By your first week of graduate school, you’ve heard the word “orientation” so many times that it has become synonymous with “beginning.” In truth, your graduate school orientation is a moment of acclimation and discovery, filled with excitement, anticipation, and anxiety. At my Einstein orientation, I remember being excited about the shift in my career trajectory while also nervous to be starting a biomedical sciences Ph.D. program without any benchwork experience. I knew I was in for a steep learning curve. For the first time in my life, it wasn’t about ensuring that I was “oriented” adequately to follow the “correct” path (whatever that meant) to success. Instead, those early days in the program were about giving me the tools to explore the expansive choices ahead so I could forge my own way forward.
This year’s orientation is the first one for which I am finally on the other side of that Ph.D. experience. This week, a new group of graduate students is beginning its journey at Einstein, and this has prompted some reflection on my own first weeks of graduate school and three key pieces of wisdom that I am grateful to have received en route to my Ph.D. degree.
There’s plenty of advice about how to choose labs for rotations and how to decide which lab to join. Classic wisdom includes talking to the current lab members, explicitly asking if the lab has funding, and determining what skills you can develop while there. To those, I’d add: don’t worry about getting data during your rotation.
It’s easy to be overwhelmed by the pressure to prove your worth as a graduate student and accumulate data quickly for publications. Be careful not to lose sight of the purpose of rotations, which is to determine which lab is the best fit for you. This means paying attention to the dynamics among lab members, how negative data and failed experiments are treated in lab meetings, and what mentoring styles the primary investigator (P.I.), or the head of the lab, has with different students. This is your chance to wander (metaphorically) through the field of labs and wonder where you feel the most motivation and fulfillment. Getting data during your rotation should be an exciting bonus, not the sole thing to strive for.
Build a Community
One of the best decisions I made was to get involved in the graduate student community at Einstein. Those who came before me dedicated some of their free time to making my graduate student experience more enjoyable; I wanted to do the same. There are a myriad of ways to do this. You can serve on organizing committees, take on leadership positions in clubs, or sit on your student council. You can be a peer mentor or a teaching assistant. Also, try meeting fellow students at graduate school social events and off-campus facilities. Feeling fully incorporated into the community can provide the unique empathy that only other Ph.D. students can offer. Family, friends outside the program, and significant others are all important sources of support, but nobody understands the pain of cell culture like a classmate. Even a small amount of community involvement goes a long way toward a successful work-life balance.
When in Doubt, Ask
This leads me to my next—and possibly most important—piece of advice: Take advantage of your peer network. The more-senior graduate students will know which labs to avoid, which courses are most helpful, and whom to put on your advisory committees. If you ask, they will help you prepare for your qualifying exam and teach you new experimental and analytical techniques. Whatever obstacle you face—an issue with your P.I., problems with your data, challenges with your housing—others have overcome that same one. The good news is that they want to help you get through it. A word of advice I appreciated receiving: when you get consistent advice from senior graduate students, trust it. Their experience is valuable (just as yours will soon be!), and it was not achieved lightly. If your school has as strong a student community as Einstein’s, be sure to use it!
One last thought: right now, you are orienting yourself in this vast and possibly overwhelming field of choices as you prepare to pursue the path to your Ph.D. As you explore that field, consider that a successful Ph.D. experience isn’t a four-leaf clover; there is no “one correct path,” no “one right lab,” no “one perfect project.” The field is full of flowers, so keep an open mind and this adventure will lead you toward the ones most beautiful to you. Take a deep breath and allow yourself to explore—and enjoy this start to your new career.
Dr. Smart recently graduated from the Sharp Lab in the department of molecular pharmacology at Einstein. While a graduate student, she was heavily involved in student life and an avid member of the Einstein rock climbing community.