So you’ve picked a lab. Now what?

written by Anjali Balakrishnan

It’s the month of January. You have made the choice for your graduate career following short-lived lab rotations. The decision was made either using lengthy pro-con lists, or perhaps you heeded the advice of fellow graduate students, or you turned to the universe and did a coin toss to make the decision. Either which way, you are one of us officially. You are part of the big Biochemistry family. Welcome!

As a fellow colleague I feel it is a part of my responsibility to dole out some advice through this blog. You might shrug it off thinking that you are smarter, and you will not make the same mistakes your colleagues have made. Trust me, I have done it. Hence, I do hope you stick around. I have gone through five years of graduate studies and have had several moments where I thought, “If only there was a gong that rang just before I was about to do something which I would regret down the lane. Or even a friendly opera singer who would just blare out a warning!” Just about anything to prevent me from making the obvious error. The University of Toronto is a fascinating place to be in, both as a domestic and an international student. I would never know whether the troubles I faced as an international graduate student were similar or different than that by a domestic student, but let’s just say the academic issues faced by graduate students are to a large extent quite similar. Here are three rules which are often overlooked but will surely help you survive the first couple of years of graduate school.

Rule #1 If you feel lost, ask for help ASAP.

When I had first entered my lab, I had negligible wet lab experience. I remember feeling quite like Alice in Wonderland for the first three months. The city was new, the work culture was different, and the pace was fast. Top that with a mountain of literature to read and data to generate. It was all too much, too soon. And not to forget the course load. I made a few poor choices within the first few months, mostly because I didn’t want to be left behind. I hope you do not find yourself in the same position. In case you do, pause and ask for help. Ask the smartest person in the room. Now the smartest person may not be the nicest person or the most available person. Not everyone has the time to help you out in the manner you need it. But a lot of them will help you if you ask for it. Ask a senior graduate student. And ask them detailed questions. Ask them about courses, professors, committee member picks. Ask, ask, and ask some more! Some experiences are considered as rites of passage to the academic world. But then there are some that could easily be avoided by asking around. You do not need to relive the mistakes made by your seniors. Talk to your supervisor but don’t be disheartened if they are not around to help you with smaller issues. Talk to the Research associate. Talk to the postdoctoral fellow. Talk with the people you spend 8 hours a day. Talk to senior members of your neighbouring labs. Just go ahead and ask. Don’t try to fix your technical issues in an experiment by searching ResearchGate, when a wealth of information is sitting right next to you. The social capital you generate by these interactions will go a long way during your graduate study and make your life easier in the longer run.

Rule #2 Read daily. Write frequently.

This is more of an ideal than a real rule. It is just not doable though without perseverance. I agree. Imagine a typical day. You wake up at 7 am, get to work by 9-10 am and you have a full work day with classes. That takes you to 6 pm. Now if you live alone, the remainder of your day is spent cooking, meeting up with friends, Netflixing, and that may be about it. So, when do you read papers… or write?  I don’t know the correct answer to this. I just know, you will be better off doing these two things rather than Netflixing a show you have seen three times already. Re-watching ‘The Office’ is not going to help you in your committee meetings. Nope! Realize that your topic has been researched upon for decades before you joined the field, and researchers from around the world are working on it every day and publishing. Now, when you write your manuscript, present at your committee meetings, etc. you will be expected to be up-to-date on the key findings from these studies. This is a herculean task in itself. The postdocs around me start their day by reading, updating themselves with the current papers on PubMed. I had colleagues who would begin their day watching YouTube videos explaining principal component analysis or other laboratory techniques. Learning, in whichever form, should never be halted. In a recent public event, renowned physicist Brian Greene was asked a piece of advice for budding scientists. He stressed the importance of putting in the time to create a strong background in your topic of interest. Superficial knowledge can only take you so far. You cannot ask the right questions or discover up-to-date approaches if you don’t know the literature. Someone somewhere may have already approached the problem you are encountering. You do not need to spend three months trying something that has already been answered. Hence, start slowly but try and carve out time dedicated for reading. Trust me, it will put you ahead in the game.

Write. Extensively. I was given this advice in my first year by a 5th year student. We all consider ourselves to be fine authors secretly. But, only a few of us manage to write a manuscript which tells an interesting and coherent story. And that is what good science amounts to in the current era: The ability to present your project in a concise manner to a wide audience. There is no escape route for this particular skill, since writing research proposals, manuscripts, and eventually thesis chapters are in the grand scheme of graduate studies. If you plan on sticking with the academic route, writing grants is going to be an inevitability as well. You may be a native speaker with strong written English skills, but scientific/academic language has its fine nuances and it takes some time to internalize them. Attend workshops if you find yourself weak in this area. There are plenty of them at the Student centre. Try writing about your project in a manner that can be understood by your family and friends. But start sooner than later. It is a skill you will be glad you have.

Rule #3 Talk to your supervisor.

I am guilty of not following this rule enough. Our supervisors are prolific scientists whom we have chosen to be our academic mentor/philosopher/guide over the course of our graduate studies or longer. Yet we end up having a rather complex relationship with them. And a major issue is that students do not communicate well with their supervisors. Expectations of supervisors from students are astronomical, and with good reason. A music conductor must push his/her orchestra to the limits to achieve their true potential.  Supervisors are the same. But it is hard to be objective when you are the student, and the expectations of your supervisor may often seem unattainable. The solution, as simple as it may sound, is to talk it out. The experiment seems tough? Talk it out. You need help with a certain step? Ask your supervisor for help. You do not need to do everything alone. Science is a collaborative stream, and supervisors usually are happy to allow collaborations within limits. If you want to try a new technique, study about it, and pitch it to your supervisor. The more you communicate, the healthier the student-supervisor relationship would be. A plus point is that you will be considered as someone truly invested in their work, and someone who adds value to the lab. Graduate life can get taxing at some points, and you may even feel that this stream is not the right fit for you. Your expectations of graduate studies may be out of line with what you find yourself doing. It is best to communicate this to your supervisor, which would allow them to lead you to a more suitable path. This was just a snippet of the essential bits to surviving the initial years of grad school. All said and done, make sure to have fun along the way! Join the various student clubs around or even a soccer team. Not everyone gets to do what we do for a career. It is a long-term commitment, so take it one step at a time!  

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