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Grad School 101: Navigating the final year of graduate school

The early days of grad school are a thing of the past. You’ve successfully completed important milestones such as the qualifying exam and thesis proposal. You’ve also struggled through your share of failed experiments and wildly celebrated fruitful ones! You’re a seasoned graduate student at this point, and you’re eager and ready to enter the next stage of your career beyond the grad school training period.

The last year of grad school can be chaotic with a variety of deadlines and the stress of finishing up experiments. Here are some key tips I used to keep on track with graduation requirements as well as applying for jobs.

Determine YOUR desired (and realistic) graduation date.

For the majority of your grad school experience, you control your progress, and this same mentality needs to be applied to deciding on a graduation date. Sit down and assess how many of your thesis aims you have completed and decide a realistic timeline on when to accomplish the remaining experiments. Include time for experimental problems that may arise.

Waiting for your adviser or committee members to decide on a graduation date is not recommended, because they do not know your professional and personal life plans. The graduation date itself is dependent upon your career goals. For example, if you are not interested in staying in academia, then typically you will not need many publications. However, if you are interested in an academic post-doc, publication quantity and quality are important factors in obtaining a competitive post-doc position.

This past spring my graduate coordinator had sent out several notifications for upcoming thesis defenses. Being a fourth year grad student, I had wondered when it would be my turn. I was too focused on experiments that I hadn’t given graduation much thought. After sitting down and reviewing my progress, I realized that I had completed most of the aims agreed upon by my thesis committee, except for one! I knew that with a lot of hard work I could complete that remaining experiment in a year while working towards defending.

Talk to your graduate program coordinator.

I’d met with my graduate coordinator after I had a graduation date in mind, because I wanted to confirm that I had actually completed all of my classes. Talking to her a year in advance of my intended graduation date gave me time in case I needed to take a class, which it turned out that I did. I was missing one elective. In addition, she informed me of administrative steps of applying for graduation a semester prior in order to confer our degrees on time. Check out your school’s administrative requirements for graduation, so you can be prepared.

Meet with your research adviser to discuss your thesis aims.

Thoroughly review your thesis aims, accomplishments (major findings, publications), and discuss remaining experiments with your research adviser. Ambiguity regarding remaining experiments can delay your graduation – make sure the goals are clear to both you and your adviser! Talk with them about your desired graduation date and see if they agree.

This conversation can be difficult and intimidating depending on your adviser-student relationship. If your adviser does not agree with your timeline and thinks you need to do more experiments, then evaluate whether these experiments are truly necessary for your thesis. You may want to modify their proposed experiments to be more feasible. After the meeting(s), type up a summary of what was said and agreed upon, and send it to them.

My grad school experience is unusual compared with most other students, because my adviser, a senior faculty member who I had completed two of three aims under, passed away a year ago. I was assigned a new adviser, who is a junior faculty member in the department. She and I did not agree on the remaining experiment for my last aim, and she wanted me to do additional experiments that were not related to my thesis. This was a very frustrating experience. I met with her a few times to discuss why her proposed experiments were not necessary, and I also sought advice from senior graduate students. This conflict was ultimately resolved by my thesis committee members.

Arrange a thesis committee meeting to discuss your aims.

One of the purposes of a thesis committee is to provide balance to the research adviser by having different perspectives and opinions from other professors. Set a productive agenda for the committee meeting. If your adviser disagrees with your desired graduation date, you can get outside input by talking with your thesis committee members one on one, which is what I did. Ask for their opinion and what they think is doable. Fortunately, my committee members knew and had collaborated with my former adviser. They understood the difficult situation and agreed to advocate for me and my plan during the joint committee meeting.

Mark important deadlines in your calendar.

After meeting with your graduate program coordinator, adviser, and committee members, mark important deadlines and dates that were discussed. In addition, make a rough timeline estimating when your experiments will begin and end and include time for particular stages of your research in order to stay on track.

Network, network, and network some more!

Attend conferences and career seminars for networking purposes and to learn about the variety of non-academic career options for a PhD. Though this is vital for the last year of grad school, it should be done throughout your graduate career. If you are interested in academic positions, start to identify labs of interest. Network with academic or industry professionals and even grad students at your school to expand your connections. My classmates also gave me helpful advice on upcoming career fairs and networking events.

Update your LinkedIn profile regularly and keep in touch with your contacts. Work on drafting a successful resume if you are interested in industry positions. Check out graduate career services available at your school to fine-tune your CV/resume. Also start to regularly check job postings to get an idea of what employers require, so that you’re prepared for when you apply for jobs ~6-8 months before graduation.

Establish realistic thesis writing goals.  

In order to meet your desired graduation date, it is very important to make realistic thesis and manuscript writing goals. Writing and editing take a long time, so it is better to start early and write a little every day. Make an outline of the thesis components and work on filling in your outline as much as you can each day. Remember that you have already completed the hard part of obtaining approval for graduation.

I borrowed a dissertation from my former adviser’s past graduate student as an example of what I would need to write and include in my thesis. For me the writing process is difficult to begin. I can easily procrastinate and re-prioritize other things over it. To avoid that problem, I dedicated two hours in the morning to writing in order to get it out of the way.

Prepare for your thesis defense.

After you’ve written most of your thesis, prepare a PowerPoint presentation for your thesis presentation on defense day. You will present your research to committee members, faculty, students, and even friends or family members. Since it will be a broad audience, make sure you explain technical terms and use animations to describe scientific concepts and methods. Practice your presentation 3-4 weeks before the defense date with lab members and other graduate students to get feedback.

Now you’re done! Take time to celebrate your years of hard work, and begin your next adventure.

Read the first three installments of our Grad School 101 series:

Featured Image: Graduation by Courtney Gibbons via Flickr


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