Top 5 things you need to survive grad school (a guide for all the baby grad students and aspiring applicants)

Every time I’ve looked at Facebook in the past two months, someone else was posting about how they were going off to grad school or taking the GREs or otherwise embarking on a new and exciting academic journey. The posts have gotten so thick they’ve nearly drowned out the engagement/wedding/baby posts, which is a minor miracle.

I’m excited for my new companions in academia–there’s a lot to love here, and certainly an infinite set of things to experience. However, essentially nothing prior to grad school can give you an idea of what the experience in itself is actually like. You haven’t asked the right questions, there’s always some dreadful or exciting (or both) surprise just around the corner, and the pace of it all is nonstop.

To help with the culture shock, I’ve compiled a list of the top five things you need to survive grad school.

5. A hobby. The time you spend in grad school will be a constant war between your thesis and everything else in your life that you enjoy. “I love my work! That’s how I relax! When I pull a 16 hour day I’m having fun!” you insist, raving wildly after spending seven straight weekends reading review papers. No, friend, that’s you developing Stockholm Syndrome. Your thesis has taken you hostage. It’s incredibly important to set aside time for yourself. Often, having a hobby can help provide a reason to take that time. Just make sure it’s not something that’s tied to a source of stress in your life, such as money (a second job doesn’t count) or professional success (neither does updating your LinkedIn).

4. A writing schedule. At the core of academia is reporting your results via publication, but most academics also find this to be one of the most arduous parts of their job. Much like you need to set aside time for yourself, you also need to set aside time for writing. If you don’t block it out, I can guarantee it won’t happen, because you’ll always find an excuse to avoid it. If it’s there in your calendar, you can’t schedule meetings over it, you’ve made a concrete commitment, and you’re justified in telling everyone else not to disturb you. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, form a writing group to add some peer pressure into the mix, just to make sure you don’t cheat on your schedule. Also, remember that not all your writing has to be good writing. If you’re feeling stuck, write 500 words of nonsense, or outlines, or something non-academic, just to take off some of the pressure. Then get back to it.

3. A therapist and/or dedicated group. “But I’ve always been a pretty well-adjusted person!” you say. “I have friends, and a significant other! I talk to my parents at least once a month! And I’m pretty open and good at sharing my feelings!” Unfortunately, unless they’re in academia, those people will not understand. They will try, so hard, because they love you, but they will. Not. Get it. And at some point, they will probably reach the end of their tolerance for hearing you complain about your writing, cry about your failed experiments, and angst over your lack of progress. If you casually complain to friends who ARE in grad school, you’re likely to devolve into mutual wollowing. You need a constructive outlet for your feelings. Therapists are great because they’re paid to do exactly this, and those you find in a university town often have experience with cases similar to yours. Facilitated support groups, run by many university health centers, can also provide a more structured outlet, decreasing feelings of isolation through peer support.

The sad truth is nearly half of all PhD students have a form of depression, and one in ten consider suicide at some point in their career. These conditions often necessitate professional intervention. It’s best to start building these connections with healthcare providers early in your time in grad schol, rather than be faced with the struggle of doing so when you’re deep in an emotional hole.

2. A personal support network. The previous point may have unjustly made people who care about you sound useless in supporting your grad school journey. This is absolutely not true. In addition to your structured network of health professionals and peers, your loved ones can be incredibly helpful. However, you should be proactive about helping them help you. As explained above, most of the people you are used to relyng on for emotional support don’t have a deep understanding of what it means to be in grad school. Because of this, they may respond in ways that you find nonsensical or even upsetting. If you tell them ahead of time what you want from them, you can avoid this trap. Here are different “support settings” you can try with parents, significant others, or close friends:

  • Just listen (without commentary)
  • Listen and agree with everything you say (make sure to put a timer on this one so it doesn’t turn into the aforementioned wallowing)
  • Listen and offer suggestions
  • Make you dinner
  • Force you to exercise with them
  • Call you once a week, no matter what

1. An iron will. If you applied and got accept to grad school, I suspect you’re extremely driven, extremely lost, or some magnificent combination of both. Either way, if you braved the admissions process, you’re probably above average on the stubbornness scale. Grad school will test that stubbornness. Start your mantra now: “I am good at this. I am a good person. I deserve my success.” You will need this in the coming months when imposter syndrome tries to eat you alive, when your experiments inexplicably implode, and when random events in your personal life disrupt your focus.

But it’s true, isn’t? You got into grad school. You can do this.

