Get the most out of grad school using these 11 guidelines: Part 1

Graduate school is hard. Surprise! Eh, probably not a surprise, but in general graduate school is a lot more demanding than college. Pursuing a Ph.D. or M.S. degree in a STEM field often relies on creative and diverse thinking, and enormous amounts of independently driven work. It’s the independent nature of graduate school that makes navigating towards your terminal degree a unique adventure; you are largely responsible for your own success, and that can be daunting.

But don’t worry, as a recent Ph.D. graduate from the University of Georgia (#PHinisheD), I’m here to help. Join me on this two part graduate school reflection as I countdown the top 11 tips that helped me navigate academia and obtain my Ph.D. First, we’ll focus on honing your professional skills so that you can get the most from your graduate school experience. Then in Part 2 we’ll turn inward and focus on tips for navigating the internal/affective aspect of graduate school to help you survive this journey!

#1 Read more

In classic Wonderland fashion, STEM disciplines are constantly evolving, and as such, you need to constantly  read your discipline’s literature to keep up. This was the first piece of advice I got in graduate school, and I know it’s hard to live up to and even harder to maintain, but get over it and start reading.

Here are few tips to keep you organized and moving forward:

  • Get a digital paper manager, and TAG your papers. This will make finding relevant papers later on demonstrably easier. A lot of services will merge this feature with a reference manager. Since I write my manuscripts on Google Drive, I opt for Paperpile, but Mendeley, and EndNote are also good.   
  • Keep track of your paper notes. Sometimes you can do this by annotating a PDF itself, but I prefer to type up paper notes, particularly if I’m doing a deep read on a topic. For any given topic, I link out each paper I read, and keep all my notes in a centralized document.
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Image Credit: PhD Comics

#2 Have multiple CVs

More often than not the first impression future employers, granting agencies, and award committees have of you is based on your CV. This makes what you put on your CV and the order in which that information is presented critical to a positive first impression.

The best way to always put your best CV foot forward is to tailor the content of that document. Often times those evaluating your CV will stress different criteria, for instance a teaching award will want you to focus on courses taught and curriculum developed, while a research award will prioritize publications, presentations, and grants awarded. So do your homework, and figure out what someone reading your CV will want you to emphasize, keeping in mind that not everything you’ve ever done needs to make it on every CV.

When tailoring a CV, be cognizant of the order in which relevant information is present, and how much information is presented. Highlight the best accomplishments, and if you have space, give a few sentences of description so that those reviewing your CV have context of your work.

A trick I learned to speed up the tailoring process is to have one large CV that I continually update. When I’m applying for a particular award or grant, I’ll pull from my central CV to create my tailored document.

#3 Learn to network

Publishing your work and having a Ph.D. alone will not automatically lead to a great influx of opportunities. You also have to make connections!  Just like at any job, networking isn’t something that happens passively, you must actively engage with your scientific community.

There are a lot of ways to network, and if you have an outgoing, ESFP personality type, networking will be as easy as breathing. For those who are less extroverted, networking at specific times of the year such as annual conferences, or departmental gatherings can help build connections to further your career. Other options include digital interactions such as a science (i.e, professional) twitter account or digital platforms such as Plantae or Trellis. Digital interactions are nice because they require minimal effort, and can reinforce in-person connections throughout the year.  

Networking examples:

  • Build a professional social media account (twitter, instagram, etc.), and post regularly. Keep the account focused on your research interests, and routinely interact (tag) others in your field to start conversations. Though I could talk about Science Twitter for a while, some benefits include: following a conference online, asking and answering questions, and improving views and citations of a scientific paper. Still have questions about building a professional social media account? Feel free to @ me on Twitter!
  • Break away from your university clique and attend society conferences alone. Nothing forces you to make new friends faster than hanging out at the coffee station alone.
  • Create and exchange business cards. Many scientists don’t do this, or don’t remember to do this at conferences. These will be very helpful two weeks after the meeting when you want to reconnect with them. Bonus: Put your picture on your card so they can associate your name with your face.

Whether you are willing to admit it or not, you’ll always encounter instances where it’s not what you know but who you know. It’s cliché for a reason. So go out there and meet people. At the end of the day, at least for me, I’ve found networking has lead to many new friendships, collaborations, and opportunities.

#4 Lights, camera, headshot!

A great skill set that often goes underdeveloped in graduate school is crafting your personal brand. This goes hand in hand with networking, and largely focuses on how people see you. Whether it’s a crafted one or not, thanks to the internet, you already have a digital brand. So it’s your job to sculpt the brand you want people to see and focus on.

There are lot of personal brand advice pieces out there, and here are a few of my favorites here, here, and here. For the quick version: build your own website to house your contact information and content, get involved in science conversations with a professional social media account, and embody your brand (i.e., be true to yourself, not a version of yourself you think people will like).  

