Tips and Tricks for Thriving in Grad School

In 2019, the GPN launched a “Thriving in Grad School” series, where graduate students and recent grads shared tips and tricks on getting through their program. The speakers compiled the big takeaways from their talk into this blog post. When you’re reading, remember that despite overlap in strategies, each person will have a unique mix of methods for succeeding, not to mention unique conceptions of what “thriving” really means.

The speakers and authors of this blog post are Rand Eid (Galea Lab, PhD), Dr. Jolande Fooken (Spering Lab, post-doc), Dr. Parker Holman (Weinberg Lab, post-doc) and Troy McDiarmid (Rankin Lab, PhD). 


Be proactive

One of the most difficult aspects of transitioning from undergraduate study stems from the more freeform nature of graduate training. Each of your peers in the program will likely have a unique trajectory through the program, so it can sometimes be hard to gauge how you’re progressing. Rather than wait for someone to give you guidance, proactively solicit feedback from your supervisor, members of your supervisory committee, lab mates, as well as your fellow graduate students. You don’t know what you don’t know, so get out there and ask questions!

Work and learn smarter, not harder

Part of working smarter involves good recordkeeping and a meticulous lab notebook. Never trust that you’ll remember something later – you won’t. Write everything down! Strive to keep notes that anyone in the lab could interpret without much effort. There’s nothing worse than trying to write up an old project and constantly looking at your notes/data thinking, “Why did I do that?” Keeping good notes also helps you learn from your mistakes rather than repeating them. An old-fashioned composition notebook is great, however, there are also lots of higher-tech options that you may find useful, including Slack, Microsoft OneNote, or Google Docs. Not only do these options allow you to link to web resources, documents on your computer, or relevant literature, they also can be backed up in the cloud to be shared with others and/or accessed from any of your mobile devices.

Follow the Golden Rule

Working in a lab requires teamwork and mutual respect, so one of the keys to thriving in graduate school is being a good lab citizen (i.e., science unto others as you would have them science unto you). It’s simple: clean up after yourself (or better yet, leave things better than you found them), replenish supplies you’ve used, work out how to share limited resources, etc. Cultivate an environment where it’s easy to keep everyone accountable.


Keep imposter syndrome in check

It’s very common to feel out of your depth in graduate school, but that doesn’t mean you aren’t good enough or that you don’t belong. Imposter syndrome is a very real problem inside and outside of academia. Imposter syndrome destroys self-esteem and can make getting work done feel impossible. One way to fight imposter syndrome, however, is to let go of perfectionism and take criticism in stride. Perfection is an elusive goal that is rarely achievable, and unrealistic goals only foster burnout and feelings of worthlessness. Your graduate training will involve making mistakes, which doesn’t feel great, but can serve as an opportunity for growth and learning. 

Cultivate outside interests and build social support networks

Being a graduate student can feel all-consuming, making it easy to become overworked and stressed out. Pressure to make progress can make any time not spent working feel like a guilty pleasure rather than a normal and necessary break from the daily grind. In scheduling all that you need to do in lab, don’t forget to make time for activities that help you relax and recharge. Trying to complete tasks when you’re worn out is often counterproductive and inefficient. Likewise, don’t isolate yourself from important social networks like friends and family.


Share your science

Take advantage of opportunities to share your work with the public, your peers, and other scientists. Science communication (SciCom) via social media platforms, including Twitter and Instagram, is a great way to share your work with a broad audience (many of whom are taxpayers funding the work you’re doing). Look out for opportunities to present posters or give talks at UBC. Journal clubs and departmental seminars are all great opportunities for you to connect with the larger UBC neuroscience community and perhaps even stimulate exciting cross-campus collaborations. Finally, national and international conferences are fun and exciting opportunities to share research and network more broadly. Besides giving you the opportunity to learn about exciting new data or novel experimental techniques as well as to share your work with others, conferences also offer opportunities for additional training experiences, including manuscript/grant writing workshops, career panels, as well as formal networking events with potential future employers. Conference travel can often be limited by financial constraints, although this is less of a concern now with most conferences either being postponed or moved online. But for future reference, there are places to go for travel support within UBC and conferences often offer travel support, so check out their websites to see how/when to apply for funding.

Have multiple mentors

It’s important to foster and invite open communication with your supervisor, including sharing your training goals within this relationship. However, no one person can/should be your only mentor. Branch out! Connect with other people who are interested in your research, whether that be faculty, fellow students or trainees. It’s important to get more than one perspective on your work, not to mention that busy schedules often make it hard to rely on just one mentor.