The importance of the lab notebook

Having just trained a new crop of undergrads, I experienced a lot of the sound of my own voice in the last week. One of the things I said over and over was, “You need to have a lab notebook. This is partially for me, so I can see how you’re doing, and so I can keep track of data you collect, but it’s also for you. You need to develop good scientific habits, and this is the best way to start.”

Of course they all stare at me blankly and nod–it’s our first meeting. They all want to seem willing. And then maybe they forget, and I forget to remind them, because they’re just counting seeds, or they do it for a while and then trail off, or, or or.

The blank page can be intimidating. You stare at the blank page and think, Are my thoughts about counting seeds worthy of immortalizing on this page? Are they going to help me do better science or have better ideas? In fact, there’s a whole bunch of research about how to make it LESS intimidating. For example, a recent paper by Willoughby et al looked at whether using templates in lab notebooks could improve output. The results were mixed. In their words, “Our results showed that using structured templates can improve the completeness of the experiment context information captured but can also cause a loss of personal elements of the experiment experience when compared with allowing the researcher to structure their own record.”

It’s that personal element that is ultimately so important. That’s the spark of inspiration, the insight into what went wrong, the core of your scientific personality! But how else to get at it, while also tearing down the walls that make it so hard to write, if too much structure prevents it from coming through?

My solution, as silly as it sounds, is to force myself to write every day. I write about counting seeds. I brainstorm what I’m going to focus on the next day. I try to always have my notebook with me, so if inspiration strikes, I’ll be ready to write. Here’s why: when you make yourself write every single day, even when what you did seemingly nothing of consequence, you break down the self-consciousness that prevents you from writing freely. You form a habit, so the instinctive thing to do when you have an idea is to write it down. It also helps when it comes to writing papers, where the same kind of blocks are often present. It has undoubtedly helped my thoughts be more organized and my goals more coherent.

Now if only I could get my students to do the same… but mentoring skills will have to wait for another post!


How to survive comps like a pro (or at least seem calm about your situation when people inquire)

I finished my comprehensive exams in November (at Santa Cruz, these are the qualifying exams that test broad content knowledge), and there were a lot of things I learned about the best way to approach them. Read on for some of these insights!


1. Make a spreadsheet with all your reading pages in it.

Use this to know exactly how many pages you need to read per day to finish on time and to record your progress. I also aggressively color-coded mine, and made a count-down until my goal date for finishing my reading.

2. Commit to concrete, achievable goals.

Don’t expect to marathon through all your reading in the month (or week!) before exams. Plan ahead and try to keep your reading to less than 50 pages a day. Then make sure you actually do read, every day.

3. Set aside blocks of time to study.

If you don’t commit a certain time slot to reading, other things will encroach upon your comps time until it disappears entirely. Do yourself a favor and block out a chunk of time in your calendar. That way, when someone tries to get you to do something else, you won’t even be lying when you say you have plans.

4. Have a specific reading place.

I was completely unable to read in the lab or in my room at home. I ended up spending a lot of time in study rooms at the library just to be in a fresh space that I didn’t associate with anything else. That meant I was less distracted thinking about all the other things I could or should have been doing.

5. Reward yourself. 

Of course, as a grad student, you probably don’t have tons of discretionary funds just lying around. However, I found that it was motivating to plan to treat myself to some fancy tea or a new eBook at certain intervals (500 pages worked well for me).

When the (written) exam comes

This is my workspace at the END of the exam, which is unbelievable considering how messily I usually work.

1. Set aside a clear “exam space.”

This really only applies if you have a written exam you do at home. However, I found it important to do absolutely none of my exam in the same room where I slept to create an obvious physical boundary between the anxiety of the exam and resting time. I made sure there were few distracting objects available in the space I chose, including my phone, other books, or notes. For the portions of the exam I was allowed to consult materials, I kept my exam items on a different table across the room. Within my exam space, I only had my computer, some water, sticky notes for sketching ideas, and a pen.

2. Externalize distracting thoughts.

I found that during my written exam, I started having all kinds of ideas about my project that completely derailed my from actually writing my answers. Awkward, right? Whenever this started to happen, I immediately wrote the idea on a sticky note, stuck it on the wall behind me, and went back to the exam question. This gave me the confidence that I wouldn’t forget my idea and allowed me to put it aside.

