Welcome to my 1st Trainee Tuesday!

On Trainee Tuesday, I will discuss issues directly related to trainees and early career development. Many of the posts will be specific to those just starting out in science, but many of the topics will be applicable to all those in the early stages of their career. It is a scary time filled with doubt, tough choices, and quick changes. Hopefully, by writing about these issues, I can document my journey through this uncertain time (and maybe help someone?).

The topic of the first Trainee Tuesday is: 10 Things I Wish I Knew Before I Started My PhD.

I started my PhD program right after I graduated from college at 22 years old. I loved doing research, and with the economy in such a poor state, I thought it was best to get a higher degree. Who knows, maybe I also was putting off deciding what I wanted to be when I grow up. I don’t think starting right away was an advantage or a distance. Though, I do wish I knew some things beforehand.

  1. Classes are meaningless

School usually brings images of classrooms and assignments. Not the case in a PhD program. Classes are relatively useless and unimportant. Make sure you fulfill your department’s requirements. You learn more by actual doing science and research. Go to the lab! Read the literature! Learn to write well!

  1. Spend quality with computers

Every job, whether in science or not, now requires more and more computer skills. Take the time to gain some experience in statistical (e.g. SAS or R) or computer (e.g. Perl or python) tools. You don’t need to master these languages, but being familiar and not intimidated by these computer skills can be huge. Also, knowing Microsoft Office or Photoshop hacks can make you invaluable to a lab or research group.

  1. Try new things in science

Grad school, particularly during rotations, gives you the perfect opportunity to try new techniques and explore new areas of research in a relatively safe environment. Try working with a new model organism. If you study one organ system, try studying a new one. It can be difficult to find the time and energy to explore new things once you start establishing a research record and career.

  1. Explore jobs outside of academia

We all have seen the scary numbers showing a small fraction of PhDs ending up as faculty in academia, although we are trained for that specific career. Though possibly hard to find, there are opportunities to explore industry and government career options. Many universities have career services; take advantage of them. A conversation never hurts. If your institution doesn’t have them, web resources (e.g. NIH OITE, Science Careers, Nature Jobs) are invaluable.

  1. Explore careers outside of active research

There are even careers outside of active research that PhDs can do. Consulting, writing, and administration are just a few. Gaining experience in these can be difficult in graduate school and will require extra effort/desire on your part. Join an interest group at your institution or professional society. Again, proactivity and having conversations are your friends.

  1. Quals are hell-ish

The horror stories you have heard about qualification exams are spot on. They are just simply awful. Keep your head down, and keep working your butt off. You will get through it, though it will be a rough few months.

  1. Mentors are invaluable

Like it or not, as a trainee, you do not know everything. Mentors, whether they are a senior postdoc/grad student, your PI, or people on your committee, have all gone through the situations and feelings you are going through. Be honest and respectful. Talk with them. They can help guide you down the paths you want to explore and ultimately follow.

  1. Learn the rules of you department early

Academia is filled with red tape and lots of illogical practices. Take the time to read through handbooks and the policies of your program. There is nothing worse than thinking you are ready to graduate or qualify and be told that you haven’t taken an appropriate ethics course or met with the right person. Learn the rules and play by them.

  1. Planning is essential

PhDs take a long time to complete. We all know that well enough. In order to make sure you graduate in a timely fashion and complete all you want, you need to start planning early. This plan can and will change, but focusing your efforts and eliminating as much noise as possible will help you graduate and maintain some semblance of sanity. There are too many examples of graduate students and postdocs floating in a lab without focus. No one wants to be the 7th year PhD student.

  1. Be your own advocate

Finally, this is your PhD, career, and life. You need to be the one in charge of it. Yes, your PI and committee will have large influences over your work. However, you are building the foundation of your future. Take charge and shape it. Have the tough conversations and experience the things you want to experience.

I hope you all enjoyed my first Trainee Tuesday! If you did, please like and share with your family, friends, and colleagues.

What things do you wish you knew before you started your graduate program? Comment below or on twitter @DrFsThoughts! I’m interested to see what others think.

Thank you for reading the first Trainee Tuesday! See you tomorrow on Wishful Wednesday!

-Dr. F