May 17, 2018

Thinking about graduate school: Advice from my experiences

In May 2018, I spoke on a panel at Stanford’s Asian American Activities Center (A3C) about making the decision to go to graduate school. This post is a living document based on the original handout tailored to Stanford undergraduates, which can be found here.

This post has 3 parts:

  1. Planning for graduate school and deciding what is the right program for you
  2. Things you need to succeed in AND enjoy graduate school
  3. Resources Available for Graduate School Planning, Research, and Decisions

Last updated: Dec 2018


Part 1: Planning for graduate school and deciding what is the right program for you

Figure out if you actually want to go to graduate school.

My biggest/most important piece of advice is that you should not go to graduate school because it seems like the “next” thing that you should do. This should be an intentional choice!!

Figure out whether programs actually align with your interests:

Informational interviews: talk to people who are current and graduated masters/PhD students.

Experiences: take classes, work in a research environment in the field that you might want to pursue. I personally think it is especially important to figure out if you enjoy/are okay with working on research day-in, day-out. While conducting research as an extracurricular under a mentor is important for gaining exposure and experience, conducting research full-time as the primary scientist is very different.

Determine if attending graduate school aligns with your career goals

Biosciences career paths:

  • The “traditional” or “historical” route that PhD graduate take is to academia – conducting research at a research university or institute while also training/teaching students.
  • Many more students are graduating to pursue careers in biotech – these can range from startups, to working as part of a team, to leading a research team at a company.
  • Recently, universities are beginning to better support “alternative” career paths, such as science writing, science policy, science illustration, banking/finance, consulting, law, academic administration, etc. You can explore more options from the BioSci Careers Center website. 

How might a MS/PhD benefit my career?

  • Directly relevant to career path afterward: some people continue to study the same topics or work with the same technologies that they did during their PhD/MS. Oftentimes, these is most applicable to those who pursue a job in academia or biotech (join or lead a team at a company, beginning a start-up from their PhD project).
  • Experimental design, problem solving, and technical skills are highly valued and widely translatable. 
  • Getting an MS/PhD can boost your salary offer and/or a result in a signing bonus.
  • Many graduate schools and mentors will help you find opportunities and offer resources to explore careers (internships, panels, etc.).
  • Sometimes, people use a MS or PhD to “pivot” fields. I know many people who studied physics, chemistry, and CS who wanted to apply their technical skills to questions in the biomedical field.


Understand the requirements for the program

MS programs: Course-focused. Do not require research experience beforehand and can often provide research opportunities for students.

PhD programs: Research-focused. Almost all PhD programs want you to have research experience beforehand. Try to work in a lab during your undergraduate years and/or find internships/jobs at universities, institutes, or companies that conduct research.


Evaluate your priorities and decide which programs to apply to.

Below are the factors that I think are important in graduate schools:

(1) Location:

  • Where do you want to live in your twenties?
  • Do you want to live close to your family?
  • Do you want to expand your network geographically or explore your local one more?

(2) Funding/Finances: 

  • How much funding are you guaranteed if any?
  • What is the cost of living in the area?
  • What is the general funding situation of labs at this university?

(3) Research:

  • Are there multiple professors who work on types of research that you are interested in?

Part 2: Things you need to succeed in AND enjoy graduate school

Mentorship

Find people who care about your growth who are at different points in their careers (older students, postdocs, staff, young faculty, more established faculty)

Students – especially students that are immediately senior to your situation and recently undergone the same experiences – will provide the most relevant and empathetic advice in terms of how to navigate your career path. This category also applies to recent alum who can give career advice, provide networking opportunities, and  

Postdocs and staff provide a good intermediate between having some perspective further along in the career path while also still being able to empathize with the day-to-day struggles, wins, and losses of working in the field. They often have more time to mentor than a faculty member.

Faculty relationships are important for a number of reasons. Faculty will likely have trained and taught a number of students over the course of their career and will have perspective when giving you advice about which programs to apply to, which faculty to work with. Furthermore, because they are the most “senior,” their letters of recommendation will carry the most weight, especially with colleagues at other universities.

Community/support network:

Find people who care about your happiness (long-term!)

School can get hard, and research especially can be difficult. There is a high incidence of anxiety (41%) and depression (39%) in PhD candidates, which tied to culture and uncertainty working in academia. Finding people who will have your back, look out for you, and force you to remember that there is more to life than school.

Passion:

Find things you care about – both in and out of lab

In Lab: A PhD is too long and a Master’s is too expensive for you to spend it studying something that you don’t like. Pursuing something that you enjoy in graduate in important because some faith in the intrinsic interest/fun of your studies can really help when the going gets tough.

Outside of Lab: Hobbies are important to maintaining mental/emotional health – they can help clear the head, rejuvenate the body, and serve as an additional source of community/friendships.

Resilience (Grit):

Be able to push through and bounce back from adversity

Bad things in life are bound to happen, and we will only accumulate stressors and responsibilities. Furthermore, the nature of a research-based PhD program is that your goal is to discover or develop something new using novel technologies. The only certainty in these projects is that things will fail – sometimes they will fail for a long time; sometimes there will be big failures; and sometimes there will be multiple blips that chip away at your motivation. Learning how to care for yourself is imperative to being able to avoid burnout and to finish your degree. 

Part 3: Resources Available for Graduate School Planning, Research, and Decisions

Deciding on whether to go to graduate school:

Planning for graduate school:

Career paths after graduate school:

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