3. Eat and rest well.

My lab friends were kind enough to bring me food during my exam, which was an excellent strategy both for saving time and for making sure I didn’t just eat Cheerios for a week. Also, you are useless if you marathon 20-hour writing blocks for multiple days. Just don’t do it. I took short walking breaks every two hours and didn’t work on the exam for more than fourteen hours per day.

Remind yourself of the obvious things

4. Remind yourself not to panic.

Have you heard the one about the blonde who dies when someone takes her headphones off, and when they listen to her recording, it’s just someone saying, “Breathe in. Breathe out. Breathe in. Breathe out.”? That’s what the exam can be like.

This may seem obvious, but it is actually very important. I made signs that I put up directly in my field of vision reminding me that everything was going to be okay. One of the biggest traps is psyching yourself out, and you don’t have time to lose on that.

When the (oral) exam comes

1. Remember your committee is on your side.

Much like internalizing the idea that everything will be alright in the end, this is difficult but essential. Repeat it over and over to yourself.

2. Use boards or paper to your advantage.

If you are allowed paper or a whiteboard, use them liberally to work through answers. This shows your process to your committee, which is probably an important factor for then, and gives you time to think.

3. Be comfortable with silence.

It genuinely takes some time to think through a difficult question. Don’t feel pressured to respond immediately. If you feel like you need to say something, answer the question with another clarifying question to give yourself time.

After the exam

Take a protracted break.

Looking back at my productivity post-exam, I got almost nothing of consequence done for over a month. This wasn’t for lack of trying–I was merely so drained by the experience that I wasn’t working efficiently. As soon as I embraced my need to rest, my energy levels improved dramatically and I was able to work well again.

A digression about mental health in grad school

About a week ago, I was in a car accident, which kind of threw off my studying plan for my comprehensive exams. For several days, it has been hard to think (as it often is when one’s brain has been rattled around in its casing). I can’t concentrate on much of anything–not my reading, not my data, not my students.

This frustrated me to no end. The voice in my head that I have come to think of as mini Donald Trump kept screaming, You’re on a timeline! You’re slacking! You’re a waste of space! and on into further obscenity. I was violently angry with myself, and for what? Driving in the rain on the best feasible route from my starting point to my endpoint?

As grad students, we’re trained to work all the time, with no mercy for ourselves. If we’re tired, we’re supposed to drink some coffee and power through it. If we’re too sick to come into the lab, we’re supposed to take the day to catch up on reading. There’s a culture of unwillingness to admit that we might have taken time for ourselves, and might want to KEEP taking that time to save our health and sanity.

EEB at UC Santa Cruz does a better job of this than many departments. I have been very lucky to find people I am able to speak to candidly about the need to treat my own body and mind with respect. However, it makes me anxious to imagine admitting to a student at another institution (or maybe even in another department!) that I didn’t put in my forty-plus hours last week. Certainly I would never say something so bold to a faculty member. I’m terrified of the judgement, that seemingly inevitable pronouncement of my uselessness and failure as a scientist.

Is that truly what we think science should be? A slow grind into death by exhaustion? I suspect very few scientists would say total mental collapse is what we should aspire to. We want to be creative and productive and passionate about our work, and to do this, we need space and energy for ourselves to grow and change. An exhausted mind walled in by impending obligations has neither of those things.

Even as I write this, I know that I am doing an awful job at taking my own advice. It is incredibly difficult to embrace slow solutions. I know, logically, that there is no instant fix, apply-directly-to-forehead solution to my injuries, but I want to be back at work. I want to be learning and discovering and teaching. Still, I’m trying to give myself the grace and space I know I need to do things well, and I hope you, dear reader, can find a way to walk this better path with me.

Firsts, and the end of firsts, part 2

Long hair is a struggle in the field

Last week, I spent some time discussing some general themes that had come out of from my experience with my summer students. Here are a few more brief thoughts (especially on things that DIDN’T work), which I’ll aim to summarize in a more cogent post about high school research in the coming weeks.

