The new academic year is just about upon us and shiny-faced new grad students are about to jump into the shark pond. This is a disjointed list of AA's rules for surviving grad school. It by no means covers everything, so leave more advice in the comments, or write your own post and send it to Samia for the ZOMG grad skool carnival!!!1!!
My first-year class got our asses handed to us on our Genetics final. The course director was a young prof who felt he had made the test too easy the previous year since a significant proportion of the class aced it. In an attempt to make it a little more challenging, he swung way too far in the opposite direction. Nobody got an A and we all knew it walking out of that lecture hall. We were all commiserating on the way to the pub afterward, and one of my classmates said something to the effect of, "well, on question #2 I really tried hard to answer it with the information given. I know I got it wrong but I think he should give some points for the attempt." Sorry, no. This isn't grade school. I got it wrong too and I worked my ass off, but I am still arguing against points for effort. We're scientists now; we're not just practicing anymore. We're trying to figure shit out. We're looking for the real answers. The ones that are true. The ones that tell us something meaningful about the world that we didn't know before. We might work really really hard and still not get to that answer, but making one up because finding the real one was too hard doesn't do anyone any favors. On a more practical note, nobody's getting funded for asking dumb questions with their research. You gotta go after what's real, not what's easy or convenient. Spinning your wheels on putting in a lot of "effort" is meaningless if you're not approaching a real answer to your questions. The sooner one disabuses oneself of the notion that science is like school, the easier one will have it. It's a tough transition to make, but a necessary one.
That being said, hard work is important so long as it is directed toward a meaningful result. BUT, working hard isn't enough - you need a little luck and some smarts too. Sometimes you're going to have a great hypothesis, flawless experimental design, and still turn up nothing. Other times you're going to be bumbling along with some dull line of questioning and have one of those Eureka! discoveries. These things are not in your control. If you're smart about your interpretation of the literature and your experimental design you can tip the odds in your favor, but some of it is just plain luck. The most important finding of my dissertation was a completely unexpected outcome in one of my control groups that I discovered a few months before my defense. That result turned my dissertation from a ho-hum characterization and confirmation of hypotheses that we always thought were true but had never really demonstrated to an important body of work that overturned more than a decade of dogma. There is no way I could have predicted it. Just plain luck. That sounds kind of scary, but it's actually a good thing for those of us who tend to load ourselves with the personal responsibility of being perfect in every way and having all the answers. You just can't be. Let it go. Embrace the good luck when it comes your way, and don't beat yourself up when it doesn't. Even when your luck is rotten, if you've got a good plan you can get something done. It might not be OMGWTFBBQ!!!!1!1 awesome findings, but it will be something.
Rule #2: You have to look out for number one (that would be you, not rule #1).
No one else has your back. Grad school is a hazing ritual, and even with the best of mentors they can't be holding your hand or looking out for that douche who wants to give you a swirly all the time (heaven forbid that they are that douche) - they've got grants to write and shit. You gotta take care of yourself. Be your own ally. Be careful not to burn bridges. Get everything in writing. Protect yourself. Trust, but verify. Even if you do all of this, you're still gonna get burned at one point or another. That's grad school - I don't like that reality either, but I personally can't change it at the moment (and as a grad student you probably won't be in a position to do so either) and this is a post on how to get through it with your soul intact. Watch your back. Know the chain of command so that if you do get into trouble with your mentor or a committee member, you know who is in a position to help you out. Ideally, get to know these people *before* you need their help in mediating shit. Hopefully, you'll never have to use them as such, but chances are you will at one point or another because you're navigating a system that is no longer designed around your best interests - this isn't undergrad - and you probably won't have a playbook.
Rule #3: Know your exits.
The hardest thing about the bench work is knowing when to cut your losses. Everything else is trained monkey work. This is the toughest lesson that I am STILL learning. When have you given it the old college try and when does it need just a little more finessing? I can't answer that question. In all likelihood, no single person can. This is where your advisory committee is absolutely key. You have a built-in jury for your ideas, so use it. If you have a choice in the composition of your committee you need to pick people with different things to bring to the table. It's no good stacking the whole group with protein biochemists because you're only going to get that singular perspective, not some creative solutions when you're up against a dearth of useful data. Having a diverse committee means that you will get a more rounded discussion about how your projects proceed, and likely when to say enough is enough, this line of questioning is getting us nowhere (or somewhere) so it's time to try this other thing (or keep plugging away). No one is born knowing how to make good decisions about this stuff - it's built from experience, so form a committee you can trust and then LISTEN to them.
Your committee is also there for other exit strategies, like when to set that ever-elusive defense date, or when your advisor needs to just let go of hir pet hypothesis and acknowledge that your data refute it. It is really really important not to stack your committee with a bunch of your advisor's yes-men. A few of them are probably a good idea, especially if you've got an advisor that really has your best interests at heart, but it is really really important that you have at least 2 who are capable of saying "hey, Advisor, cut it out!" and getting some action from that, in case you need that kind of advocacy. Your committee is your exit strategy (and you don't want to be in grad school forever) so I would argue that choosing a good committee is as important as choosing the right advisor. A lot of programs will let you change the composition of your committee as things progress. If so, you can get rid of the deadwood as necessary and replace them with people who can be of more help to you. Take advantage of that flexibility.
