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What Not to Do in Grad School

This article, from Nature‘s Careers section, has a lot of sound advice for people making it through graduate school. It’s presented as a list of things not to do, and I would agree with all of them. And I think that most anyone who’s been through the experience would as well.

Among these is an admonition not to blindly trust your own data, and I got to learn that one a few times. I would extend it to not blindly trusting anybody else’s either. You can take that too far, and you won’t make any progress if you don’t believe a word of anything. But you have to keep your eyes open, because there’s a fair amount of stuff in the literature that’s just wrong. Most of the time the authors themselves don’t know it’s wrong, but every once in a while it’s deliberate (or deliberately left unfixed). And just in your own work, you have to make sure that your results are from properly working instruments, that you understand what the data are telling you, and (very importantly) that you can reproduce those results when you try the same experiment again. It is quite distressing to realize how often something breaks down along that path, so be ready. Einmal ist keinmal.

It’s equally important to remember that such problems happen to every researcher who has ever set foot in a lab, and not to take it too personally. Kingsley Amis’ advice on dealing with a hangover is surprisingly useful – I remember being struck by it when I first came across it years ago, which is interesting because I don’t drink and have thus never had a hangover in my life. It took me a while to realize why. Amis divides the hangover into the physical one and the metaphysical one, and the latter one extends well beyond the frontiers of drink:

When that ineffable compound of depression, sadness (these two are not the same), anxiety, self-hatred, sense of failure and fear for the future begins to steal over you, start telling yourself that what you have is a hangover. You are not sickening for anything, you have not suffered a minor brain lesion, you are not all that bad at your job, your family and friends are not leagued in a conspiracy of barely maintained silence about what a shit you are, you have not come at last to see life as it really is and there is no use crying over spilt milk.

So for that, just cross out “what you have is a hangover” and substitute “you’re just trying to finish your degree”. The way that you feel at your low points during grad school – and there will be some – is not some grim insight into how you’ll feel from then on. Far from it! If you’ve done modeling and computation, you will appreciate how hard it is to be sure what’s a local minimum and what’s a global one, and so it is with your emotional state. It is peculiarly hard to remember this at the key moments (and hard to really believe it), but that’s why you try to prepare beforehand for these things, and doing so really does help.

The advice not to believe that more work is always better is very well given, too. This is yet another trap, and yet another example of how you can screw things up at both ends of the scale. It is virtually impossible to do solid PhD work and keep to a 9 to 5 schedule. You’re going to be in there nights, you’re going to be in there weekends (although it certainly doesn’t have to be every one of either!) There’s just too much to do, too many problems to get around. But don’t make the opposite error of figuring that 18 and 20-hour days are therefore the only way to go. Humans aren’t made for that – more specifically, human brains aren’t. You will do sloppy work when you’re tired, both physically sloppy and mentally. You’ll think you added a reagent when you really didn’t, you’ll forget to turn a valve, and so on. But you’ll also miss insights that a more rested brain would have picked up on. Exhausted work is grunt work and the only ideas you get at that point are about grunting more loudly. You really do need to give yourself a chance to think about something else in order to do your best work.

And the part about not suffering alone is absolutely crucial. Intellectually, you need people that you can bounce ideas off of, and they need you for the same reason. People know all kinds of odd stuff, and the very fact that you’re working on your degree is proof enough that you have a lot to learn from them. Many are the projects that have been rescued by someone saying “You know, there was this one time that. . .” But socially and emotionally, it’s even more important. You need to have people who will understand what you’re going through when things are bad, and who can appreciate it (and celebrate with you) when something great actually works. Now, it’s true that you’re just sort of thrown in with people in a research department, and not all of them are folks that you would (under other circumstances) choose to hang out with. Some of them are going to be downright weird. But seek out the people that you can talk to and that can help you get through things, wherever they might be.

But there’s another thing that I would be sure to add to any such list, and it’s something that I emphasize whenever I’m talking to grad students: you should never forget that the point of being in graduate school is to not be in graduate school. That is, you have to always keep in mind that you’re there to get a degree and go on to something else – it’s a way station to the rest of your life, not a destination in it. You need to settle in (physically and mentally) enough to get your work done and keep things together, but definitely don’t settle down so much that the thought of leaving doesn’t cross your mind. I realize that to some this advice is completely superfluous; you’re thinking every day about getting out (you can take that too far, too). But there are people who get too comfortable, for some values of the word “comfort”, and find ways to not get around to the crucial experiments that would finish up a degree. Keep an eye out for that, and have your eye on the door. I’m not saying that you should slap things together into the minimal degree possible – no, do good work and get out honorably without leaving angry or disappointed professors behind you. But just remember to get out. Especially in the later years of your grad school career, think very carefully about taking on something that will add time to your degree process, and make sure that it’s really worth it.

So if any readers here are heading into graduate work in another month or so, have a look at the article. All of us who have been through the process are rooting for you and for all the others who are getting through it right now.

36 comments on “What Not to Do in Grad School”

  1. MoBio says:

    The advice on dealing with hangovers reminds me of ‘advice’ given many years ago by a then elderly participant in LSD experiments on students in the 1960’s on how to deal with the after-effects of an LSD session: “I recommend a large glass of whisky”!

