How to be a good graduate student

Continuing the “How to be a good scientist” series of posts that I have been doing here lately, I wanted to call your attention to this excellent piece written by Indira Raman (of my former institution, Northwestern University): “How to Be a Graduate Advisee”. I recommend all scientists read it, regardless of what stage they’re at in their career, because much of its advice applies to doing science in general.

Here are my reactions to a few points that I particularly appreciated:

“The science you are doing is the real thing. Although many students do not immediately realize it, graduate study is not a lab course, not a summer experience, not an exercise for personal enrichment.You are a real, practicing scientist, albeit a trainee, from day one”.

It is important for a young scientist to feel part of a larger community. At my graduate institution, a small but meaningful way that the program emphasized this was to explicitly request that members of the department at all ranks address each other by first names only. On day 1 of our graduate orientation, we were told “You are our colleagues now, so don’t use titles with us.” Small things like that make a very big difference to young graduate students. As a graduate student, take pride in your work and understand its context with respect to the rest of your discipline.

“Do not let yourself get accustomed to failure…..every day you should be able to account for what you did: practice articulating for yourself what worked, and what you will do differently tomorrow. The worst thing that can happen to you scientifically is to get used to going into the lab, doing a procedure in a fixed way, getting no useful result, and going home, with the sense that that is all that science is. You must see movement on your research, not necessarily as daily data, but as a sense that what you did today gets you closer to an outcome”.

I think this is the best piece of advice a graduate student could read. Mistaking motion for action is an easy trap to fall into, and I’m constantly struggling with this. I don’t have any great insights into how to “cure” this problem, besides offering what I do: when I recognize that I’m in a rut, I step back, reevaluate, talk to my PI or colleagues, and try a new approach. Sometimes even something as simple as taking a day off to go hiking and just brainstorm is enough to get myself back on the right track. While I’m in this mode, I try to ask myself at the end of the day what I specifically did to move myself closer to a larger goal. What do I need to do differently tomorrow? A tool that I often use for breaking things down into the critical “taking action” tasks vs. the optional ones is the “Today and Not Today” smartphone app. Don’t get hung up on the specifics, though–just find something (a tool, a protocol, a confidant) that works for you and use it!

“Cultivate the ability to get inspired. When you see other people excel scientifically—your peers or seniors—you can have several reactions. One is to dismiss those people as extraordinary, perhaps contrasting them with yourself so that you feel dejected or inadequate. A second response is to put those people down by criticizing an unappealing attribute that they have. A third, and perhaps the most constructive, reaction is to look at those people’s abilities as something to aspire to. What can you learn from them?”

Several years ago when I lived in Utah, I was invited to train at Gym Jones. Being surrounded by athletes of the highest caliber fundamentally changed my outlook–not only physically, but also professionally. It might seem odd that a gym could help me become a better scientist, but physical training was only a means to an end. Exactly what I learned there is a subject that could fill an entire post. But reading the point above reminded me of one particular core philosophy of the gym, articulated here by Mark Twight:

“You become what you do. How and what you become depends on environmental influence so you become who you hang around. Raise the standard your peers must meet and you’ll raise your expectations of yourself. If your environment is not making you better, change it.”

To become a better graduate student, you need to surround yourself with scientists who are better than you, and whose work inspires you to become better yourself. If you can’t find them in your own department, at the very least you should be following the work of the leaders in your field. Twitter is a good place for this, as are blogs and books. For example, here is a book that inspired me last year.

At the same time, recognize the dangers of imposter syndrome and know what is reasonably expected of you at each level. Comparing a graduate student’s scientific accomplishments to those of a tenured professor is inappropriate. Try to learn something from every experience, and from every person you encounter.

Raman goes on to talk about a number of other excellent points, from how to work with one’s advisor, to how to maintain one’s scientific ideals. I strongly recommend you take a look!

Thanks to @mwilsonsayres ( for the link!

12 thoughts on “How to be a good graduate student

  1. ischemgeek January 10, 2014 / 11:46 am

    I’ve one graduate degree under my belt and am working on another. One piece of advice I would add as an addendum to “don’t mistake motion for action” is “Spend at least your first month reading. Your first goal should be to write up a literature review on the existing state of the science your project is dealing with. Your second goal should be to incorporate the knowledge you acquired with the literature review into a research plan.”

