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Grad School 101: What to do in year two

Congratulations, it’s your second year of graduate school! If your PhD program is similar to most you likely joined a lab over the summer and were probably really enjoying the glorious time when lab was all that concerned you. Now, it’s October—the academic year has begun in earnest and you’re juggling courses with lab work. The qualifying exam and all the stress it brings are looming large. But don’t worry, your friendly neighborhood ECR Community editors are here with some of our tips that helped us get through this year of graduate school. Of course, some PhD programs have different requirements and/or schedules, so you may find that the advice discussed here does not perfectly align with what is to come in your second year. We hope it will prove helpful nonetheless.

This brings me to our first piece of ECR Community editor advice:

Effective time management and planning are your friend.

While you likely had most of your courses during your first year, there will still be some during the second year (and often the occasional elective course in later years). But now instead of taking courses during a rotation, where you do not have the pressure to generate lots of data, you’re in your “real lab,” and understandably want to prioritize that work — lab is why you went to grad school after all! But the reality is that there are still courses to tend to and you must find a way to integrate them into your workday in lab. For me, carefully planning ahead has helped me make the most out of my days. I suggest you be sure to know which days have a lot of class time and which do not, and stagger your experiments accordingly.

Be realistic about your daily and long-term goals.

While careful scheduling is great, it’s important to be able to judge the difference between setting an ambitious goal and poor planning that may lead to disappointment. My co-editor Mary Gearing emphasizes the importance of setting reasonable expectations for yourself. For example, avoid planning intense lab work right before or after a tough exam. Conversely, don’t do only lab work for weeks and then expect to study effectively in one weekend. When you set unrealistic goals and then have to put extra pressure on yourself in an attempt to meet them, you set yourself up to make more mistakes. I remember during my qualifying exam, I worked hard to keep my lab work going at the same time. I was working with clones of a few different strains of M. tuberculosis right before turning in a draft of my proposal, and in rushing to get finished I mixed the cultures together–ruining everything.

Allocate enough time for teaching responsibilities—it will likely be more work than you expect.

During the fall of my second year, I was a teaching assistant in a first-year graduate course in genetics. I found that even though I wasn’t a TA for a large undergraduate course, it still took quite a bit of time to be well-prepared for discussion sections and to grade exams. PLOS ECR contributor Emma Whittington wrote a piece discussing the benefits of graduate teaching assistantships for both the pupils and the teachers; it’s worth a read no matter where you are in your teaching career, but will provide particularly valuable insights for first year teachers.

Find out early what the qualifying exam at your institution consists of and how it is evaluated.

In general, the qualifying exam consists of a written proposal followed by an oral presentation judged by a panel of faculty. The intent is to determine if a student is capable of independent, critical thinking about a scientific question. The examination process also provides a training opportunity for both written and verbal communication of science. Upon successful completion of the qualifying exam, students “advance to candidacy” and are officially called PhD candidates rather than PhD students. While this general format is usually the same among different graduate programs, after comparing experiences with friends over the years I have learned that the qualifying exam varies quite a lot from institution to institution.

The most common types of qualifying exam in the sciences are the “on topic” exam, where you write and present on your proposed thesis work, and the “off topic” exam, where instead you write and present on a topic completely independent from your thesis work. A spectrum exists between these two extremes, for example, during my qualifying exam we were allowed to design a proposal using the same pathogen we study for our thesis, but the work had to be different than what we were doing in lab. There are pros and cons to each type of exam, and the debate around which is actually better for training students could be a blog post all its own (although unfortunately, there is little published research to support either type).

You need to carefully read the instructions your school provides, and seek out wisdom from more senior students or faculty if you are allowed. Students who took their qualifying exam the year before you will likely be your best resource for understanding what faculty expects to see on the qualifying exam at your institution and how to do well on the exam. If your institution doesn’t have great resources with advice, there are many graduate schools which have tips online (e.g. UC Davis, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, MIT Mechanical Engineering), and this guide for mentors who have a student trying to qualify is extremely informative.

The best way to help yourself and your classmates pass qualifying exams is to practice together.

Of course, the literature review and experiment planning is essential for a good qualifying exam. But for me, the crucial part of making my proposal the best it could be was having friends and labmates read my proposal and listen to my oral presentation. The writer of this comprehensive blog post from BiteSizeBio outlining tips for qualifying exams agrees. The more you can discuss your ideas with friends and practice how you will talk about your work in a presentation format, the more confident you will be on the big day. I also sought out fellow students who had performed techniques I was proposing but hadn’t done with my own hands, and learned a lot from discussing with them how the experiments were done in real life. You can also learn a great deal from sitting in the audience during a friend’s talk too, both about their topic and also about effective presentation styles.

Turn your qualifying exam written proposal into a grant application (if the exam format allows).

At my institution, the written proposal format closely mirrors the NIH Ruth L. Kirschstein Predoctoral Individual National Research Service Award. Some students are able to amend their proposals with the advice from their examining committee, and subsequently submit grant applications which benefit from the input of multiple faculty members. Even if your exam format does not easily fit into the page limit and section requirements of a grant application, you will be in a good position to write an application since you’ll be fresh from a period of intense reading and discussion about the work. It’s also helpful to submit applications early in your graduate career, since some grants allow you to re-submit if you are not accepted in the first round. The earlier you start, the more chances you have to submit.

It’s not too early to start thinking about the future.

You may still feel like you just started grad school, but the second year is a great time to begin brainstorming about what career you are hoping for after graduate school. If it’s anything outside of the academic track, you’ll need time to explore what it is you want to do and figure out how to prepare yourself for obtaining that sort of job. Reflecting on career goals and your research early gives you time to join clubs, attend seminars, and network in various fields. And you can do it all without the pressure of needing a new job right away.

Self-care and mindfulness are more important than ever.

Second year is a stressful year, largely because of the qualifying exam and the strain it puts on our already-packed schedules. We mentioned this in our first-year post, but it bears repeating; take time to eat right, exercise, and take breaks during your second year too. You’ll do better in lab, in class, as a TA, and during the qualifying exam if you are healthy in body and mind.

Stay tuned for our next installment of Grad School 101, and in the meantime, feel free to comment with tips of your own!

Read the rest of our Grad School 101 series:

Featured Image: Planner by Aeryn B via Flickr.


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