OYM97: Gradvice

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This week (or month) on the On Your Mind Podcast:

Sorry for the wait! Here is a real, honest to God, episode. It’s got updates on Liam’s Thesis and Kat’s paper, some fun science news and lots of advice for graduate students, henceforth known as gradvice.

This page will be updated soon with links and more details, but for now here is everything Liam wanted to talk about:

Choosing a supervisor

  • Personality and mentorship style can be as important as research interest
  • even if you’re someone who likes a lot of supervisor contact you’ll want some independence
  • Don’t be afraid to ask your potential supervisor very direct questions like
    • “what are your expectations of time spent in the lab”
    • how long does your average student take to finish
    • is there a particular project you have in mind
    • how would you describe your mentorship style
    • how would you describe the work culture of the lab
  • PubMed a few students and see how much they publish

Maintaining Sanity

  • Your PHD will probably take 6 years. You can aim for less, but don’t assume you’ll hit it.
  • you will pretty much always be thinking about work ( I like hobbies that make me think about something else)
  • Things won’t always work, in fact they’ll almost always not work. Plan for failure.
  • Find people who get you inspired when you talk about science with them.
  • In a lot of labs, the time is unstructured, you can come and go as you please. This actually means you work late or on weekends a lot. If you’re working weekends, then any night is as good as a wakened night, go have some fun.
  • you won’t be that productive for your first 2-3 years
  • DONT BE AFRAID TO CO TO COUNCILING, there is a very high rate of depression in grad students, and more than 25% of science PhD students don’t finish the PhD. probably not because they aren’t smart enough.

Being successful/productive

  • become the go to person for a technique
  • being organized leads to clear plans leads to being proactive leads to getting things done
  • have side projects
  • Actually plan for failure, if an experiment doesn’t work is there some information you can still get from it?
  • have regular conversations with your supervisor, talk about your data, your plans, if the project is progressing to their satisfaction, if they feel you are on track for upcoming milestones, if there is something you are doing that they would like to see improve
  • talk to people who do really different work than you, especially ones who use interesting techniques
  • You will find there are parts of the job you love and parts you hate. Figure out how to work a lot on the things you like, and avoid the things you hate. That said DO NOT put off the things you hate. If you have to do them, do them quickly. Then try to design future projects that don’t have as much of that part, or better yet find a friend/collaborator who likes those parts. Different strokes for different folks
  • Ask for help. There are lots of smart people around you.
  • Familiarize yourself with resources available at your institution.

Preparing for the afterlife

  • If you want an academic job: they key is really Postdoc papers. You need a decent PhD (and a good network) to get you a good post-doc, you need an excellent post-doc to get a faculty position.
  • Have a real fallback. -probably not a coffee shop
  • Think of the things you like to do (in research or in life) what do they have in common? What are other things that share those traits? What skills do they require, what jobs would employ those skills? What other skills do those jobs need?
  • Get training. Especially in soft skills.
  • Look for ways to apply or demonstrate different skills in your research.
  • Talk to people who have a job you’re interested in. it might not be what you think. Ask what makes someone a good candidate for the job.


  • PhD Science is creative work. It has more in common with writing a book than it does factory work. Remember this, find a muse, and get inspired.
  • Think about why you’re getting the PhD and if you would get as much out of a Masters
  • if you don’t understand something, it’s not because of you, it’s because of the person explaining
  • For any protocol or process understand why you do each step, and why you do it the way that you do it.


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