    If I’d done that in my first graduate degree, I would have shaved a year off my experimental work, because I would have had warning of the blind alleys I went down, simply by observing the complete dearth of anything discussing anything related to what I wanted to do in the literature, and I would have been able to chart a course more likely to succeed efficiently.

    By contrast, this time I spent my first month reading and my second month charting out a research plan. Four months into my studies – so, two months of dedicated experimental research, plus two months of part-time “stamp collecting” as my prof calls it (characterization of reagents, etc), and I already have more useful results than I did a year into my studies the first time around.Working hard and smart is better by far than just working hard.

    • keelyellenmarie January 10, 2014 / 5:16 pm

      The difficult part of that is that a lot of advisors WON’T LET YOU DO IT. I know my advisor put bench experiments above all else, even when we were repeating experiments that we had long since stopped expecting to work. The time I spent reading, thinking, and teaching therefore didn’t “count” as work–sure, I was expected to do it, but I was expected to do it in the downtime while experiments ran or after I’d gone home, not as a primary workday activity.

      • Jennifer Raff January 11, 2014 / 9:14 am

        That sucks. Part of the “learning from every experience” approach is definitely recognizing what NOT to do for the future. It’s not a complete waste of time if it makes you a better mentor in turn, but really frustrating to experience, I know.

    • Jennifer Raff January 11, 2014 / 9:12 am

      That is EXCELLENT advice. One of my committee members placed a great emphasis on understanding the history of our discipline. At the time, I grumbled (I was eager to get into the lab), but it really let me contextualize my research and gave me a much stronger grasp of the questions that needed to be answered.

      I’m going to quote your last sentence in several places. “Working hard and smart is better by far than just working hard.”

  2. Anders January 11, 2014 / 5:58 am

    Great post and a great essay by Indira Raman.
    I’m a graduate student advisor (and postdoc mentor) and I think it is not an easy task. One of the important points made here is that the students need to take ownership of their science and of their career and indeed to realise that in science there is no answer key. The supervisor, in turn, needs to actively engage in developing all the skills a scientist needs – only a fraction of these are technical.
    When a new person starts in the lab the first step is always to break down the barriers between them and me. Get rid of the professor title and the hierarchical thinking. Dependent on personality and cultural background this may take anywhere between a month and several years. For some students it never happens. And many people – students and postdocs alike – shy away from taking ownership. They are often used to school systems where the goal and the route towards the goal is clearly defined. Freedom can be frightening for some. And failure is frequent in research. So it is necessary to create a “safe” environment where risk-taking is encouraged and failure accepted. My job is then to make sure that they – at the end – graduate with at least acceptable papers and with the capacity to do and think science. It is not an easy task.. But it is very rewarding to see people grow!

    • Jennifer Raff January 11, 2014 / 9:20 am

      I struggled with taking ownership of my research in my early years as a postdoc (less so than in graduate school). My first postdoc project was already funded, and so it didn’t feel “polite” to take charge of something that I regarded as someone else’s idea. But my mentor was very good–as it sounds like you are–and through his encouragement and teaching I developed into a confident researcher. In my case, it was definitely associated with “imposter syndrome”, though. Recognizing that was difficult, but made an enormous difference in my approach.

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments. As I am transitioning to become a mentor myself in the next year or two, I am reading as much as I can on the subject.

      • Anders January 11, 2014 / 9:38 am

        I can highly recommend taking a course. I took a lab management course when starting the lab ( and it was certainly worth the money and the 4 days. They also have courses for senior postdocs. Surely, something similar can be found at many institutes in the states.

        • Jennifer Raff January 11, 2014 / 10:18 am

          Thank you, that’s an excellent suggestion!

  3. kish January 12, 2014 / 2:42 am

    True skills listed here apply to many things. Thinking of these processes as inherent to a system on a whole will yield a larger perspective; equally important.
    The results produced will be of quality.

  4. Peter Neame (@PNeame) March 28, 2014 / 10:06 am

    Excellent overview – especially the bit about faculty and students being on first name terms. Our local Uni has a culture where all faculty are “Dr X” and all students are first name. It makes for a terrible environment where students are automatically wrong and faculty are automatically right. Trying to fix that by “If you refer to me as Dr …. I assume you are taking the piss” helps a little but only a little.

  5. vinnycho April 5, 2014 / 9:54 pm

    Reblogged this on Datapulted and commented:
    These tips speak to me not just as a former grad student, but also as a junior faculty member. Keep fighting the good fight!

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