Our long interview season has just wrapped up. As tiring as it is for all of us (interviewees too!), this season is always my favorite time of the year because I get to meet the wonderful prospective students that I have been in touch with throughout the cycle! Now that I’ve met the students who interviewed, I am anxiously awaiting to see who will be joining our class of 2016! Continue reading “Wrapping up the Interview season”
You’ve probably heard a million times that the most important decision you will make in your scientific career is your thesis lab choice. Some consider this choice analogous to a marriage. Unlike most marriage decisions, you don’t have years of “dating” to decide if a lab is right for you, so what should you consider when making this choice? Hear from students and thesis lab mentors on how to make this decision.
In your opinion, what is the most important consideration a student should have when joining a lab and why?
I think there are two critical important considerations and each should get equal weight. Is the research of interest to you and is your personality compatible with the people in the lab (and particularly the PI). You will spend a lot of time in the laboratory and if you feel out of place or do not like the research, you will be miserable. In contrast, if you enjoy the environment and the research the long hours will not seem like a burden.
-Dr. Jay Jerome
The most important thing in my opinion is the personality match of the mentor and the student. The student needs to be self-aware and determine what sort of mentor they need to best suit their personality and mentoring needs. This is secondary to the project in my opinion.
-Dr. Maureen Gannon
The mentorship by the PI. The PI’s interactions with you are very critical to being a successful PhD student. Does the PI set aside individual meetings with you on a regular basis? Are they available to answer questions and give feedback? etc.
The most important thing is to make sure that you like the lab’s research subject, since you’ll be working on it for the next 3-5 years. If you’re simply “meh” about a subject (but maybe you really like the PI), that lab is not for you.
A PI who supports their members is the most important. Everyone has bumpy parts of the grad career. The point is that you are learning and transitioning into being able to handle everything that doing science requires. A good PI knows how to address your unique challenges in a supportive way. Rather than blaming you for shortcomings, the PI should help you overcome them.
What are some other important considerations that should not be ignored?
How productive are the people in the laboratory.
-Dr. Jay Jerome
1. PI’s available funding for the next few years
2. how long it has taken previous students to finish in that lab
3. opportunities to attend and present at meetings
-Dr. Maureen Gannon
1. Fellow lab mates- you are with each other more time than you are at home. Make sure you get along with them!
2. Working with animals- If the lab does work with animals, is this something you can handle?
3. Funding- Does your PI have the funds to support you for the next few years?
1. The lab’s atmosphere (competitive, friendly, sterile/stoic, etc.)
2. Your relationship with your PI, including how often you’ll interact with him/her
3. The ratio of time to graduation to papers published. Animal work will take longer than cell work, which will take longer than in vitro work; you need to be ok with the experimental time frames for your chosen lab.
-Lorena InfanteThe PI should not be selfish and should encourage students to explore their interests as appropriate.
After the rotations, was it clear to you which lab/student was the best match for you?
I sit everyone in my lab down and we talk about it. It is a group decision. I want to take someone who will gel well with the other lab members. Someone who has shown general interest in all projects going on in the lab and has interacted well with the others in the lab, as well as asked questions in lab meetings, gets priority.
-Dr. Jay Jerome
I poll every member of my lab for their opinions on rotation students. I won’t take anyone, ever, that the lab cannot get along with, or who are disruptive. Then, I blend this with my own opinion of the student before making a decision.
-Dr. Maureen Gannon
I do not have a formula for picking students. The biggest thing for me is passion for the science and the ability to handle the current momentum of the lab. When I host students I make it a point not to look at their grades but to observe them in the lab and see how they do at the bench, in their ability to explain and present their findings and in their ability to interact with others. If the student fits that well, then that is my student!
-Dr. David Samuels
At the end, it was clear that 2 out of my 4 rotation labs were not for me. The remaining two were very different labs but I could see myself fitting in both of them. Since I really liked the science in both labs, it came down to a choice between the atmosphere, the PI’s mentoring style, and the experimental time frame of the experiments.
YES. I got along well with everyone, and I knew I was surrounded by smart people. That is how I knew it was a good fit.
Was your choice the one you expected at the beginning?
No, it is not always clear at the beginning.
-Dr. Jay Jerome
For driven students with good personalities, yes. Disappointments are sometimes harder to predict from the onset.
-Dr. Maureen Gannon
-Dr. David Samuels
No. I was dead-set on choosing the lab I rotated in first, but I ended up joining my 3rd rotation lab. I still believe I would have enjoyed the 1st lab and would have done well, but I am happy with the choice I made. As a note, I compromised by asking the PI of the lab I didn’t join to be on my committee (and he accepted).
It was my first rotation, so all subsequent rotations had to live up to the amazingness of my first. But I didn’t come to Vandy expecting to join this lab. A faculty member suggested that I rotate in my thesis lab. Suggestions are extremely important.
Did you get your first choice for your thesis lab? Why or why not?