  • Problem: Primary literature is hard. I know this is true. I still feel like it takes me a while to understand an article. But I had forgotten just how alien scientific papers can seem to someone who hasn’t read one.
  • Solution: We held weekly department-wide journal clubs with our students to talk through classic papers that were important to each mentor’s project. This gave us a change both to break down methods in greater detail and to walk the students through more advanced statistical methods.
Students checking the first three trays of seeds we planted (they did more than ten total!)
  • Problem: To high school students, a journal club seems like a classroom. Some of them shut down, and the few who don’t go into school mode dominate the discussion, while mentors are forced to fill in the gaps.
  • Solution: We generated discussion questions before the meeting for the students to think about so the shier ones wouldn’t feel put on the spot. We also made sure to break each article down every single time: what was the big question the authors care about? What was it important? How did they address this question? What did they find? In some ways, this reinforced the classroom feeling, but our novice scientists, increased structure helped them to be more willing to express their opinions.
Collecting seeds in the dry, dry California hills
  • Problem: Students don’t have enough to do. They don’t yet have skills to do more advanced protocols, and you don’t have time to teach them all the protocols at once.
  • Solution: Basic data collection tasks. Find some kind of meta data they can collect that doesn’t involve primary literature. In my case, I had them collect growth condition data on approximately 100 species from various public databases including the USDA and CNPS, which are often simple enough (if not entirely intuitive) to navigate.
  • Problem: Students have too much to do. You have begun to rely on the students too much. They are overwhelmed.
  • SolutionGet more students! No, really. More students is honestly the answer (or possibly cloning yourself).

Counting things (seeds, in this case)–a staple skill in biology

Before I close this out, it’s important that I acknowledge my summer students one more time. Lauren and Sayi both did awesome work these past ten weeks, and I am incredibly grateful for all the effort they put in.

Finally, I want to give a shout-out again to the Science Internship Program at UC Santa Cruz, especially Raja, Nina, and Sue. If you’re a high schooler in the area who has somehow found this site, consider applying for this program. The expense may seem daunting, but the experience is truly fantastic, and there are scholarships available for students with need, so don’t let financial concerns keep you from applying. If you’re a researcher anywhere in the world, think about contacting these fantastic people to see how you can start a program like this.

Firsts, and the end of firsts

Learning how much of science is about labeling
Learning how much of science is about labeling

This week, I’m saying goodbye to my first crop of students (pun 1000% intended) that are mine and mine alone. I got them through the Science Internship Program at UCSC, run by Raja GuhaThakarta, Nina Arnberg, and Sue Grasso. Both that team and my students have been fantastic. It’s been a wild ride and a great learning experience for me, and I hope they would say the same.

It’s also week tinged with bitter sweetness. I’m constructing a bigger team of more high school and undergrad students now, and it’s thanks to my SIP interns that I feel I can take this on. But as much as I’m excited to send them off to do great things with their new knowledge, I’ll miss them terribly.

Interns afield, far, far away
Interns afield, far, far away

To mark the end of this first adventure, here are some of the things we learned:

1. Write a little bit every day. Write what you’re thinking about. Write questions. Then share it with each other. One of the things that worked the best with these students was having them cultivate good reflection habits. It definitely made me step up my game to set a good example!

2. Nothing in science takes the amount of time you think it will. Our plants grew too fast. Data collection took too long. But if you’re willing to put in the work, it will turn out in the end.

3. Check your data entry several times, then have someone else check again. My undergrad PI told stories about old-guard scientists who made their students enter the same data three times. Especially with multiple people working in the same datasheet, this becomes an imperative.

4. The things you find interesting may surprise you. Neither of my students had ever thought deeply about plants (much like my high school self). However,  they are now both excited by the big wins like our data supporting our hypotheses, and by the little things, like getting new species to grow.

Loving the little things in the scientific process

Some (many) times in science, experiments move slowly. You have to wait for your organisms to grow. You have to collect a year’s worth of data before it’s useful to analyze. I’ve told my students over and over this summer that they have to learn to be excited by small victories, or the vacuum of having no achievable short-term goals will asphyxiate their will to go on.

So we love the little things, like multicolored labeling tape and completing a new protocol successfully and a breezy day in the field.

They look like space meals.
They look like space meals.

That in mind, here are some of this week’s celebrations:

After an extensive permitting and application process, we’ve received 50 new mustard accessions from Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew, in the United Kingdom! (Shout-out to Janet Terry, the seed curator, for putting up with my complete lack of knowledge on how to import seeds.) We’re still waiting on another 50, but they should be coming soon. At that point, it will be back to the cycle of planting seeds, praying to quantum probabilities for high germination rates, and panicking when there are more plants than we know what to do with.

Caulanthus flavescens
Caulanthus flavescens

The annuals that were sown in early June are starting to flower. They’re pretty, but also a reminder that organisms move inexorably forward through their life histories towards reproduction and death, and we have to collect as much data as we can while we can. In a sense, this is good–it’s another way we can remind ourselves of our larger goals, and that there is an end, even if it isn’t always in sight.