Rule #4: Exercise extreme caution in choosing your associates.
Good mentoring will get you far...good luck identifying a good mentor. This piece of advice has been done to fucking death, so I won't say much more other than to acknowledge that yes, the personality, communication style and scientific training chops of your mentor are way, Way, WAY more important than the project. Period. Don't ask me again.
Rule #5: Maintain your grip on reality.
Fundamentals of scientific method = rigid empiricism. You will be tested on this. In reality though, every good scientist (even your most heinous hard-ass committee member) knows that objectivity is NOT REAL. The key to doing objective science is knowing that the lens through which you see the world is not the same as the lens through which everyone else sees the world, and *managing* those biases is what brings your science closer to the Platonic ideal of objectivity. Knowing the limitations of the dominant paradigms is what makes your science *original*.
Purge the following from your vocabulary now:
"These results prove that...." Science doesn't prove shit. Ever. Never ever. We can use the scientific method to disprove our null hypotheses (and your results are only as good as the assumptions you hold when you build those hypotheses) but we never ever ever prove anything. Full stop. Proofs are for geometry and Logic 101. Unless those are your Ph.D. programs just eliminate the word proof right now, and activate your death-ray for any scientists who use it in your presence.
"I believe that...." Nobody gives a fuck what you believe. Not in the context of your dissertation anyway. All that matters is what your data tell you, and data can't tell you jack about belief. You are a scientist now, not a gospel preacher. Beliefs are based on personal experience and are often held even in opposition to factual evidence. I'm not saying that you shouldn't have beliefs, or that personal experience is irrelevant - both are actually quite important to being human. What I *am* saying is that belief doesn't really mean anything in the context of empirical inquiry (assuming that you are doing a decent job of managing your own biases when designing your hypotheses, which you should be). What a lot of people mean when they use the "b" word is that while they don't have the evidence to support it (yet), they postulate/posit/hypothesize that.... Use these words instead. Beliefs can't be tested empirically; hypotheses can.
While we're at it, this is not something that is particularly critical to the foundations of scientific discourse, but is a huge pet peeve of mine, so please, please, for the sake of my sanity, get the singular/plural subject-verb agreement sorted out for the word "data". "Data" is the plural of "datum". A datum is a single data point (from which you can draw no conclusions). Therefore, "this datum is representative of phenomenon blah-di-blah" and "these data suggest that variable X has Y effect".
Rule #6: Enjoy the little things.
Have a hobby - something you're good at. Your self-worth or "goodatitedness" should not be tied to your bench chops - they will let you down. One of my undergrad advisors knew I was into SCUBA and horseback riding so he really drilled into me the necessity of continuing to pursue these things while in grad school for the sake of my own sanity. What he didn't realize is that the relationship between stipend and cost-of-living had changed significantly since he'd been a Ph.D. student. :( So I got some cheaper hobbies. You should too. Make them a priority.
Rule #7: Adopt a personal mantra.
This is useful for talking yourself off the brink of desperation when you're in the 3rd year slump and nothing is working, or you're in a particularly horrid meeting with your advisor discussing what disappointing student you've turned out to be. Just to give you some ideas, I'll tell you mine. I still use it. Are you ready for it?
"Yay! I don't suck!"
Tell yourself this every time you complete something successfully. Even something as mundane as running your electrophoresis gel in the correct direction. The trick is to bank this idea so you plenty in reserve for the times when you do suck...then you can withdraw some of the "I don't suck!" from your bank to get you through without losing all self-confidence. It sounds kind of stupid I know, but I found it to be a pretty adaptive survival strategy.
Rule #8: Don't take yourself too seriously.
Remember that this is not your whole career. You will make mistakes, and that is just fine. Neither the whole world nor the rest of your life depends upon this dissertation. When things get miserable, remember that you have a choice to be there. You can choose differently. I didn't choose differently, even when things sucked so hard that I didn't think they could possibly get worse (and they did get worse, but then better), but knowing that I could choose differently if things got truly intolerable gave me the umph to get through it.
Under the same theme of taking oneself too seriously, avoid the attempt to compare and compete with other grad students. Everyone's project takes a different trajectory so there is absolutely no objective way to judge yourself against other people's projects. Also, all the insecurity and impostor syndrome that's rolling around in your head is also rolling around in theirs. You're not saying how scared you are and neither are they, so rest assured that you're all equally insecure and equally capable of making it big.
Rule #9: Have fun!!
Don't be that guy or gal who sets up a cot in the lab and develops a severe blink when exposed to rays from the actual sun. You are allowed to be a person, even during the indentured servitude. You are a young and interesting person, so don't suppress that for some monastic ideal of sacrificing all on the altar of the bench. Live your life while you're at it.
Most of all: GOOD LUCK!!