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Grad School 101: Avoiding the slump in years 3 and 4

Grad students commonly experience a slump during the third and fourth years of study. The carefree times of first year are far behind you, but it also seems like graduation will never come. Having just defended my thesis, I agree that this time was often difficult. The good news is that I learned the most about my science and myself in years 3 and 4. I hope that the tips below will help you make the most of this time!

Life in the Lab

Find a supportive dissertation committee

After passing your qualifying exam in year 2, you’ll need to assemble a dissertation committee. Take time to find committee members who are a good fit, since they can be a great resource throughout your grad school journey.  When choosing the committee, start with professors you’re familiar with. If you only know someone by name, set up an appointment to talk in person. If you can’t get an appointment, chances are that the professor would be too busy to devote his/her time to the committee.

Optimize communication with your adviser

When you meet with your adviser, take the time to talk about both short-term and long-term goals. Completing an individual development plan (IDP) can help outline your lab work in the months to come. I also found it helpful to send my adviser notes from our meetings to verify that we each understood and agreed to the experimental plan. If you can’t meet with your adviser as often as you’d like, see if email or phone check-ins are possible.

Work smart and stay organized

The workload really ramps up in years 3 and 4, and chances are you’ll be balancing lots of different types of experiments, and perhaps even multiple projects. You may also be writing grants or manuscripts (if so, check out Meredith’s tips for writing!) Before you begin each week, think about what you need to get done and figure out the best way for you to balance those tasks. For example, some people write best in the mornings, so scheduling writing time in the afternoon would be counterproductive for them. Build your schedule around your most important tasks so that there’s a high probability of completing them on time.

Don’t be afraid to ask for help

You’re no longer the lab newbie, but that doesn’t mean you have to do everything yourself! If you need help, ask for it. During my time in the lab, I had two great mentors in addition to my adviser, and their help with experimental design and project planning was crucial to my success in grad school.

Life Outside the Lab (Yes, you should have one.)

Stay connected with grad school friends

Depending on where your labs are located, you may not see your grad school friends much at all. Make an effort to hang out with them regularly. Your family members or friends from back home may or may not understand how hard grad school is, but your classmates certainly do. My friends and I would schedule weekly afternoon tea breaks – lunches or happy hours are also great ways to reconnect.

Research post-grad school career paths

With few tenure-track academic jobs available, so-called “alternative careers” are now the norm. Don’t wait until graduation to figure out which careers are right for you! An IDP can be very helpful in narrowing down the wide variety of options available. Once you have a few ideas, informational interviews will allow you to meet scientists in those positions and learn more about their experiences. Utilize LinkedIn and your university’s career services office to find alumni you’d like to meet.

Consider an internship

Activities outside the lab are a win-win – they can provide a break from your lab work and help you prepare for your future career. My science communication internship helped me get the full-time job I have now, a story I’ll tell in a future blog post. Internships are often available in university media relations and tech transfer offices. Consulting clubs offer the chance to hone your skills on real world cases. As scientists, we learn by doing – so why should career preparation be any different?

Make your mental and physical health a priority

Last, but most definitely not least: take care of yourself, mentally and physically. Proactively set aside time each week to relax and recharge. Grad school can bring out feelings of inadequacy, often called impostor syndrome. If you’re struggling with these feelings, as I did in years 3 and 4, consider attending a peer support group or individualized counseling. Self-care can make all the difference in keeping you on a good path.

If you missed our earlier posts, catch up with Grad School 101: Year 1 and Year 2. Do you have other advice for graduate students in years 3 and 4? Let us know in the comments!

Read the rest of our Grad School 101 series:

Featured Image: Panoramic view of the IMA Conservation Science Lab (RichardMcCoy), licensed under a CC BY-SA 3.0 license.


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