Real Struggles while transitioning to graduate school (and how to overcome them)

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.
-Chris Hofmann

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.
-Lorena Infante

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.
-Andy Perreault

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.
-Sierra Palumbos

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!
-Sarah Poliquin

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.
-Christian Marks

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.
-Lisa Poole

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.
-Wyatt McDonnell

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.
-Claire Strothman

One thought on “Real Struggles while transitioning to graduate school (and how to overcome them)

  1. Pingback: Navigating the First Year | Materials & Methods

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