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119. Ten Tips to Crush Your First Semester (R)

It’s that time of year again – summer days are growing shorter, your friends are trying to fit in one last trip to the beach, and the backpack aisle at Target is about to be cleared out to make way for the Halloween costumes.

Yes, it’s back-to-school time. From toddlers to teenagers, this time of year instills foreboding about the school-year ahead. But as a first-year graduate student, you may have other feelings.

For most, it’s the start of a new adventure. For the first time, you’re pursuing the one subject in the world you love best, surrounded by other equally brilliant and passionate people.

It’s the end of being told what to learn and how to study, and the beginning of blazing your own academic trail.

It IS a new experience – different from your matriculation in high school or college – and it may be difficult to know what to expect.

This week, we lay out a ten-ish step plan for putting your best-foot-forward in that first semester of your graduate journey.

Back to School

We heard from Gary, who is about to start his own journey:


I really enjoy listening to your podcast. I will be starting grad school in the fall studying geology. Do you have any advice for a person starting grad school and to make the first semester a good one?

Thank you,

Gary’s question brought to mind many ideas we wish we had known in OUR first semester of grad school. We also reached out to current and former students on Twitter to hear their ideas.

Here are the Top 10 themes we heard:

1. Try new things

You’ll have plenty of novelty if you move to a new town and meet a completely new set of people, but don’t stop there. Take this transition period to try out new types of science in fields that you may not have studied before.

2. Get organized

Many listeners recommended getting a calendar, and filling it with discrete tasks you can check off when you’re done.

It will both keep your project on track, and let you visualize the progress you make each day.

3. Read more

You’ll be tempted to spend your first days and weeks running experiments and generating data. After all – these rotations are short!

But make an effort to spend time in the literature. Deeply understand the project you’re working on, and the foundational research that led to it. There’s no other time in your graduate training where building this foundation will be more likely, or more valuable.

4. Ask for help

You’re in graduate school for training. You don’t need to pretend you know everything, and you wouldn’t need to be here if you did!

Just like spending time reading the literature, asking for help early pays dividends over semesters and years.

5. Combat imposter syndrome

At some point in your graduate career, you will feel that everyone else is smarter, more skilled, and better equipped than you are to succeed in the lab. You’ll feel a knot in your chest when you wonder how you managed to fool everyone into thinking you were ready for this, and you’ll wish you could sneak out the back and avoid the embarrassment of being identified as a fraud.

That feeling is called imposter syndrome, and if you haven’t felt it yet, you probably will soon.

Be ready to identify those feelings when they arise, and you’re well on your way to working through them. Here are a few episodes that might help:

070: Imposter Syndrome

071: Practical Advice for Overcoming Imposter Syndrome with Dr. Maureen Gannon

6. Make friends inside your program

The first year of graduate school has some unique features. It’s the one time in your training where everyone in your cohort will be forging new relationships, and those bonds tend to last.

Even if you’re an introvert and feeling like curling up into a ball at the end of the day, make the effort to connect outside of lab with your new schoolmates and labmates. The friendships you form in those first weeks may last you a lifetime.

7. Make a life outside your program

With all that reading, socializing, and lab work you’re doing, you probably won’t have much time left for other endeavors. But take some time to build connections with ‘real-world’ people and activities.

For some, that means having a pet, playing an intramural sport, or picking up a hobby. Whatever it is, find something you love that breaks the bubble of your research world and reminds you there’s life beyond the lab.

8. Track your finances

For many students enrolling right out of undergrad, this marks the first time you’ll have a larger salary and a smaller safety net. Take some steps to secure your financial future with budgeting tools and a spending plan.

We recommend listening to our friend Emily Roberts who specializes in Personal Finance for PhDs!

9. Take care of your health

By ‘health’ we don’t just mean your body (though that’s important too!) Odds are you’re relatively young and the University health insurance will cover most of your medical needs.

Instead, take a few minutes to make a mental health plan. Graduate school can be emotionally taxing, and crises can sneak up on you. Identify and locate mental health services before you need them, and block out happy-making activities in your schedule. They’re tough to add later, but easy to work around if you start now.

10. Seek mentors, not projects

Last, but certainly not least, is the main focus of your first year in graduate school. In most programs, you’ll spend this time speed-dating different labs, searching for that topic you want to delve into for your dissertation.

But while it’s tempting to think only about the Nobel-prize-worthiness of the research, it’s even MORE important to find the right mentor.

A good mentor can put you on the path to your own Nobel prize, while a bad ‘advisor’ could make you hate science forever. Choose wisely!

That’s it! Ten tips to make your first semester of graduate school a solid stepping stone to the rest of your career. If you have ideas for how to start off strong, leave a comment below!

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