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Advice for incoming PhD students


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I'll be beginning a PhD Program this Fall. The last time I was in school was five years ago! Everyone's been telling me what a lot of hard work grad school is. Thats fine with me, but I'm hoping to strike a work life balance, and even go dating at some point. Which means I definitely want to be able to spend time outside of a classroom and library, even if its only a weekend thing.

Any advice for first year Phd students on how to strike a work-life balance? How to get up to speed quickly? Who are the really important people in a grad students life (apart from our professors) that we must make an effort to reach out to? I guess the more important question here is, how do you establish a good relationship with your main professors quickly? What are some of the things that you did/wish you did that helped make your first year a rewarding experience? How do you stop that 'butterflies in your stomach' feeling and get the "in-control of things' feeling instead?

any advice you can share will be much appreciated. Many thanks!

Edited by garibaldi
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Here is a post that might be useful for you: You might find some answers to your questions there.

For striking work-life balance, it is very difficult to maintain the balance because research goes on 24/7, rain or shine. I have to literally schedule my fun times and make sure fun times do happen, or else I might get consumed by grad school and work. Just because you are in grad school, it doesn't mean your personal life has to suffer! I am on the same boat as you in terms of dating, and I have trouble with meeting new people because everyone around me seems terribly busy, and I am too....

As for staying in control, biggest thing is "don't panic" (lol, like hitchhiker's guide to the galaxy). Life has ups and downs, so does grad school -- learning to make the best of your particular situations and accept the ones you cannot change will help you feel more in control.

Edited by Tall Chai Latte
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I don't think an "in-control feeling" and "being a graduate student" go together very well!

It's important to strive for a work-life balance, but actually maintaining one consistently, especially in your first year, is very hard to do- although some of this depends on what discipline you're in.

Most of the time, graduate student life doesn't fit on a nice, regular schedule... Which makes it hard to plan for.

Over the course of last week, I had two mornings I got to my office before 8... And then a few nights I was there until 5 am... And then a few mornings I didn't get in until after lunch!

Recognizing when you're getting too tired, when you're getting too stressed, and making yourself stop and take time off is the best advice I can give you. You have to learn that there's always more work to do, and so learning what good break-points are to take a few hours off is great. Sometimes I'll stay and work until 7 or 8 at night... Other nights it works much better to leave the lab at 4 in the afternoon, have a nice dinner, and then come back and work more later.

You just have to put time for yourself as a priority, and make sure you take it.

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For me, the key to success is setting goals weekly but scheduling daily.

I've found that it is impossible to schedule weekly when research is involved. I used to try, and I'd always end up falling flat on my face. For example, "Monday I'll do A, Tuesday, I'll do B, Wednesday I'll do C." But then on Monday I would do A and find that my first approach didn't work at all, so I'd do A again on Tuesday (and sometimes on Wednesday and Thursday)...and just barely start B at the end of the week.

So now I try to think of overall goals: "I'm going to do A this week, and think about what I need to do to do B and C, if I have the time."

Then, on Sunday night, I say: "Tomorrow I'm doing A. What specific things do I need to do to do A?" Sometimes after planning I'll run into lab to get some reagents made up, so I can get going on the experiment first thing Monday morning. After I finish my work on Monday, I'll sit down for a bit (usually while I'm acid washing the lines in the equipment--nothing to do for ~15 min anyway) and evaluate: Did things go as planned? If not, what will I do differently? What do I need to do those things tomorrow? If things did go well, I'm moving on to task B tomorrow. What do I need to do to prepare for task B?

I've found that it's very important to figure out when, and under what circumstances you work best; try to plan your hardest tasks for those times/circumstances. I'm a morning person, so I like to start my hard stuff right after getting into the lab. So any prep work that can be done in advance (reagent prep, as mentioned earlier, is a big one) is done the afternoon/evening before. I'm pretty fuzzy in the afternoon, so this is a good time for menial tasks--not just reagent prep, but also washing dishes, ordering lab supplies, you name it...

