Nine challenges for an early career graduate student

March 28, 2014 Grace Pold

1. Staying on top of the literature  Every time a new paper comes out, you realize it has cited twenty other papers you should really read, and by the time you have finished reading the background for that first paper, there are tables of contents from five other journals waiting for you.

2. Utilizing effective time-management See above.  The internet is a gold-mine of information, but also of booby traps of awesome articles or protocols you really want to try out, but you have to remain focused. You have up to five years to become an “expert” in a smidgen of science, and you need every moment of it. So that article on the top 100 ecological questions of our time is going to have to be erased from my memory and replaced by the top 100 papers I should have read in the past month and didn’t.

3. Learning to be independent. If you thought you were all free and grown-up when you left Mummy and Daddy’s house to be a college undergrad all by your quasi-adult self, think again. You are a real adult now. You are now responsible for every piece of information which enters your brain,  For every idea which comes out, you'd better make sure it is your own (and hopefully can be used in some paper or grant proposal by your advisor).

4. Having just the right degree of certainty in your abilities. Cockiness will get shoved right back down your throat. Not only will you be incredibly unpopular with the (at times) over-certain administrators, but you will deny yourself the opportunity to take every paper, blog post, and interaction as an opportunity to learn. And believe me, learning what other people have to say is a much better way to sell yourself than convincing yourself you know it all. Or even most of it. But you need to have some certainty in your abilities.  Prove that you are strong, independent and powerful, and fight back with more first author publications in a year than others have had in the past five.

5. Playing politics. Universities are the most political things in the universe. There will be people you don't like. Don't worry - they probably didn't want you to join the department either. Professors will or won't get tenure or advance in the "rankings", and you won't always find an objective reason for why this was the case.  But whatever happens in the department, you will have to nod and smile and accept that it was the right thing.

6. Learning that while this is science, and trial and error is a valuable part of the learning process, you can’t always learn everything this way. Reagents are expensive, things explode. People explode. Graduate school is about balancing preparation and planning with doing. If you do too much of the former, you realize what you want to do will never work and won’t move forward. If you do the latter, then you end up wading through a lot of data and peer mediation discussions trying to figure out what went wrong.

7. Getting the data/publication balance right. You need a peer-reviewed publication (or two or three) to graduate and/or have a future in science, but do you keep collecting data in the hope that the extra feature will make the paper into a highly-respected journal, or publish now with the comments you get from reviewers guiding future work? What if your publishing strategy isn’t consistent with your advisor’s, or your collaborators aren’t on the same schedule as you and take forever to respond to drafts of the manuscript you send them?

8. Remembering that it is as much your job to help your advisor as it is his/her job to help you. The lab goes forward and the advisor succeeds when the students succeed. And you succeed when you can think independently and bring alternative ideas to the table, so you can critically assess other work coming from the lab.

9. Loving what you do. For most people (I hope!) this isn’t that hard, but it is absolutely the most important thing.  In theory (unless your field work puts you in a tropical locale full of biting animals), grad school can be completed with no reference to blood, sweat, and tears. But you have to enjoy it. Those prelims you hide in a hole for six months to prepare for – take it as a fun opportunity to tell your committee (or the piece of paper they handed you) about all the cool things you know about, and use studying for them as an opportunity to link your research to other areas of your field. You will thank yourself.

Grace is a member of Wiley Advisors, a program for early career researchers and professionals to serve as a voice for their communities. For more information, please visit Wiley Advisors online or on twitter @WileyAdvisors.

About the Author

PhD Candidate, University of Massachusetts, Amherst // I am somewhere between finishing my masters and starting my PhD at UMass Amherst, where I have been studying how climate change will affect the massive amounts of carbon stored in soil. In my spare time, I like to read some combination of science and the blogs written by academics.

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