    1. cancer_man says:

      Take 250 mg a day of Niagen (NR) or NMN to boost your NAD+ levels and you will be amazed at how much that reduces hangovers. Also, try taking some NR or NMN a half hour before you drink. Even better, don’t drink too much.

  2. Hap says:

    It’s good to know what you’re trying to do in grad school; when I went, I thought it’d be cool to learn lots of chemistry but didn’t have a very good idea of what I was supposed to be doing. Going in aware that you are trying to learn and do enough to get out would have been helpful.

    The idea to treat like grad school like a job is helpful, too – to have an idea of what you want to do and not to waste time doing it. You can’t spend all your time in lab and be useful and happy (or even sane), and so the time you spend in lab should be useful time.

  3. Phd Survivor says:

    Hang in there grad students. I graduated a year ago this August, and it does get better. Research is never without challenges, but the support system is vastly better now. Finding good support is one thing I should have done a better job before.

    To echo another one of Derek’s points, plan your exit! The job market is best for people who are proactive.

    1. NMH says:

      The job market is best for people who are from an Harvard/MIT/Stanford/Berkeley/CalTech post doc. Although being pro-active can’t hurt.

      1. Mr says:

        Assuming that’s true, I think it’s important for PhD students to know that there are lots of post-doc opportunities at those places, and that a PhD from those top (?) schools isn’t a prerequisite for a post-doc there. I’m a PI at one of those places and have hired from all kinds of schools. My major criteria are 1) the ability to complete a body of work as evidenced by at least one first-author publication (submitted is fine), 2) the ability to contribute intellectually to my lab’s environment by generating new ideas and devising ways to test them, and 3) a genuine interest in the work we do.

  4. The DR says:

    The most important thing you can do is realize that which you do not know.

    Too many times folks get tripped up by the stubborn “smartest guy in the room” syndrome and ignore a brilliant idea by someone they view as below them intellectually. Great ideas can come from anywhere but if you refuse to take notice you will end up looking like a fool.

    1. Joe Q. says:

      I would venture that, for many graduate students, the “dumbest guy in the room” syndrome (AKA impostor syndrome) is a much bigger issue…

  5. CMCguy says:

    In terms of not suffering alone I think a major factor in surviving grad school is the choice of PI and group as will be interacting with them 4+ years. Presumably starting with area you are interested in and ideally multiple choices on whom to work with. Getting to know the PI directly or via reputation from trusted source before joining a group is important and then if one finds not a good fit, hopefully quickly, do be afraid to move on (another group or school) rather than suffer long term. Recognize groups are transient anyway as people graduate or post-docs circulate so dynamics shift but if can find a core group, inside or even outside your lab group, indeed will make time better. I enjoyed grad school because even though did not become close friends with many pretty much everyone got along. I have been around other labs where that was not the case and was very draining and even when tried not to let bother me I know it impacted my work.

  6. Joe Q. says:

    The “eyes on the prize” approach is a really good one. My own experience is that my classmates who had worked in industry for a year or two before coming back for the PhD were better prepared, managed their time better, and (generally) finished more quickly than those of us who came straight from a bachelor’s degree.

  7. Diver Dude says:

    I read Amis’s “Everyday Drinking” pretty frequently as his cocktail and punch recipes are… interesting. But his thoughts on the ADME of ethanol contained in that same slim volume have always struck me as positively dangerous (I did my PhD on the psycho-pharmacological effects of ethanol). His enjoinder on the uses of sex to ameliorate a hangover are very funny 🙂

  8. Anok says:

    “But there are people who get too comfortable, for some values of the word “comfort”, and find ways to not get around to the crucial experiments that would finish up a degree.”

    Kind of like “institutionalized” in the Shawshank Redemption?

  9. Recent Grad says:

    Some graduate students might not know that you can take an internship as a graduate student and depending on the internship, your PI/committee, and the university, it can be included in your dissertation. It can also help you get a foot into industry if you’ve already been exposed to GMP, CMC writing and method development/validation, formulation, or process chemistry. Mine was truly a god-send and really helped rejuvenate me in my lab work when I returned.

    1. Diver Dude says:

      My undergraduate degree included 3 short internships at various scientific institutions. It was, bar none, the thing that made the biggest positive difference to my career. Doors magically opened as soon as you could independently demonstrate the ability to turn up for work on time…

  10. Emjeff says:

    The advice about the point of being in grad school is to NOT be in grad school is the best advice I could give. Put another way, the name of the game is graduation. I was asked for advice by an Ed.D. student who was stuck because she had all of these great ideas, but couldn’t do them because of a lack of resources. I tried to explain to her that , again, the goal is to get out. You don’t have to win a Nobel for your dissertation work. I’m not sure she got it, frankly…

  11. John Wayne says:

    When I was a fifth year graduate student my adviser once told me that incoming graduate students range between naive, and unbelievably naive. I asked him which one I was, and he changed the subject.

    1. Hap says:

      And then there was me. That was not the high point of grad school.

