Early in your training, you’re working to master understanding of the process to complete your graduate degree, and not thinking much beyond that. When you really understand this process and have applied your understanding – you’ve already set yourself a rough schedule for all the required activities for completion, and you’ve settled into your thesis lab and outlined and begun your thesis work – you’re ready to spend more time thinking about what happens after you complete your degree. This is what we are calling “advanced.”
* “Early” or “Advanced?”
We arbitrarily distinguish between “early” and “advanced” by looking at whether a student is either: working to understand and plan the degree completion process; or, is executing the plan and is looking beyond degree completion.
In the “early” stages, you’re trying to figure out what you need to do to complete your PhD or other graduate degree. You’re learning what classes you have to take, selecting and starting in your thesis lab, understanding the different departmental exams, accomplishments, and expectations to complete the degree program. In short, early in your training, you’re working to master understanding of the process to complete your graduate degree, and not thinking much beyond that. In a doctoral program that takes 6 years, this will typically be the first 2-3 years.
When you really understand this process and have applied your understanding – you’ve already set yourself a rough schedule for all the required activities for completion, and you’ve settled into your thesis lab and outlined and begun your thesis work – you’re ready to spend more time thinking about what happens after you complete your degree. This is what we are calling “advanced.”
If you’re in a 6-year PhD program, you probably shift from “early” to “advanced” after 2 or 3 years. But, a student who starts a degree program with a high level of understanding for the degree process will move from “early” to “advanced” more quickly. And, a student who is entirely focused on success in early coursework may delay thinking about degree planning, and so may spend more time as an “early” grad student (even as she is making adequate progress in the degree program).
Feeling awful about yourself and your competence is very typical
Everyone – EVERYONE! – experiences a period where nothing seems to be working, and they can’t make any progress. Or, maybe they’re struggling with coursework and have to repeat a course because they got a dreaded “C.” Or, they didn’t pass one of the competency exams, and now they have to retake it. Often, this period can extend for months or more. It feels like you’re the worst scientist in the world. It often feels like you’re not good enough to continue, that you shouldn’t be in your program.
Well, I don’t know if it’s exactly good news, but – that feeling is EXCEEDINGLY common among graduate students. Graduate school really puts you – and everyone – through the wringer academically and emotionally. If everyone who felt like they weren’t good enough quit their programs, we would have practically no one staffing our institutions! They were good enough, and the challenges they encountered and overcame helped make them stronger and more persistent scientists. Great news — your challenges will help you, too! Take heart and be kinder to yourself.
Stay on-track to complete your degree
Remember, you should be revisiting your IDP every 6 months or so. If you haven’t revised your IDP recently – do it! This will help you stay on track to complete your degree and plan for whatever’s next.
Talk to your advisor and your committee routinely. The role of a thesis committee is to provide guidance and support as you’re doing your research — so let them! Ultimately, it will be the committee that must decide whether your research tells a coherent story – that’s when they’ll be able to approve your move to finish. Meeting regularly with the committee will ensure your research doesn’t get too far off-track before they help you pull it back. Most departments will have some guidance about how often students are expected to meet with their committees — follow that guidance.
Pay attention to deadlines, particularly as you’re finishing up. Good advisors will usually remind you to find out this information — but don’t rely on that. Talk to people (your advisor, people in the admin office, recent grads) to make sure you know about all the relevant deadlines for requirements for graduation, requirements to defend your dissertation, registration requirements, etc.
Think carefully about possible career paths post-graduation
It’s worth restating here: You should be revisiting your IDP every 6 months or so. If you haven’t revised your IDP recently – do it! Not only will this help you plan better, it can be an excellent organizational tool to help you see your strengths and weaknesses as relates to careers you’re interested in pursuing.
Attend as many “alternative career” talks and opportunities as you can. Virtually every school offers information about “alternative careers” for science PhDs other than tenure-track teaching — look for it. If you somehow can’t find it (or even if you can!), ASCB offers information about a variety of different careers [link to come]. And, you can always just Google “alternative careers in science.”
Pay attention to what excites you – in science and outside of it. This is hard to do, because it’s often hard to identify how you feel about an activity versus the goal of the activity. (For example – if you’re hot on the trail of an interacting protein, you may be more excited about your experimental methods than if you were using the same method in a less-interesting context). Pay attention when you think something is awesome — perhaps keep a list somewhere. Over time, you may find that there’s a pattern to the kinds of things that capture your interest — use that to help you decide on career paths and fields.
