Jaime’s Declassified Graduate School Survival Guide

Jaime Van Loon • Posted: December 9, 2021

Graduate school has simultaneously been the most rewarding and challenging time of my life. While doing research in an academic setting is very exciting, there are many challenges that students face. As such, I have written tips for surviving graduate school that I wish my younger self knew. As a disclaimer, these are my personal tips, and they may not reflect your own experience or ideologies.

1. Learn how to say “no.”
During your time as a student, your main goals are to complete your thesis chapters (along with your publications) and follow any other criteria set by your institution (such as committee meetings). As you continue through graduate school and become more competent, your supervisor may feel inclined to ask you to do an experiment for a collaborator that is unrelated to your projects. Being part of a collaboration is a great way to make new connections and get your name on another publication, but you should not feel required to do extra work. Although you may feel guilty for not wanting to help with a collaboration, working on multiple projects at once is not always practical.

2. Know that it’s okay to make a mistake.
We are all human, and we all make mistakes. However, this does not mean that we are not good at science. As we know from Dr. Alexander Fleming’s discovery of penicillin, making mistakes can lead to exciting findings. Of course, most of the mistakes we make in graduate school will likely just lead to us having to redo an experiment. Despite having the title of “student,” I often forget that I am a trainee rather than an employee. We are in a time of self-discovery, and a time of learning what it is like to conduct independent research. It is an inherently challenging and confusing process. There are going to be times where you forget to induce your cells to make your protein of interest, for example. That is okay! Simply learn from your mistake and laugh it off.

3. Don’t take feedback as a personal criticism.
It is natural to be self-conscious when receiving feedback about your work. I remember the first committee meeting report that I sent to my supervisor. After receiving the first round of edits, I opened the document, and the entire page was red. I was so overwhelmed with the number of corrections that I immediately closed the document and didn’t open it up again for a few days. But, again, we are trainees. We are not going to come into graduate school and understand how to write a manuscript from scratch, as much as our supervisors would wish that to be true. We need feedback on our writing, our experimental ideas, and on the way we present our results to others. Of course, it is always better to receive positive feedback rather than negative feedback, and everyone should work towards creating a psychologically safe space for others when giving them a critique.

4. Be curious, but stay focused.
Most of us probably came to graduate school for the same underlying reason: we are naturally curious. As much as we may not realize, during graduate school we become creative story tellers. We start with research questions given to us by our supervisors, but it is our job to write a story based on whatever experimental results we get. I do believe that it is important to usually only do experiments that help with a specific storyline. However, occasionally, it is also important to try an experiment that probably won’t work, but if it does end up working, the story would be completely different. Be curious and try to think outside of the box, because you never know what can come of those “crazy” ideas.

5. Maintain a good work-life balance.
A common trend in the world of academia is to prioritize work over your personal life. The overly competitive nature of obtaining grants and post-doctoral fellowships encourages this kind of mentality. It will be up to you to fight for your own work-life balance. In general, I try to adhere to a 8am – 4pm schedule from Monday to Friday. During my first year of graduate school, I felt self-conscious about not spending 10+ hours in the lab a day and for taking weekends off. But I came to realize that I was able to achieve great experimental progress without working overtime, and so there was nothing wrong with leaving the lab while it was still light outside.

6. Celebrate your experimental successes.
Unfortunately, most of the experiments you will perform will either fail or require a lot of optimization. Since we are making new scientific discoveries, we need to go through this trial-and-error process until we get positive results. So, when you finally get that publication quality Congo red plate, celebrate! Go out for drinks with a friend, treat yourself to the sweater that you have been eyeing in the Aritzia display, or call your grandparents to tell them about it. You should be proud of yourself for achieving this accomplishment, and you should enjoy yourself in whatever way you see most fit.

7. Prioritize your future career.
It is easy to lose sight of what we need to accomplish after graduate school: finding a job. As someone not interested in staying in academia after graduation, I have been confused about what jobs I can apply for in the future. A lot of students are under the impression that you should wait until the end of graduate school to seek job opportunities. I would argue that we should be networking from the moment we start graduate school. I made a personal goal to reach out to all the non-academic alumni from my lab from over the past thirty years. Having conversations with these alumni reassures me that eventually, I will find a career that is fulfilling, and that graduate school will be worth it.

8. Get involved with initiatives outside of your lab.
Being in graduate school is an extremely tiring and overwhelming experience. But, for me, doing research was not enough. I needed to expand my mind out into new activities. I have had the amazing opportunity to get involved with GlycoNet, as a communications officer on the GlycoNet Trainee Association Executive Committee and as a student representative on the Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion Committee. Both opportunities have taught me new skills that I cannot learn in the lab, and I have gotten to meet many people that I would not normally interact with. Although my extracurricular is science related, getting involved with an initiative that has nothing to do with science can still teach you valuable skills.

9. And finally, surround yourself with good people.
By far, the best part of graduate school is the friends I’ve made in the lab. It helps that my fellow lab members understand the struggles of my experiments on a personal level, but they are also the people I have Friday Starbucks coffee with. I am not afraid to show them my ugly Western blots, because they have showed me their ugly Western blots to laugh at as well. It has also been important for my mental health to maintain the friendships that I made prior to graduate school. I love that my best friends know nothing about biofilms, for example, and that we instead discuss the pros and cons of moving to the woods forever. It is a common trend that I see with students to isolate themselves and become fully engulfed by their research, but we still need to have a social life to maintain our well-being.

Overall, I am grateful that I get to work in a well-funded research lab with great colleagues. But, since graduate school can take a big toll on your mental health, you need to be prepared and take measures that will protect yourself during this time of life. And remember, there is more to life than being in the lab.

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