Yes. I put in a full-day’s work each day, even when I had IGP classes to attend. This ensured that I had plenty of data to show my PI and that he and the rest of the lab had a good impression of me.
Yes. I made a good impression by working hard and showing thought and eagerness to learn.
When picking the best graduate school, you should absolutely pick a program that has fantastic scientific training. However, at the same time, there are so many peripheral resources that can make all of the difference in your career. While considering graduate programs, you should ask about these resources. Learn how the Office of Career Development, IMSD program, and Program in Molecular Medicine at Vanderbilt have made a difference to our students.
Continue reading “Resources can make the difference in your graduate career”
Each student faces their own unique challenges in their transition to grad school; however, one of the things that can make it worse is thinking that you are alone. Hear from our students about how the navigated this transition, what challenges they faced, and most importantly, how they overcame them.
What was your biggest challenge and what resources did you use to overcome it? What advice would you like to give to students making this transition?
Getting back in to a rigorous class schedule was daunting after being out of school for 3 years. Seeing a test for the first time in that long is scary. You get back in the swing of things very quickly.
Everything is new coming to grad school. New people, place, classes, learning style, balancing work and class, rotations, the list goes on. Take it in stride and enjoy figuring out what you like and don’t like. Know coming in that school will surprise you and stress you and there are times you want to break. Everyone feels that way. It is important to be comfortable with feeling stupid because you will constantly and that’s OK! Know that it will be difficult and it won’t be as difficult.
College was hard, so grad school wasn’t that much worse. Overall, my college career seemed like I was climbing up a mountain that got progressively steeper. Grad school was just another segment. Steeper, yes, but considering that I’d been steadily climbing for years, not insurmountable. In general, I feel lucky because I feel like I got really great training in undergrad (reading scientific papers, thinking critically, proposing alternative methods, questioning results, etc.).
Put in the work. It might be tough, but it’ll be worth it, not only when you get good grades, but when you get put on a training grant, and, most importantly, when you realize that the things that you learned in class can be applied to your rotations (and maybe ultimately to your lab choice). Don’t leave things to the last minute. Make sure to pay attention in class, and talk to the lecturers if you have any questions.
I lived in dorms all 4 years of undergrad, so learning to live as an adult (look for an apartment, pay bills, learn to cook, etc.) was the hardest part. I was a bit clueless on a lot of things. I would consider myself a very independent person, so I took it upon myself to buy cookbooks and ask friends and family for easy recipes they’d recommend. On the paying bills and apartment hunting front, my current roommate helped a lot. She’s in the IGP program but worked in industry for a few years before coming to Vandy so she had a lot of “real life” experience. I never thought to contact anyone at Vandy for help/advice because I knew there were people in my life that could direct me (and I’m a bit stubborn so I wanted to learn and figure it out on my own). If I wasn’t surrounded by people who knew what they were doing, I would have felt 100% comfortable asking anyone in the BRET office or students I’d been in contact with for help.
Give yourself time! You’ll figure it out eventually. And don’t be afraid to ask for help.
When I first arrived at Vanderbilt, I felt prepared, especially for rotations and the wet lab aspect of graduate school. I had taken time off and worked full time in a laboratory, so I was coming in with multiple publications and confidence regarding my laboratory skills. I would say I was most nervous about the coursework; it had been two years since I had taken a class or had homework or exams. The first semester was busy, but definitely manageable. There was less of an emphasis on grades than I was used to in undergrad and I found that if I reviewed lectures every week I could stay on top of the work.
Ultimately, I think the hardest challenge was deciding who to rotate with. When I first arrived at Vanderbilt, I had a very clear idea of three people I wanted to rotate with when I arrived, none of who were taking students during the first rotation. I met with eight PIs before the first rotation and started to put together what I prioritized most. I had previously been in a large laboratory with a “big name” PI, and didn’t think that wasn’t the environment that I wanted to conduct my graduate studies in. I am very basic science oriented and wanted to be working at the cellular/molecular level. I also was very set on Neuroscience and thought that I wanted to be working with mice. Basically, my ideas of the “perfect” lab were very limited. During my first rotation, I met with both Beth and Carolyn to get more ideas of potential PIs, as well as go through Carolyn’s giant binder of where everyone has ever rotated. I came out with a pretty awesome list… not all cellular/molecular neuroscientists who worked in mice, but all awesome mentors. I’ve now realized that I can get excited about most any scientific problem and I am basing my decision of which lab to join based on the mentor (and I have rotated in flies, c. elegans, mice, and humans!)
Meet with Beth and Carolyn if your unsure or worried about anything.