Position yourself to maximize transition into multiple career paths
Keep track of specific lab skills and techniques as you learn, as well as “transferable skills.” (Wondering what your “transferrable skills” are? Check out the resources in the table below!) Even though you’ll never list all of them on any application document, the list will be a big timesaver as you’re developing an application for a job that has a list of specific competency and skill requirements.
Network, network, network. Networking will help you both connect with people in careers you may be interested in as well as develop relationships that can help you enter the career you ultimately choose.
Look for grants
If you’re fortunate enough that your advisor or department can afford to support your research assistantship without you landing your own grant funds, you’re lucky — but you should still think about finding a grant to apply for.
Even if you don’t need the funds, writing a grant application is a valuable experience that only a minority of graduate students get. Even if you don’t get the grant, the knowledge you acquire from going through the process is very valuable. And, if you do get the grant funds, that is an excellent testament to your writing and analytical skills that will be helpful regardless of your career intentions.
Writing is something you’ll need to do all through your scientific career. As you really get moving in your program, you’ll be writing manuscripts, writing your thesis, writing for presentations – hopefully even writing for grants! In the post for Early Grad Students [link to come], we provided links to a variety of helpful resources for scientific writing; writing your thesis will be easier if you review these.
After graduating: Don’t start the new job until you have really finished everything that’s important
Your new job may be pressuring you to hurry to start. You may be quite anxious to move on to new ideas, a new environment, new challenges. You may be tempted to tell yourself, “I can finish these thesis edits in the evenings once I move.” Or, “The data for this paper is just about analyzed — I’m sure it won’t be a problem to write it up from wherever.” DON’T BE TEMPTED! Finish everything that is important to you BEFORE you leave.
Consider this: once you leave, you’ll be starting a new position (hurray!) At minimum, this new position will be new projects and new responsibilities — these will require a lot of your attention at the start, and frankly you’ll probably be way more interested in the new stuff than your thesis. Usually, the new position also comes with: a new town (that you’re excited to explore); a new institution (that will demand various orientation activities from you); a new apartment (that will need plenty of your free time to set up); and new colleagues and friends (that you won’t want to blow off right away just to spend time with the thesis you can’t stand to look at anymore). You really won’t want to work on your old stuff anymore — especially not your thesis, which you’ve likely re-read 8 zillion times. You really, really won’t want to give up your evenings to do this work you don’t really want to do. Unless you have extraordinary self-discipline, finishing these tasks left over from your old job won’t happen without a lot of unpleasant reminder/harassment emails — possibly from your former advisor, possibly from co-authors or others. This isn’t the image you want to leave them with, given they may well be writing letters of recommendation for you in the future.
So: before you leave, finish anything that is important enough that you would regret its absence if it didn’t get done. This includes your thesis, certainly; it also likely includes major papers. Your future self will thank you!
We will continue to develop this post to provide more content and resources for grad students. If you know of resources you think should be represented here, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
|Resources for Advanced Grad Students||Web Links|
|Writing your thesis will be easier if you review the writing resources provided in the article for Early Grad Students||Link|
|IDP is for Everyone||Link|
|The Chronicle of Higher Education – Graduate Students resource page||Link|
|“PhD transferable skills” from University of Michigan Career Center||Link|
|“What are transferable skills?” from École Polytechnique Fédérale De Lausanne||Link|
|“How Doing A PhD Prepares You For Those ‘Other’ Jobs” from The Black Hole: Science in Canada, Issues affecting trainees||Link|
|“PhD Myth Busters: Making the Transition From Academia to Industry” (Mar 2015, The Grad Student Way blog)||Link|
|“Everything I wanted to know about C.S. graduate school at the beginning but didn’t learn until later” – a detailed and excellent resource for graduate students||Link|
|Resources for Graduate Students and Postdocs – from ASBMB||Link|
|Opportunities for Advanced Grad Students||Web Links|
|Native American Faculty Development Program (NAFDP) is a post-doctoral opportunity at the U of MN Med School. This 2-yr program is designed for fellows to develop an independent research program, experience pedagogical situations, and to create teaching and research portfolios.||Link|
|The IRACDA program is an NIH postdoc training program offered at a number of institutions (see link for list of participating institutions) – it trains you for both research and teaching||Link|