  12. mark says:

    For me when I was tired at the end of the day and couldn’t trust my hands or my thoughts and it was time to go home I always stopped and spent 20 -30 minutes mindlessly cleaning up and washing the glassware so to be ready the next day for a fresh start. Nothing to me was harder than finding failed experiments in the morning as well as a pile of dirty glassware. I figure doing my dishes each evening gave the next day a fresh start and over the course of 4-5 years of my PhD added up to getting out 3-4 months early.

    1. PhotoDeTox says:

      yep, cleaning up was often the most rewarding activity in between so many failed attempts/strategies/experiments…

  13. anoni says:

    I told my post-doc supervisor something similar when he was upset that I was leaving, “but you have so much more work to do.” The job of a post-doc is to not be a post-doc anymore.

    1. DrOcto says:

      I disagree wholeheartedly. Some people are happy being just a post-doc, I know I was.

      A post-doc is for PhD graduates that either do not want to move into industry, or can’t yet move into industry. Whether it takes 1 year or 5 years before they move on with their academic/industry career is up to the individual.
      The ‘job’ of a post-doc is to ensure that the PhD and bachelors students they share a lab with don’t injure themselves, and to help them steer their projects in productive directions. If you also do some research on the side that’s cool too.

      1. maybe says:

        you confuse postdoc and lab manager here

        1. ChemNoJobber says:

          Hey if anyone’s interested in something similar as a Research Assistant Professor position, here’s one at the University of Pittsburgh for someone doing basically that. It’s only been open for about 2 years though so their standards must be pretty high!

  14. Scientist says:

    Mental health is a hugely important factor. For me, it helped to have a mentor who wasn’t my PI, and take up some hobbies as well so your life isn’t just lab work and sleep. Only once I left graduate school did I realize how much it messed me up… but it also made me Prepared to work in my job in industry.

  15. Uncle Fester says:

    How about not fooling yourself into thinking that your PhD will necessarily mean something, they’re a dime a dozen and often times do nothing more than stigmatize you with regards to being able to earn yourself a living cause you couldn’t land a job as a scientist.

  16. Uncle Fester says:

    Be prepared to just lie on your resume and say you only have a masters degree to get a job and feed yourself.
    True fact:
    A lot of RA’s in pharma are actually people that have a PhD from China or India…

    1. Sken says:

      Do you have a source for this? Most RAs I know are people with just BSc/MSc and they’re not hiding anything as they’re usually pretty fresh out of US schools/grad programs.

      I also don’t see the point of hiding the fact that you have a PhD, the people I know with a doctorate degree have much better success finding new jobs and commanding premium pay. If anything the stigma is against BSc/MSc who will struggle to make late career advancements.

      1. Uncle Fester says:

        What a ridiculous statement, PhD’s are almost unemployable unless they went to a top school and a good lab, they are a dime a dozen, a lot of them are loons too.
        The truth is smart people don’t go into science, they go into business and finance, they make money.

        1. someone says:

          Every one I’ve met that had a PhD in chemistry or biology readily admits they would have made more money in finance. Saying they’re not smart for choosing a career that makes less money betrays a lack of understanding of human motivations.

  17. Uncle Fester says:

    Be prepared to sign on to some ridiculous pump and dump scheme, play along, play the sycophant, you will be rewarded with stock options and may end up with a nice cash out after the IPO

  18. Mister B. says:

    Le last point of Amis’ article was quite interesting too.
    “Get stuck after one failure” was probably the greatest threat to my own Ph.D.

    I was on a particularly difficult total synthesis and every one of our (my*, as I was alone on this project… ) strategies failed. It took us 3 months to decide to stop the project and it was certainly 3 months too late. The time needed to recover for this failure was way to important, despite some great projects initiated after (3 papers over 12 months over work 😉 ).

    I never fully recovered from this failure as it was solved / managed too late.

  19. RoboJ1M says:

    I’m English.
    What’s a ‘Grad School’?
    (Yes, I know I could Google it but why talk to a machine when you can talk to people?)

    1. Derek Lowe says:

      Graduate School. For a Master’s or Doctorate degree, after your undergraduate one.

  20. Jean F says:

    My 2 c.: STOP worrying about impact factors!

  21. someone says:

    I try to emphasize mental health every time I talk to people about grad school, and I think the last paragraph about finding people in the same situation to talk to is great advice. I am quite sure my fairly average depression would have been something a lot worse if not for good friends in the lab who were equally mentally distressed.

  22. Adam Libby says:

    The advise to treat graduate school like a job is a mistake. If you treat it like a job it will be like you are working for someone else. It is to be treated like your business and you are the entrepreneur responsible for making it succeed or fail. In the end you are the one who decides how much effort you put in and how much you learn. Know your limits and don’t think that 18 hours a day can be a norm or lead to automatic success. An exception that will occasionally be required, yes. No one wants to make a career as a graduate student. Your goal is to become something of an expert in the area of study and earn a Ph.D. so that you can move on to the next step in your career. If your a 9 to 5’er quit now and go get a job, don’t waste your time.

    Your mother may care if you get your degree but no one else really does. They may want you to succeed but they aren’t going to do the work for you.

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