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!