5 Helpful Graduate School Survival Tips You Need to Follow


Hope Welhaven

PhD student in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Montana State University

Hope is a recent graduate from Carroll College with degrees in Health Sciences and Public Health with a minor in Biology. Hope’s research primarily centres around the musculoskeletal system during times of health and disease. The most exciting and monumental project Hope has yet to work on was getting the chance to conduct research for NASA! Specifically, Hope focused on improving the health of astronauts musculoskeletal system before, during, and after spaceflight. Beyond NASA, Hope’s first published paper revolved around the effect of the microbiome on the musculoskeletal system, specifically, the role it plays following traumatic joint injury. 

If you have any questions about orthopedic research, metabolomics, or about graduate school including applications, interviews, and what it is like to be a graduate student during a pandemic feel free to email hope at hwelhaven@gmail.com  and she will be happy to talk to you! Her handle is @thehopefulscientist 

Have you ever seen the 2000s kids’ TV show ‘Ned’s Declassified School Survival Guide’? If not, I highly recommend it. But, unfortunately, there isn’t a TV show, a guide, or a rule book on how to survive graduate school.

Beyond this, there is little discussion about graduate school, what it is like, expectations and observations, and ultimately, we are forced to dive headfirst into this exciting journey to obtaining our PhDs. 

With that being said, I have come up with five graduate school survival tips that might help you!

Tip #1: Don’t be afraid to ask questions.

Survival tip #1 is by far one of the most important tips that truly helped me realize I am only a first-year graduate student entering graduate school straight from undergraduate. It is normal that I don’t know anything! I asked hundreds of questions each week whether I asked my PI, other graduate students, professors I was taking classes from, even the undergraduates in my lab. These questions ranged from, where do we keep our stock solutions? How do you carry out this protocol in the most efficient way? Where is the bathroom? Where is ____ building on campus? 

Beyond small questions, I realized I don’t have the answer to everything, and nobody expected me to. It was great when I knew the answer, of course, but all those around me including my PI, fellow graduate students, and post-docs, they get it. They were all first-year graduate students running around like crazy at one point in their life! 

As someone who struggles with being wrong, vulnerable, and not good at things at first, this was challenging for me. At first, I felt that if I didn’t know exactly what I was doing I didn’t deserve to be in graduate school getting my PhD. I quickly figured out and realized, “I do deserve to be here. I deserve to be in this program. I deserve to be at this institution.” Although this took me a few weeks to figure out, my life got a little easier once I was willing and able to ask questions, big or small.

Tip #2: Don’t put too much weight on classwork.

In most PhD programs, graduate students take few classes while focusing primarily on their research. Specific to my program, we are to enroll in two courses per semester for 4-5 semesters. Once the required coursework is completed, graduate students then move to focusing all their time on their research.

Of course, it is important to take classes seriously and excel, but coursework is meant to complement your research. In undergraduate schooling, we are trained to take notes frantically during class, memorize and learn everything you can, followed by a  test. Quickly after exams, we move to the next set of material. While this is the case in undergraduate studies, and academia prior to graduate school, thankfully, graduate school is different.

While PhD students take 2-3 classes per semester, totaling to 6-9 credits, the rest of students’ time is meant to me engulfing themselves in their research. The point of this process is research! For example, this semester I took Microbial Physiology and Mechanotransduction. These classes were lecture and discussion based. Neither class was rooted in exams, and yet I learned the most I have ever learned in any class I have ever taken. Due to it being a discussion and lecture-based course, I received A’s which were reflective of class engagement, understanding material through vocalizing that to the class, and presentations. 

To demonstrate this further, my research is rooted in Mass Spectrometry which is used to generate metabolic signatures of various tissues. Therefore, I have Mass Spectrometry and NMR classes in my upcoming semesters. The purpose of taking these classes is to best understand these techniques to then apply to my personal research.

Growing up, getting good grades was engrained in me so being in graduate school where grades aren’t the main priority has been a change, but a great change!

Tip #3: Don’t be afraid to try something new.

This may seem like a no-brainer, but as scientists, oftentimes we get comfortable in the field of research that we know the most about and are good at and we choose to stay in that small bubble. I am guilty of this. My undergraduate research was rooted in metabolomics. I specifically generate metabolomic profiles of cartilage to best understand the metabolism occurring at the tissue level during disease and health. In graduate school, I joined a lab that does almost exactly that! This was a blessing to join a lab that carries out research I know, I love and am passionate about, but this was a limitation at first. 

I saw myself in this small niche of science and I was happy and comfortable with that, until one day that changed. Mid-September my boss approached me asking if I had worked much with microscopes, knew anything about histology, and if I were willing to do some histology work. I simply nodded, stated that my background doesn’t exceed beyond microbiology, but I said I’d be willing to give it a whirl!

Now 4 months later, I have been trained on various microscopes, cameras, and their associated software to analyze almost any tissue or histologically stained sample. If someone would have told me I’d be doing histology on top of what I do, I would’ve said no way! Never in a million years would I have expected to spend hours at a microscope, but now that I have, I am able to apply histology to my benchwork and data analysis. This has provided me with a better idea of what is happening in various tissues that are part of the musculoskeletal system through multiple techniques. 

At first, I was defeated and had no idea what I was doing. To reference back to tip #1, I just continued to ask questions, be vulnerable, and not be embarrassed by not knowing every histology and microscope answer.  

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Tip #4: Don’t compare yourself to other PhD students.

Coming from a Type A person who is competitive by nature, don’t compare yourself to other PhD students. This includes PhD students that are in your lab, your same year, or PhD students that are second, third-, or fourth-year students. 

It is crucial to understand that everyone has different timelines, different projects, various moving parts, and different goals and futures. It is easy to slip into this mindset, but remember you bring so much to the table all on your own.  Your ideas are brilliant, you are an asset to the team, and your research deserves to be heard just like everyone else’s.

This was something I especially struggled with recently even though I knew better than to compare myself to others. As a first-year graduate student, I am working very closely with second- and third-year graduate students who have publications, many experiments, and are fairly independent. While I enjoyed building peer-relationships, I struggled because I wanted to be doing what they were doing. I was quick to judge myself and was quick to forget that I am just a first-year graduate student! They were once first-year graduate students, and yet they are excelling beyond all measures. It is easy to wish you were doing what others are doing, but I shifted my mindset to “If they are doing these amazing things and they are only second- and third-year students, I can do that too!” It is all about a change in perspective.

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Tip #5: Give yourself grace.

In the last 12 months, I have graduated college with 2 majors and 1 minor, moved to a new city, started graduate school, passed with flying colors, and am in the process of writing a few papers for publication during a pandemic! As I reflect on what I have done and what other hundreds of PhD students do day to day, for 4-5 years, to obtain the title “Dr”, it is truly remarkable. It is worthy of praise, admiration, and respect. While we focus on the end goal of obtaining this title, we are quick to judge ourselves, work ourselves to the bone, and fail to give ourselves grace. 

It is okay to make mistakes, spill methanol (been there done that), do multiple rounds of revisions on a silly manuscript, and have experiments that simply don’t work out. Yes, what we are doing and working towards requires sweat, stress, and tears, but we can’t reach that point if we are working out of an empty cup. It is important to refocus, do things you enjoy beyond science, and remind yourself that you are a human being. With that being said, reflect and remind yourself of all you have accomplished, are continuing to accomplish. Just know that you deserve everything that you have received to this point and  everything you set your mind to. 


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