I've found that if all hell breaks loose early in the day (e.g. analytical equipment dies and needs fixing), I almost never get good data. So instead I'll spend the day fixing the equipment first, doing homework (if I have any), reading technical journals, doing bureaucratic stuff that really ought to be taken care of...and really, I've found I have at least one day a week where I just can't get be productive in lab. I don't know why, it just happens. Sometimes I make up on the weekends (and yes, sometimes this means hauling the kiddos in with me; they play on the computer while I work), and sometimes I just give it up as a lost cause.

Sorry this is so rambly and disjointed--hope you can pick at least one useful bit of info out of what I've written!

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  • 3 weeks later...

Besides your profs., department advisor, and eventual advisor, the most important people in grad school are your fellow classmates and the department secretary. You and your classmates will rely on each other with notes, support, study groups, sharing experiences with potential advisors, practice exams, the list goes on. Your department secretary can always find you extra $$$ for travel, moving expenses, etc. if they're your buddy. With the profs, be enthusiastic, willing to learn, and SPEAK UP if you're interested with working with them or on a specific project. Unless you're planning on professional school afterwards, don't stress the courses. 4.0, 3.0, GPA means little without that dissertation. Have fun! Many don't have this opportunity, enjoy and embrace the challenge ahead. Good luck!

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-Make a schedule, and stick to it. Don't try to shoehorn yourself into 9-5 if that doesn't work for you (it does't for me) - and if you'd rather do chunks of time and then chunks of breaks, do that. But if you get enough work done within a specified schedule, you'll feel less guilty about hanging out.

-Schedule time and not tasks. What I mean is, don't say "I will write 5 pages today," but say "I will spend 3 hours on writing today." that way, just in case you get writer's block or you spend a lot of time revising, you won't tether yourself to your desk for 6 hours instead of your intended 3.

-Schedule fun time. It will not happen spontaneously. You can easily spend your entire life in the lab or at your desk writing, writing, writing. No one will stop you; the lab never closes. For instance, today is the Fourth of July and I went up to school and it's open. There's hardly anyone there, and I just went to go pick something up. But if I wanted to go to my computer and work, I *could*. You have to actively choose not to, and you have to set limits for yourself. If you work all day and all night, you will burn out quickly. And realize that fun time, and the dating you want to do, are just as important as your grad work.


-Exercise. Counterintuitively, exercising gives you MORE energy.

-The guilt goes away. At first, you will feel super guilty for not doing work 24/7. After you get frustrated enough with graduate school, slowly you will feel less and less guilty until eventually you'll only feel it sometimes, or not at all.

-The in control feeling takes time, and knowledge, and learning, and mistakes. Basically you won't feel in-control at first. But the more things you complete successfully, the more in-control you will feel.

-Take one day off a week. Sometimes you will have to read something, or do something school-related on that day - especially if something is due. But try to take off a day per week and only do light stuff that day if you have to.

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Through my masters I found that the "in control" thing only happened once I had finished all my courses and was nearly done all my lab work. I feel like grad school is a state of constantly feeling stupid. If I felt like I was in control and knew what I was doing all the time, I would lose the motivation to learn anything new.

Balance is definitely important. I agree with all of the previous posters.

Also, I found my experience to be a real emotional rollercoaster. When I started, I was THE HAPPIEST I had been in my life. I kept telling myself though, "this is not going to last. Remember this feeling when shit hits the fan". Sure enough, I had periods of time when I doubted my self worth, not to mention why I was in grad school in the first place. Then I would look back to the early days and the joy of discovery and the freedom to explore and discuss ideas and theories that bring out my passion. Remembering that joy (even if I couldn't feel it at the time) really helped me to get through the rough patches.

Kind of along the same lines, try to talk about your project as much as possible. And I mean this on many different levels. Talk about it to your advisor and lab-mates, talk in conferences, and talk about it to your family and friends. You should be able to explain your project at any level. Talking about your project should be able to rekindle your passion for what you are studying, which can easily be lost when you stare at a computer or a lab bench all day. I find that talking to people that are not in my field garners questions that I would never have thought of. It results in a more holistic understanding of your own work. Talking with people also makes you more accountable. People will know if you are not making progress and can give you that little push if you are in a rut.

That was a bit disjointed and rambly but that's my two cents :)

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