One critical piece of a personal brand that often gets overlooked is having a good headshot attached to your brand. Headshots can go a long way to improve your profile recognition, particularly when it comes to networking. I should specify that a headshot is different than that good social media picture you constantly use. Headshots are versatile and clean – think of wearing neutral colors without brands. Most local photographers offer a $20-30 headshot session once a year, so getting one is also affordable for students. So do yourself a favor and look up that professional photographer for a photo sesh and start crafting your personal brand!

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Women in Plant Biology roundtable discussion, American Society of Plant Biologists. Image Credit: Rishi Masalia

#5 Get involved in science communication

Perhaps a biased piece of advice given my passion for this particular topic. Yet, knowing how to communicate your science to non-scientists is not just for science communicators anymore. It’s your job as a STEM professional to disseminate your work not only to other scientists but also the public. It’s why federal granting agencies stress broader impacts and highlight outreach efforts. Effective science communication could also help alleviate the staggering amounts of misinformation floating around on the internet. Even if your goals aren’t lofty, you interact with non-scientists daily – be in travel commutes, family gatherings, or dates – and being able to explain what you do in a succinct, easy-to-digest fashion can go a long way in disseminating your work to those in your life.

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The Between the Palms, science communication web series studio with host Rishi Masalia and guest José Dinneny. Image Credit: Maddie Grant

Do yourself a favor and develop a science communication skill set. Also, don’t be discouraged if it is harder than you originally thought. Scientists train for years to become good communicators, so give yourself time to get there too. Start with the local science organizations in your area. If you’re in Athens, GA the Athens Science Alliance, which has both a local Science Café and science communication training group, can help you get started! So put your fancy stats and jargon away, develop an elevator pitch, get out to your local bar and chat with your community.

#6 Communicate with your advisor and figure out your expectations

For the most part, graduate school in STEM fields is more of a job than it is school. As with any job, communication with your supervisor (i.e., advisor), and understanding what they expect of you are keys to success. Here are a few questions I think every student should ask early on in their graduate career:

  1. Am I expected to publish some or all of my dissertation chapters before I graduate?
  2. Am I expected to be in lab during certain hours? Am I expected to work weekends and holidays? How much vacation can I take? How do I clear this with my advisor?
  3. Am I expected to secure my own funding for experiments, conferences…etc.?
  4. Am I expected to present my work in lab meetings, local group meetings, conferences…etc.? Can I present unpublished work at conferences?
  5. Am I expected to meet with you [advisor] on a regular basis? If not, how would you [advisor] like me to showcase forward progress?
  6. What is the expectation for lab organization? Am I responsible for the complete organization of my samples, data sheets, and notes, or is there a central lab organization system? For strict bioinformaticians/computational scientists, are digital notebooks acceptable?

It’s also important to remember that not everyone’s graduate school experience will be the same, as everyone’s career goals won’t be the same. As such, here are a few questions to ask potential advisors focusing on your professional development:  

  1. I’m interested in  ________ career. Will you [advisor] be supportive of that career path?Can you [advisor] help me achieve that career goal, through networking connections, previous experience mentoring students in this field currently…etc.
  2. Can I pursue professional development skills that are not directly tied to research (i.e., science communication , teaching…etc.)
  3. What is your [advisor] mentorship style? Are you [advisor] hands-off or do you expect regular meetings? Do you [advisor], or are you willing to change advising styles to cater to my individual needs and interests. For example, as most students advance they require less hand-holding, will you [advisor] accommodate that?

Understanding your advisor’s expectations early on and how they mesh with what you want out of graduate school is the biggest piece of advice I give incoming graduate students. If you’re rotating between labs and getting a feel for new lab cultures, try asking the above questions to see where you stand, and what will be expected of you over time. Get a feel for the lab by talking to current and previous students, and if you want something more formal, try designing a mentorship agreement or document that you and your advisor can refer to over time to keep everyone honest and facilitate conversations that could be otherwise hard to broach.

For me, graduate school was a fun and amazingly positive experience. In addition to my doctorate I learned a lot of skills both related to my research and more soft skills. Over the last six years I have worked very hard to get to where I am, and am proud of the scientist and person I have become.

Hopefully these pieces of advice will help you navigate your own graduate school journey so that it’s a positive experience for you as well. This ends Part 1 of this advice piece, be sure to check out Part 2, which will center on internal goals and self-reflection.

rishiRishi R. Masalia is a Ph.D. graduate from the University of Georgia. Rishi is a founding member of the Athens Science Café and Athens Science Observer. He is an ambassador and science communicator with the American Society of Plant Biologists. For his commitment to science outreach, Rishi was named the 2018 University of Georgia Pillar of the Community, and a 2018 National K. Patricia Cross Scholar. He is a former University of Arizona Wildcat, Coca-Cola addict, smooth dance machine, science fiction savant, and all around nerd. Rishi can be reached at rishimasalia@gmail.com, or followed on Twitter @RishiMasalia. More from Rishi Masalia.