Tuesday, October 21, 2014

A guest post by Chad Jones: "4 things you probably already know about grad school but really shouldn't ignore."

CJ's note: Chad wrote this for the blog back when he was defending his dissertation -- he is now Dr. Jones and is working in industry. 

Soon I'll be defending my dissertation and finishing up my PhD. I also have several friends who are just beginning their graduate career. It’s been a very reflective time for me. I've thought about what advice I would give to those friends just starting grad school (I've also been wondering how helpful that advice would be - after all, I read plenty of advice articles and I'm pretty sure I ignored most of them). And so, I present my own list. This isn't a list of "4 things I wish I knew before grad school", this is "4 things you probably already know about grad school but really shouldn't ignore." Every piece of advice offered here is advice that I ignored. Some of them for my whole graduate career, others just long enough to regret it and wise up by the end. In both cases I thought I was the exception - the better grad student that didn't need that advice. I wasn't.

1. Always be writing.

My mistake: During my graduate career I had a hard time trying to learn what was important enough to write down. I didn't have a firm grasp on the literature yet, so it was hard for me to know which results were publishable and which results should be obvious to me. The result was unfortunate; I didn't write enough. I had been given advice to write your dissertation early, but didn't know what I was supposed to write.

My advice: Write it all down. Don't wait until you think you have publishable data because publications aren't the only thing you'll need to write. Your dissertation will be a compilation of everything you've learned from your research. Some of those things will already be common knowledge in your field. By writing those things down, though, you'll be preparing excellent introductory chapters.

Write something about everything you observe in the lab. Save every new NMR, mass spec, IR, or other instrumental data you get. Open a word document and describe what you see in detail. Save that document together with the raw data in a folder. Cross reference with your logbook. This may seem like extra - perhaps even unnecessary work, and perhaps it is. Most of what you write this way will be useless, but when you're reviewing older data it can be helpful to hear what your younger self thought of the results.

2. You aren't in school. You're beginning your career.

My mistake: For the first few years I saw grad school as a continuation of my undergrad education.

My advice: It’s not. Sure you might have classes with lectures to attend, tests to study for and take, homework, grades, etc. For the first few months to years (depending on your program) it will feel just like your undergrad years. Remember that it is not. This advice is probably best recieved before you start. Don’t start graduate school because it’s the “next step” and don’t assume that a prestigious postdoc, Nature publications, and an R01 are the “next step” after graduate school.

You should be the person defining what a successful career means. About 4 months ago I accepted a high paying, rewarding position at a company I’m very excited to work for in a beautiful area. And yet, I still feel like I need to apologize because I’ve left academia. I felt like a failure, like I was accepting a position that was short of my potential. I felt embarrassed to tell people where I was working because it didn’t have “University” in the name. I think those are feelings that come from assuming there was only one path to success and that path had to begin with an R01 and end with a Nobel Prize. It doesn’t. There are many paths to success because success is not so easily (and arbitrarily) defined.

3. Graduate school learning is not like other learning you’ve done.

My mistake: Luckily I figured this one out pretty early. Learning is different in graduate school because it’s a very different type of preparation.

My advice: In your undergrad you (hopefully) learned how to learn. Graduate school is about learning how to discover. Learning how to discover means learning how to assess the current state of your field of research and learning how to expand that knowledge. Many of the things you’ll need to know won’t be found in textbooks. They may not even be found in the literature. Although science journals do a very good job of documenting human knowledge I have found that many things are only learned by experience. Nobody is going to tell you what you should know and what you should be trying to learn. You can either take advantage of the freedom or let your education stagnate.

4. Network the right way.

My mistake: I thought that networking meant using others to get the job I wanted.

My advice: Many people network too late or too aggressively. You can’t network correctly if your only goal is getting a job. True networking happens when you’re not desperate. You should begin networking right away, and for the right reason. Network to meet people with similar interests and engage in meaningful discussions with those people. Real networking leads to real connections. If you start networking when you need a job people will see that and will be less interested in forming those real connections. Your network should be large enough that most people in that network aren’t involved in your job search at all; they’re just colleagues and friends. You can’t get that kind of network by treating the people you interact with as your career stepping stones.

So, that’s my advice to new graduate students. Maybe you disagree with some of it, and that’s okay. I did too.

CJ here again. Thanks to Chad for the great advice. 


  1. Great advice! I just recently graduated and all of this advice would have made the experience much more pleasant. That is, if I would have listened to it.

  2. My advice - be meticulous about recording things, even routine processes and lot numbers. If you don't, you will be assembling your papers or dissertation a couple of years from now and NOT remember them. I can't count the number of experiments I have had to repeat over the years because some stupid little detail wasn't recorded in my lab notebook or spreadsheets.

  3. The advice about networking is important, too. And don't neglect networking with those who may not be exactly in line with whatever you think your "career" trajectory is supposed to be. Those people have connections you do not know about and influence in places of which you are unaware. They may not be able to get you your next academic position, but they can write you a killer reference and help you turn your sad and pathetic resume into something worth an interviewer's time.

  4. I came to this (late) from the "Nature Chem Blogs of the Year" link. I think the missing one of your list should be
    1. Read the literature
    that may be obvious to some, but I would guarantee that my own students would all say, at the end, that they wished they had listened to that piece of advice.

    As a grad student you should really have a better grasp of the literature than your supervisor after a couple of years. Your thesis introduction should be the best review of the field available at the time. In scientific fields, where (many) undergraduate courses are not a great training for essay writing and communication skills, it is perhaps only be extensive reading that graduates learn how to construct a chain-of-arguments/paper/thesis.
    I think if you dedicated the first 60-90 minutes of every day to reading, you would be a far better scientist at the end than someone who goes straight into the lab each morning.

    1. I could add that as a grad student you need to read as much as you can. Most likely, you will never have nearly unlimited access to literature again.