Taking your first steps into graduate school can be just as intimidating as when you started your undergraduate career; however, you will find that many more opportunities are available.
In undergraduate, your scope is limited – you were one of many laboring through an often rigid degree plan. In graduate school, all of that changes. There will still be core classes and consistent classmates, but now there is a full-time research element added to your workload.
Your research is what offers the freedom and creativity that didn’t always go hand in hand with your undergraduate experience. You will suddenly find yourself in charge of your own agenda – research doesn’t have hard deadlines and grades.
You don’t cram for research the night before it is due. You can’t fake it atil you make it with research. You have to be thoughtful and deliberate.
You must add a certain structure and organization to your life that wasn’t as important during undergrad.
Here are some suggestions for how to navigate your first year to become a successful member of the Health Science Center team.
Don’t let clerical items bog down your graduate school experience. Plan ahead to get clerical items completed to prevent registration issues. There is no need to create stress if planning can prevent it. Take a look at the pre-registration handbook to see what needs to be completed. Please be aware that some of the items cannot be completed in a day so make sure to plan accordingly (i.e. immunizations)
Think About Your Research Topic
Take finding your research topic very seriously – this is like interviewing candidates for a job, except you are interviewing projects to see what you’d like to work on for your graduate career. This is similar to finding your dream job – be informed and ask questions to ensure you get what you really want. You are going to work tirelessly to know as much as you can about this topic, so make sure it is something you can be passionate about.
Create A Timeline
Once you have a research project, create a timeline for it – set big milestones you’d like to reach each semester. Before each semester, plan out smaller tasks that you have to complete to reach those milestones. There’s no way to plan every detail, but if you have a plan, that means you know what you are trying to accomplish. It is a lot easier to work toward a goal you understand than one that hasn’t been completely formalized.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Measuring twice and cutting once is a lot better than wasting materials, time, and energy. Be sure to keep notes of your discussions and lab work to ensure that you can refer back to it later when the same questions arise or when compiling journal articles. It always much easier to refer to something concrete than to attempt to access it from the depths of your brain.
Work Outside Your Comfort Zone
The best advice I have ever received was “make sure you are continually uncomfortable in the work you do.” If you constantly do work inside your comfort zone that means you are not learning. If you are not learning, you are not growing as a student, researcher, or professional.
Go to conferences! The work you do here is cool – make sure to showcase it. By going to conferences, you get the opportunity to talk and collaborate with other researchers in the field, which will make your research better through constructive criticism.
Get involved in campus activities. There are many ways to meet other students – from intramural sports to the Graduate Student Association to Graduate School events. The relationships and networks you build here will follow you the rest of your life, so make it count!
Enjoy Grad School
Most of all make sure you enjoy your graduate school experience – you earned the right to be here. Get out, enjoy the city, and create an experience that you will look back on fondly.
Kristen Cline is a graduate student in the Radiological Sciences Ph.D. program. The “Beyond The Bench” series features articles written by students and postdoctoral fellows at the Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences at The University of Texas Health Science Center San Antonio.