I moved to Nashville well before classes started to start a summer rotation and give myself time to adjust to a new setting (as well as to begin receiving that beautiful stipend, as I was quite broke upon graduation from undergrad). However, this plan seems to have backfired somewhat, as no other students were around yet, so I was alone in a new city and still very broke, as my paycheck took a while to arrive. Together, this likely is what contributed to my, ah, challenging move. Because the mental health resources at my undergraduate university were far from stellar, I was hesitant to investigate Vandy’s resources, though I knew they were available, and found a therapist and psychiatrist off campus. When both of those providers proved to be awful, I decided I might as well give Vandy’s PCC a shot, as it is free after all. I’m glad to say that they have been AMAZING and I’m feeling better. But not all credit for my improvement goes to mental health professionals–I feel that the greatest factor goes to my discovery of my love for dance and I can be found almost every evening at a dance studio. Not only does Vandy have a wonderful rec center and dance program, but the surrounding Nashville area also has all sorts of opportunities for dance, fitness (rock climbing, anyone?), and arts. Some ray of good can be found in my experiences, too. Despite struggling, I have survived my first year of grad school at a top university–with decent grades!–which has done a lot to increase my confidence in my own intelligence and fortitude.
My advice would be to revel in any moments of that mythical “free time” but make sure you do something other than lie in bed, ostensibly catching up on sleep. As cliche as it may sound, find something you’re passionate about!
I earned a Liberal Arts degree so I had a lot of catching up to do in terms of scientific background knowledge. The first year can seem overwhelming but just keep swimming. It will be ok!
Don’t sweat the small stuff. Live close to campus if you can because it makes your life a lot easier. Don’t live alone, but explore the people of the city. I personally have had a lot of luck finding fun roommates that aren’t in the program. It’s nice to get away from science when you are at home.
It was really hard for me to come to terms with being “average” meaning not getting the highest grade on tests. I think what really helped was being in the umbrella program of IGP. Obviously with this multidisciplinary program you get people that majored in fields other than you (some people came in with a microbiology background or immunology, or genetics whereas I came in with a biochemistry background). When I started becoming friends with others in the program, none of them had the same background as me and, as a result, we all had tests that we did better than everyone else while there were ones that we struggled some because it was new. So I think realizing that it was illogical to get the best grade in every single subject when we blow through entire undergraduate majors in about 2 weeks really helped me to stop stressing and enjoy grad school more. In the end, I did better in some areas and not as well in others so I came out about average, which wasn’t too bad. I think the program they have built for the IGP really helped me move past this a lot faster than if I were in a program focused on one specific field.
Take time to relax and take a breath. It’s hard but don’t let it consume your life.
Joining a large university from a small liberal arts college – you have to be ready to join a big team, and to be fully engaged in grad school instead of split over a lot of different things.
Realizing that your full attention is now based on your profession and what you love (instead of being split over several minors, reading that doesn’t relate to biology, and trying to retain new knowledge not related to your field) was something that Vanderbilt handled really well. I was the “expert” on my project in college because I’d developed it from the ground up with my PI and had handled everything; getting used to the idea that I was part of a team and was working on one cog of a much bigger research machine took adjustment. Having IMPACT and FOCUS seminars weekly really helped drive home the importance of the transition, and allowed our class to give each tips on what was working to make those adjustments easier, not to mention that being immersed in a literature reading course really makes you start to pay attention to new scientific literature in a completely different fashion (who’d have thought that you’d actually willingly sign up for weekly table of contents emails?). Having older grad students and faculty begin to mentor you immediately makes all the difference in the world, and it was clear before classes even started that Vanderbilt excels in that area.
I think it was challenging coming into graduate school with less lab experience than others who took gap years to work in other labs or industry. It was also difficult coming in as a non-science liberal arts major, and so I’ve had an enormous learning curve for many scientific subjects. I’d have to say that I really just put a lot of hard work into studying for Bioregulation I, I did independent background research on subjects with which I was less familiar, and I wasn’t afraid to ask my peers and mentors a lot of questions. I definitely feel that Focus was tremendously helpful for learning how to read papers, learning standard assays for a broad range of subjects, and learning how to analyze presented data.
Do your best, and keep working hard.
We provide two different resources for incoming students to find housing. The first is our “off campus referral service”, which includes a roommate search tool and the second is a Google map with where current students live. We hope that students find this helpful but our students use many resources! Read below to find what was most helpful.
What resources did you use to find your grad school housing?
The potential roommate listing. Craigslist. Nashville guides for neighborhood descriptions.
I used websites, such as Apartments.com and Zillow to find apartments/houses that were in the desired area and price range.
I moved into a sublet for 2 months (that I found on Craigslist) so that I could figure out the city and decide on where I wanted to live. This was a great decision!
I flew out to Nashville in early June to look for housing. We used Zillow, HotPads and Craigslist.
I purchased a condo… a real estate agent
I met two girls on my interview weekend that I ended up rooming with. We came here for a weekend and found a place.
I visited in May before starting the program and drove around nearby neighborhoods for most of the weekend. It was surprising how many apartments were just advertised through a sign in the front yard.
-Teddy van Opstal