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Grad School 101: 10 Tips for A Great First Year in Grad School

Labor Day has come and gone, pumpkin spice lattes are back at Starbucks, and a new crop of students has just started the graduate school journey. We ECR editors were in your shoes not too long ago, and we’d like to pass on the best advice we received about how to succeed in grad school. This advice is most relevant to students entering PhD programs, but masters students can also benefit from some of these lessons. If you’re no longer a first year student – fear not! This post is only the start of our new series, “Grad School 101,” and we’ll cover advice for older students throughout the fall!

Getting Started

Remember that classes aren’t everything

Grad school is a totally different type of school. Classes are important – you need to show up, do the work, and pass – but you should keep in mind that classes aren’t your only responsibility. Your lab rotations are key to helping you find your home throughout grad school, and it’s important to find a good balance between classes and lab time. One way to make classes easier is to find a good study group – working together on problem sets can make the time fly by!

Make your rotations work for you

A lab rotation is primarily designed to help you figure out if a lab is right for you. You may be lucky and end up an author on a published paper, or you may spend two months unsuccessfully troubleshooting an experiment. It doesn’t matter. The measure of success for a rotation is learning about the PI, research, and lab culture, and even more importantly, how those things fit with your needs. I’ve seen too many friends overwork themselves trying to impress a rotation lab – remember that the lab you’re rotating in should want to impress you too!

Take care of yourself (AKA don’t eat free pizza for every meal)

Free food and happy hours are abundant, especially early in grad school, but try not to overindulge. Taking care of yourself via a healthy diet, exercise, and enough sleep (coffee doesn’t count!) will help you better weather the challenges of grad school. If you’re feeling overwhelmed, consider talking to a counselor – your student health center should have recommendations for counselors with experience working with grad students.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

One brutal course in my first year of grad school was Genetics 201 – I think the median score on the midterm was in the 70s. Luckily, my program offered one-on-one free tutoring services run by older grad students. By the time you get to grad school, your program is invested in you and wants to help you succeed. If you’re struggling, speak up! Try reaching out to your program administrator, academic advisor or other grad students to help you get the resources you need.

Get out and explore (with your student discounts)

Spending time outside the lab is crucial for a healthy work-life balance. If you’ve moved to a new area for grad school, take time to explore cafes, restaurants, parks, etc. ECR editor Meredith is a big fan of the museums in New York – especially since there’s often a student discount! To avoid breaking the bank, look for free events in your area, and invite your fellow students to come along.

After You’ve Settled In

Put yourself out there and apply for funding

A number of grant programs, including the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSF GRFP), accept applications from first-year graduate students. If you do get funded, you could receive extra money for educational/research expenses. Even if you’re unsuccessful, the experience will benefit you for future grants and research proposals! For a quick guide to writing success, check out Meredith’s 15 tips for improving your writing.

Try something new

Maybe you’re really interested in science communication. Or you’d like to improve your computational skills? Joining a student organization or taking a class outside your comfort zone can be a great way to meet new people and to grow as a scientist. Plus, you’ll gain transferable skills that will come in handy after graduation.

Make connections

When you’re a first-year grad student, professors and other senior scientists may seem intimidating. However, these individuals are often much more accessible than you’d think. If someone in your department gives a great talk and you’d like to pick their brain, send an email or strike up a conversation the next time you see them. For ECR editor Andreas, these types of interactions have helped him form a larger network he can turn to for advice about his research.

Don’t stress about finding the perfect lab

The most stressful decision you’ll make in grad school is picking a lab, and there is no perfect choice. Instead of obsessing over perfection, think about what’s really important in a lab. You want a lab where you will be happy and productive, with a supportive mentor and labmates, as well as research that excites you. Picture yourself two or three years from now: would you feel content going to lab everyday? Don’t join a lab just because the PI is famous or they have good parties – find a good match for the long haul.

Think of graduate school as a journey – not a competition

It’s natural to compare yourself to other students in your program or cohort – but it’s still a mistake. Grad school is not one-size-fits-all, because we each start with different strengths/weaknesses and progress towards different goals. Maybe you’re great at reading papers but you struggle with communicating your own data. Or you love designing experiments, but you haven’t developed the appropriate experimental technique. Focus on your own personal development – we ECR editors highly recommend completing an individual development plan (IDP) to guide you in your unique grad school journey.

Have you just started grad school? Let us know how it’s going in the comments section! If you’d like to develop your writing skills by contributing to the PLOS ECR community, please email us at

Read the rest of our Grad School 101 series:

Featured image courtesy of the University of Michigan School of Natural Resources and the Environment, licensed under a Creative Commons 2.0 license.



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