What I Really Learned in Graduate School

Young scientist at a microscopeI learned a lot in graduate school. I learned about receptor tyrosine kinases, and oncogenic transformation, and how to do a western blot. But more importantly, I learned about myself, and I acquired many skills that help me to be not only a better scientist, but to be more engaged and successful in life. Here I have compiled several COMPASS members’ ideas on some of the most valuable lessons they learned in graduate school – and many extend far beyond the laboratory.

How to say “I don’t know” (and more importantly, that it’s okay to say “I don’t know”) Remember that feeling in high school or college when you didn’t know an answer on a test, or when the teacher called on you and you just didn’t know? I hated that feeling. So, I started graduate school feeling like I should always know the answer, and I logically extended this to my research. For my first seminar, I was so afraid that someone would ask me a question and I just wouldn’t know the answer. But as I attended more and more seminars, many given by incredibly smart, high-profile scientists, one thing struck me – each speaker had his or her own, very eloquent, way to say “I don’t know.” But the answer didn’t end there: “I don’t know… but here’s how I could find out!” The question-and-answer sessions were so interesting, not because people expected anyone to know all the answers, but because that was how new questions and ideas were raised! Certainly, there is a level of base knowledge required for basic research. But the biggest part of graduate school is finding the gap – the unknown that is just waiting to be unlocked. And it’s fine – no, great! – to not always have the answer. The most important part, then, is having a way to find it.

Do it right. Don’t cut corners. I worked in a very small lab, so my mentor and I were in a continuous dialogue about results and conclusions. This also meant that if I made a technical mistake, or worse, took a shortcut and the experiment didn’t work, he knew. He was phenomenal at the bench, and one of the best lessons I learned from him was to do experiments with great care, and with great consistency. It was very embarrassing to admit that a poor result might be because I used an old buffer, or because I forgot to change the medium when I was supposed to. It was well worth the 10 extra minutes to do something right the first time, so I wouldn’t have to spend a week repeating it when the results were uninterpretable!

Be tough. It certainly takes a thick skin to withstand the criticism of committee members, manuscript reviewers, and study sections. When the sulking and pouting have stopped (Oh, is that just me?), it takes an even thicker skin to learn from the criticism, craft a strong rebuttal, and get back into the ring for another round. I recently was dealt a (non-science) rejection, and after a couple of days (after I finished sulking) I realized that this was just like the review process I had just endured for a paper. Even though the answer was “No,” I couldn’t take it personally, and I could fight back. And, I also realized that I was, just maybe, tougher than I thought I was.

How to multitask. Sometimes I find myself running a gel, doing qPCR, developing a western blot, and collecting samples for another experiment at the same time, and I am not panicking about it. That’s multitasking, a trait I definitely learned in grad school. Out of necessity grad students quickly learn that multitasking is the only way to do all their experiments, read papers, write assignments, and still have time to grab a beer with their friends. Embrace it – multitasking is a wonderful tool no matter where you end up working.

The best way to learn something is having to explain it to someone else. I know I took molecular biology in college, but after diving deep into my cell biology niche during grad school I forgot some (actually a lot) of those things. Yeah, I knew you didn’t mess with the sequences upstream of the ATG in plasmids, but I didn’t remember it was because of the Shine-Dalgarno sequence, until one day I had to teach someone else in the lab how to clone a gene into a plasmid and the question came up. Nothing like being stumped to make you learn (or re-learn) a topic. Plus, explaining it to someone else means not only that you read a fact and are aware of it, but that you actually comprehend it.

Embrace the “more interesting” result. Whenever an experiment yielded the opposite of the predicted result (which happened more often than I care to admit), my mentor would say, “Well, that is the more interesting result…” We often hope for the straightforward answer. But if our research only gave us the results we expected, we wouldn’t learn very much at all. Tony Hunter first identified tyrosine kinases in an inspiring story that combines serendipity with an ability to recognize, and embrace, the “more interesting” result. In our lives, if we only look for the expected result, then that is exactly what we will find. But if we keep our eyes and minds open to the unexpected, there is no limit to what we can discover.

Ask questions. Even better, ask good questions, important questions. But to start, just ask questions! Ask how and why – in the lab, learn everything you can about your experiments, and about your research topic, so you can truly master it. Ask how and why – in seminars, be engaged, learn to think outside of your area of research, and try to connect ideas that are seemingly very different. And ask how and why to drive your research. The most inspiring talks at the ASCB annual meeting start with an important question: How do cells undergo asymmetric division? How does a tumor cell escape from the primary tumor? How does the endoplasmic reticulum get its intricate shape? One of the labs on our floor had a giant Question Mark on the door. I thought it was a great reminder to come into the lab asking questions!

See the big picture. It is important to think about how your science fits into a story. Research needs to have a direction, which of course can change, but keep in mind the purpose. I’ve seen many students and postdocs get sidetracked by experiments that are tangents of tangents, which slows progress toward the research goal (or the paper, or the renewal of the grant, or graduation…). Mentors and supervisory committees are usually helpful at keeping an eye on the big picture. One prominent mentor described himself as the “bumpers” for Bumper Bowling: he was there to give everyone a fair amount of freedom, but keep people moving in the right general direction, and increase the chance that they get a strike (or at least hit a few pins!).

Be patient. We live in a society that expects instant gratification. We expect everything immediately – news and information, food, change. But in research, nothing is immediate. A few years ago, I shared a hypothesis I had with my family because I was so excited about it. Then every time we talked, they asked if I knew the results yet. But it took a year to get the grant funded, then a year to do pilot experiments, and now a year to translate the experiments into an animal model. And once the research is finished, a manuscript will likely take 6-12 months to be reviewed and accepted. Even the “quick” questions can easily take a week to answer. It can be very hard to take the long view and see the light at the end of the tunnel, especially when a project doesn’t seem to be going well. But if we hang in there, the rewards at the end of the road can be incredible! We can learn something that no one has ever known before, which is pretty amazing.

Never use up someone else’s buffer. Seriously, it’s just a bad idea. Make your own. A wise biochemist once said that buffers are like underwear – everyone has their favorites, and you certainly shouldn’t use anybody else’s. It helps ensure that we understand our experiments, and keeps us accountable if something doesn’t work. Plus, it’s a good way to keep the peace in your lab.

How about you? What lessons have you learned in basic research that extends beyond the laboratory?

About the Author:

Gina Razidlo is a cancer biologist by training, and is interested in the mechanisms underlying tumor cell migration and invasion. She earned her PhD at the University of Nebraska Medical Center in Omaha, NE, and is now in the laboratory of Mark McNiven at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, MN.