Graduate School is Tough. But You Can Do It! Here’s How

Megan Perkins is a sixth-year student in the Neuroscience Ph.D. program at the University of Vermont. She plans to graduate in the fall 2021 and, below, offers advice to incoming graduate students, just starting their journeys.

Megan Perkins looks at the window of her lab in UVM Larner Med’s Health Science Research Facility.

Graduate school is tough!

As I look forward to my defense, I’d love to pass on some lessons I’ve learned along the way.

Rotations: Discuss expectations early

Many incoming graduate students have not yet decided on a topic of study. Thus, graduate schools, including the University of Vermont, often encourage laboratory rotations — opportunities to “try out” working with different labs and advisors before committing to one.

The beginning of a rotation is a great time to establish expectations and setting expectations early will save both you and your mentor stress so that you’ll be able to work confidently together.

Expectations to address with your mentor should include:

1. Their expectations of you as a graduate student – i.e. experiments they will want you to perform, working hours, type and amount of participation in meetings, and lab maintenance;
2. Your experience in the lab – i.e. If you’ll need help learning a specific technique;
3. Time commitments and preferred workflow for both you and your mentor.
4. Don’t forget to ask if the lab is currently accepting new students.

Choosing a mentor(s)

Many grad students are tempted to choose a lab based on focal research topic, at the expense of a mentor and environment that meets their needs. I cannot overstate how much your mentor and lab environment will affect your daily life and future career. They can be the difference between a good and bad day and they are the primary contributors to your development as an early scientist.  

It’s wise to choose mentors who will be able to provide expertise related to your techniques and research, but to also consider who those mentors are as people.

It’s also incredibly helpful to chat with a prospective mentor’s current and former grad students, as well as other, more seasoned grad students in your program to assess perceptions of labs and mentors. 

Additionally, I suggest reading your mentor’s papers to familiarize yourself with their writing, experiments, and future directions they’re interested in, and assess their current level of research activity. 

These topics are also helpful to reflect on when the time comes to choose members for your dissertation committee. 

Choosing a lab

Laboratory and work environment are important to your success as a student, and for me, this was a key factor in my decision-making process. My mentor employs multiple specialists and other grad students. Having other people around, particularly grad students, has been invaluable to me; it’s amazing to have lab mates to vent to on bad days, celebrate with on good days, and casually chat with about research. 

Because I joined my current lab from a very different background, I was thrilled to have experts in the lab to teach me new techniques and explain tough concepts. Their help allowed me to progress confidently and quickly. This was also nice when questions arose. I had a team to rely on, rather than needing to ask my mentor 20 questions a day (okay, maybe not every day, but those days did happen!).

Although I have found that a larger lab suits my work still and preferences better than a small one, it’s important to remember that graduate school is certainly not one size fits all; lab preferences, values and experiences differ vastly across students. However, I hope my anecdotes encourage you to consider what you want in a laboratory environment, and show the impact environment can have. 

Ask about funding

A terrible taboo exists in academia and in western culture that asserts it’s rude and inappropriate to talk frankly about finances. However, funding will directly affect your experience.

Topics to discuss include:
1. Current sources of lab funding; and
2. Is a professor’s assistantship necessary to provide financial support?

It’s a red flag if an advisor is unwilling to discuss or makes you feel uncomfortable when discussing your financial support.

You can change rotations and transfer out of labs

Although there may be university requirements you need to adhere to, this is your experience! You will get out what you put in. If a rotation isn’t working for you, move on! It’s okay to try more than three rotations if you haven’t found the right fit yet. 

In the unfortunate circumstance that you need to transfer out of a lab part way through grad school, try to recognize this and make the switch as early as possible. 

Avoiding mishaps and unnecessary stress

Much of your time will be spent in lab. Hopefully, these tips will help you avoid common issues and unnecessary anxiety. 

1. Organization & time management are key! The cliché construction adage “Measure twice, cut once” also applies to experiments! Your time and materials should always be planned. Preparation will save you stress, equip you to deal with unexpected issues (they will occur!), and contribute to your work/life balance. 

2. Label everything: Label and take detailed notes, even when you think they’re unnecessary – your future self will thank you. I recommend using two notebooks – one for jotting down lab notes and one for more detailed, organized protocols, plans and measures of progress. With saving data files, establish your storage and organization system early on in a project. 

3. Assume the worst when it comes to technology. Save important files in multiple places!

4. Keep lines of communication open between you and your mentor, committee members and colleagues.

5. Set your deadlines in advance of actual due dates, especially if you’re working on a verbal presentation. 

6. Strive for as much independence as possible. Independence allows you to fully understand your techniques, plan experiments, make your schedule, provides confidence, and shows others you’re serious about your progress. 

7. Ask for help if you need it. Speak to your mentor and colleagues when additional lab help is needed. UVM Counseling and Psychiatric Services is a great resource for mental health related concerns. 

Please feel free to reach out ( if you’d like to chat more about graduate school.

I’d also like to acknowledge and thank the following people who provided additional valuable insight and advice: Montana Lara, Dr. Dimitry Krementsov, Dr. Alicia Ebert, Dr. Bryan Ballif, and Dr. Margaret Vizzard. 

What are your thoughts about this topic?