Graduate school is an experience that has no handbook or manual. Most graduate students’ sojourn through this unique period in their lives is filled with trial and error. It’s essentially a do-it-yourself program that most students figure out as they go along. The scientific experiments and decisions related to progress of a thesis project are usually guided by mentors. However, very often students might get so immersed in doing particular, specific experiments that they lose focus of the cohesive document that will become their thesis. And that stems from the fact that there are often no guidelines for finishing graduate school and moving on to the next chapter of a career in science.
I will go over some of the common oversights that graduate students make, which they could avoid with proper planning. I will also talk about a few things that are of tantamount importance in the penultimate years.
- Focus. Some labs may have multiple projects that they are interested in. When working on more than one project, it is important not to lose sight of the progress made on any one project. Make sure to focus on generating data for one project at a time. This will help in achieving an early publication (especially for one-author papers if you are in a small lab), which eventually takes the pressure off you in later years. It also gives you a chance to explore new areas once you are more experienced in the techniques. Focus is also important for collaborative projects; working on a second or third author paper for years takes time away from the primary authorship work required for graduation. However, collaborations engender scientific communication so it is to be encouraged, though in moderation. One way graduate students (and postdocs) can evaluate their progress is through individual development programs (IDPs), which have become a requirement in some institutes and some funding agencies. (To make your own, check out My IDP from Science Careers). The other important factor close to graduation is to decide which experiments are absolutely necessary. There will always be another experiment that can be done on any given project; the trick is to recognize when the story has enough to be published and then submit in a timely fashion.
- Writing. This aspect of graduate school is perhaps the most poorly discussed and taught of all the essential skills required for the degree. Reading and criticizing papers is very different than actually starting to write from a blank page. To coherently articulate the story you want to deliver is difficult to say the least. Indeed most graduate students learn on the fly about formulating a manuscript. Multiple revisions and edits can also delay a manuscript’s submission. Hence it is usually easier if, for a particular project, the methods, figures, and data analysis are written concomitantly with the experiments. This helps with two things: first, it will hone writing skills over the years for when you really need it, second, it will show you the prospective “holes” in your project. Until a manuscript is written, very little can be predicted, about the outstanding experiments required. So to finish graduate school, you must be able to write a manuscript, assess the shortcomings, and find solutions that can complete the project (or this game my friend likes to play when writing papers: Guess what the reviewers will ask for). Ideally you should start this endeavor in your third, fourth, or fifth years, if not earlier. The earlier a project is written, the more time you have to revise it and get peer reviews from other graduate students or committee members. They may have valuable input that could mean one less reviewer comment. The other hurdle to graduation is the actual thesis. Manuscripts form a large part of a thesis, but a graduate student generates large amounts of data that may not fit into a publication. It is important to document all those experiments for future work. This can also take up a lot of time. When completing projects for graduation, students may often ignore these data until the end.
- Future goals. The last but perhaps the most important part is preparing for the next chapter after this one is closed. More often than not students are stressed about deadlines for their projects, thesis, and defense. The transition from being a graduate student to whatever career you choose is an exciting time that is lost in the melee of emotions and anxiety in the last few months before graduating. Remember that having a place to go after graduation itself will alleviate most of the stress. Be aware of alternate career opportunities sooner rather than later. Be actively involved in exploring the numerous careers that are out there. It takes time and effort to educate yourself about these opportunities and find one that is a good fit. With the current status of the job market, it does take a while to ferret out a job that suits your expectations. If you do plan on pursuing a career in academia despite the bottleneck, then having publications early will be beneficial. The search for jobs may be intimidating but it is also exciting and the beginning of a fresh episode that is testimony to the accomplishments of your PhD.
In conclusion, if you are in the “crunch” last years of your degree, keep a few things in mind: 1) You do not have to complete every experiment. 2) If you are wondering about your thesis, then it’s a good time to start writing it. 3) It is never too early to look for a job and make valuable connections. This is a good time to start evaluating the requirements for your degree completion. Start writing those manuscripts because the “holes” might be bigger than you realize, and focus on generating data for the project with the most promise for submission. More than half of grad school is doing experiments and contemplating more, but finishing grad school is about knowing when to stop and conclude a project.