are stressful because you are surrounded by so much uncertainly.  The thing is, you are not expected to know anything.  Your undergraduate education was to acquaint you with the basic facts of the many fields out there.  All that you know are the well-treaded knowns.  This is the first time in your education where your goal is to find the unknowns.  That is where your academic advisor comes in.  For the first couple of years of graduate school, your academic advisor will be the one with the answers.  This advisor should be someone you are not afraid to ask questions, is doing research you are interested in, and can be an inspiration for not only your career direction, but character direction.  They are not there to do the work for you, but to show the missing pieces in which you will find yourself.

The work of graduate school can pile up quickly as you balance multiple projects, and you may eventually find yourself swamped.   The only way to do things on time is to do them ahead of time.  For the best success, approach graduate school as a 9 to 5 job that varies.  Expect your work week to be anywhere within 35 to 70 hours of work.  For the normal week, set a time that you will arrive at your lab or office and a time that you will leave 8 to 10 hours later.  Do not think of every week at a 35 hour week, plan for a 60 hour week.  Prepare by getting a good planner or get acquainted with Google Calendar.   In research, things hardly ever go as planned.  A botched experiment could require a complete redo.  Plan as much as you can, but understand that things could change at a moment’s notice.

Lastly, there is the most important part of graduate school: your well-being.  The long hours and uncertainties can be very stressful.  That is why a proper balance of success, mental health, and physical health should always be a goal.  You will begin your education with a group of people, so try and build bonds with them.  Plan outdoor activities, work out regularly, and eat well.  Remember, you are not expected to know much so never be afraid to ask for help.

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