Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Advice to the grad-student-me

The other day SciCurious wrote a post about “Knowing what you know now”, talking about what advice you would give yourself if you could go back in time. She got the idea from The Molecular Ecologist who is hosting a carnival about it. All together this will probably create a boat load of excellent advice for grad students, post-docs and young faculty! But knowing myself, I will probably think that I know it better than anyone else and not take all that good advice. Although maybe I would from myself… As a giver of unsolicited advice, here is my two cents: (it’s mostly very practical advice)

Write down everything, even the most trivial things. You may think you will remember the sequence of turning on machines for a certain experiment, but if you don’t use it for a year you won’t.

Don’t start to do an experiment without thinking it through. Even something simple as putting a rat on an elevated plus maze can fail.

Don’t think an experiment through too much, because if you realize the full extent of a 24 hour time course when you have to take samples every 2 hours, you may not even want to start the experiment.

When your PI tells you to do something you don’t want to do, just say yes and then don’t do it. Don't make a fuss about it in a meeting. Ze will most likely have forgotten you talked about it. The only exception to this rule is when the same thing keeps coming up at different meetings. Think about it and if you really don’t want to do it,just say so.

Then some very specific advice: In my home country, the grant system for post-docs and early faculty allows a certain number of years after obtaining your PhD in which you can apply for those grants. However, since the grant deadlines are sometimes only once a year, it can make a huge difference if you’ve defended your thesis on 12/20/09 or on 1/5/10, because in the latter case you will be allowed to apply for the grant a whole year longer (grant deadline is the first week of January for the post-doc grant). No one tells you about this but it may make or break your career. So the take-home message here is: Know what the rules are before you start!

Yes, that's MY hand holding MY thesis!
And I want to end with my most important advice, which is enjoy it! Even if science sometimes makes you cry I find it very important to enjoy what I’m doing. Celebrate the small things, even if that means dancing around in the lab when your positive control is actually positive. Celebrate the big things big! A good way to celebrate finishing your PhD is by getting your thesis printed as a book. In the home country that is required, but even if it’s not, it’s awesome to have your own book on your shelf to remind yourself of the blood, sweat and tears time and energy you dedicated to getting your PhD.


  1. Great idea for a post.

    I'm totally behind the "write everything down" thing! I have multiple lab notebooks with bookmarks to refer to every time I sit down to use a piece of equipment I haven't used in a while.

    I understand the reasoning behind "say yes then don't do it" thing, but my PI seems to remember everything and will hound you for months if you don't get around to something... Maybe it's a good opportunity to delegate the task to a younger student.

    1. Yeah maybe it doesn't work on every PI. What I meant to say with it was: don't whine about not wanting to do stuff during a meeting, but just suck it up, then decide how to proceed and in a subsequent meeting say how you feel. I found myself whining about experiments every meeting with my PI and decided I needed to change that, because it doesn't improve the relationship with your PI.

  2. Love it. Also a corollary to "write everything down" is even if you think you know the procedure, double check against the protocol to make sure you're doing all the steps correctly.

    I had a couple of weeks with really crappy results that I could not explain because I had mixed a solution with water instead of TBE. Sigh. (13 years later, I still remember the frustration! And how dumb I felt when I finally figured it out.)