Surviving Your First Year
of Graduate School
elcome to graduate school! That sentence alone
can seem a little daunting, so let it soak in for a
minute. You have decided to continue down the
path of scientific research — a road that could
be difficult to navigate if you are not entirely
sure of what to expect. Take it from me: I have just gone through it
myself and know first-hand that the first year can be intimidating,
but it is by no means impossible. After all, there’s a reason you got
into graduate school in the first place, right?
A new academic family
Undergrad life has become the norm for you — but your world is
about to change. This can be a very sobering fact — even if you’re
eagerly counting down the days to graduation. So how do you
adjust to being surrounded by a new group of students, faculty,
and staff who see you as an educated professional?
Well, for starters, it helps to put yourself out there… and get
to know your new colleagues a little! Every department has its
own personality, so the sooner you acquaint yourself with the
dynamic and find your niche, the sooner you will start to feel
Do not write off departmental social events as a waste of time.
First of all, these events typically have free food, so they can be
great ways to satisfy the graduate student craving for a free meal!
Second, these are excellent opportunities to meet students and
introduce yourself to the faculty in a relaxed and informal setting.
This might be intimidating at first, but what’s scarier: talking to
a professor when they’re in the middle of a PowerPoint presentation, or chatting with them over a hamburger? Keep an eye out for
social events, happy hours, and community service opportunities
that might help you start to feel at home.
Clearing your academic hurdles
Graduate programs all have their own unique requirements, but
there are some standard hurdles that you will need to jump over
no matter where you decide to go.
Comprehensive exams — These typically come in three
flavors. They may be grouped together at the beginning of your
first year, at the end, or after you take your candidacy exam. These
exams will help to solidify your place as either a doctoral student
or a professional with a Master’s degree. The thought of taking
comprehensive exams might seem intimidating, but really they
are designed to help you be successful. The consequence of being
required to take classes if you do not perform well on the exams
is meant to bolster your knowledge base. Maybe you decided to
switch fields like I did; if so, taking classes will be a way to make up
for the ones you did not take as an undergrad. If you have to retake
a class you passed years ago, keep your chin up! You took a lot of
courses over the past four years, so it is not ridiculous to think you
might need a refresher. Buckle down and take these preliminary
exams seriously. See this as an opportunity to better understand
Classes — For most of us, undergrad was a time when we strove
for the top score, because our GPA was the definition of our suc-
cess. In graduate school, it’s different; doing well in classes is
important, but not if it comes at the expense of your research. Take
your classes seriously enough to do well and fully absorb the mate-
rial, but do not obsess over getting that “gold star.”
There are other requirements, such as research proposals and
seminars, that will crop up along the way, but typically you are
spared such stresses during your first year, so do not dwell on
them. Know which hurdles await you down the road, but keep
your eye on the ones immediately in front of you. Otherwise,
you will find yourself tripping early on.
So many labs, so little time!
You are about to join a department with numerous
faculty to choose from, so how do you make the
right choice of thesis lab? Here’s some advice to
help you make an informed decision.
Lab rotations — The benefit of this kind
of program is fairly obvious: you get to
The author drew this caricature of the
James Stivers lab group at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, which
is now her thesis lab. This image also
appears on the Stivers lab’s website.
inChemistry • www.acs.org/undergrad