Graduating Students’ Advice for Future Students

Today, we have a special post from Dr. Abby Brown, the Director of Outcomes Research here at Vandy. In addition to performing outcomes research on our students (some of which is summarized here), Abby performs exit surveys for all of our graduating students. Over the years, she has collected advice from these students for incoming graduate students. Read their anonymous advice carefully, print it out to keep with you, and definitely come back to review it as you continue to work through your graduate career! These students know exactly what you need to be successful through graduate school and beyond!
Continue reading “Graduating Students’ Advice for Future Students”

Expectations vs reality: the first year

Before starting graduate school, you probably have an idea of what you will be studying or what the program will be like. In this post, learn about how the first year of Vanderbilt’s biomedical graduate program was different from and similar to students’ expectations.

 

Did you have an idea of which general department or program you would want to join before you arrived at Vanderbilt? Why or why not?

Yes, I was pretty sure that I would join neuroscience. In fact, Vanderbilt was the only umbrella program I applied to. Every other program I applied to was direct-admit to a neuroscience department/program. I was a neuroscience major in undergrad and wanted to continue in the field.
-Jacob Ruden

Yes, I was pretty sure I wanted to do human genetics as it aligned with my interests and I liked everyone I’d ever met who was associated with that program.
-Laura Colbran

Yes, I thought I might join Microbiology and Immunology because Immunology was my experience before and it was this research that most interested me. I considered going to other graduate schools where I had applied directly to Immunology programs but I chose Vanderbilt out of fear that I did not want to be stuck in Immunology and had options to do something else. However, after rotations at Vanderbilt I felt most strongly about immunology. I think at the end of the day your interests are what you are already familiar with.
-Shawna McLetchie

I knew I wanted to join a lab that related to Cancer biology, due to personal interests and being limited to what I have previously been exposed to before joining Vanderbilt.
-Salma Omer

Before I came to Vanderbilt I knew I wanted to join Pharmacology. I honestly joined a larger class to have more opportunities for friends. No one wants an 8-person department where they don’t like 6 people. I wanted to join Pharmacology because I was interested in a department where the core drive was translational research, where training was applicable to any discipline, and to prepare me for a career in industry. I also just really enjoy a pharmacological approach to hypothesis testing.
-Chris Hofmann

Did you end up joining this department or program? Why or why not?

I did join neuroscience, because this program is the best fit both for my project and the lab I ended up joining.
-Jacob Ruden

No, however I did join an immunology lab. I am going through the Cancer department instead of Microbiology and Immunology. I will have to take some of M&I’s coursework because it is pertinent to me.
-Shawna McLetchie

Yes I did. My interests didn’t change appreciably in my first year and I continued to be impressed by the genetics community.
-Laura Colbran

I ended up gearing away from Cancer Biology due to interests in other labs and projects. I ended up joining a Neuroscience lab with a main focus in Ion transporters using electrophysiology. If you would have asked me a year ago today whether I would be interested in Neuroscience I would have answered with a definite no! I learned to be optimistic and kind of let my curiosity have a say in my academic interests.
-Salma Omer

I did end up joining Pharmacology as I planned. I had looked into other departments but none really interested me as much. As a very goal driven researcher, pharm was the department for me.
-Chris Hofmann

Did you have an idea of what lab you wanted to join before you arrived at Vanderbilt? Why or why not?

I knew that I wanted to join a neurodegenerative or psychiatric disease-focused lab, but many labs at Vanderbilt fit this description. My most interesting classes in undergrad focused on these categories of diseases, and I knew that I wanted to be in a lab that studied one/some of them in some capacity.
-Jacob Ruden

I did have an idea which lab I wanted to join, although I was prepared to be convinced otherwise. I did a summer internship with this lab during undergrad and knew it was a good fit.
-Laura Colbran

I had no idea. I came in pretty open-minded and knew of a handful of people’s research but didn’t feel committed to any of them. I kept my mind open.
-Shawna McLetchie

No I had no idea of what lab I wanted to join before arriving at Vanderbilt. I didn’t push the idea because I didn’t want to make any decisions based on website/paper appearance alone. I wanted to physically get a feel for the lab.
-Salma Omer

I had no idea what lab I wanted to join before I came here. I had looked into a few but I don’t think I knew what I really needed out of graduate education until I got into doing real graduate style work during my classes and rotations.
-Chris Hofmann

Did you end up joining that lab? Why or why not?

Yes, I ended up joining a lab focused on aging and Alzheimer’s Disease, because I had a productive and fulfilling rotation in this lab!
-Jacob Ruden

I did join that lab, although it was a close call between that one and another I rotated in. I liked both PIs and groups, and the scientific questions they ask are closely related. The biggest deciding factor ended up being the techniques used in the labs- I decided I’d rather be with other dry lab people rather than being the only one.
-Laura Colbran

I joined a lab that I heard about from my previous mentor at my previous institution sometime during the second rotation. She had been on a study section with him in Maryland.
-Shawna McLetchie

Now that you’ve been through it, do you think the umbrella-style of graduate program (broad foundational coursework, flexibility to rotate among all programs, socially you’re with a large fraction of all first year biomed grad students) was good for you?  Why or why not?

YES! IGP teaches you how to design experiments and problem solve in a way that a direct-admit program would not be able to. Also, I now know and am friends with grad students in other departments/programs that I was never likely to meet without being in IGP.
-Jacob Ruden

I thought the umbrella program was good. Even though I ended up staying with computation genetics labs in rotations, I appreciated having the option to do otherwise as it made me sure about my final decision. I also think having the broader knowledge given by the first-year courses will make me a better scientist.
-Laura Colbran

Yes because now I feel more confident about choosing the interest that I already had (Immunology). The umbrella-style allowed me to rotate in other departments and therefore I don’t feel the need regret/look back on whether or not I was being too narrow minded in the beginning. Sometimes I think it would be nicer to get more immunology earlier and not dwell on certain cellular processes in Bioreg that seemed irrelevant to me. However, I think it was good to get the exposure early on. Socially it was good being with mostly first years. Things are always easier when you have peers. With certain modules in the spring semester, it was especially nice to have peers to work together on the same projects.
-Shawna McLetchie

Yes, definitely. I rotated in completely different lab focuses and departments throughout my IGP year and that would have not been the case had I been a direct admit. I am extremely happy with the decision I made of joining the current lab I am in and that would have not been the case if I was set in stone in joining the Cancer Biology Department (which is a great department, my interests just ended up lying elsewhere)
-Salma Omer

Coming into an umbrella program when you have a background in a department you know you want to join will be somewhat academically repetitive. A lot of the information you have seen before but it is taught in a different way and tested in a different way that give it more meaning. The flexibility to rotate in multiple departments and labs is fantastic. IGP means you are not limited to potential PIs by department and that’s a huge advantage. Socially, I think its also good to have a larger group of people to meet and hangout with that can relate to you through shared experience. I think I would have gotten bored with a smaller group.
-Chris Hofmann

How was your first year different from what you expected in the following areas: academically, scientifically (i.e. rotations), and socially?

Academically – The subject matter and topics covered was a lot more specific and narrow than I expected. It was different from undergrad in this way. Faculty tend to teach on very specific topics which mostly bias their particular area of research (Including using their own publications as required/recommended reading). As far as level of difficulty, the course work was as expected.
Scientifically (i.e. rotations) – The variability from lab to lab was different than I expected. Not all are good for people who have no experience. Some are more fast paced or slow paced. Some give you a protocol and some expect you to look up the details online and figure it out on your own. I didn’t expect training from lab to lab could vary so much.
Socially – It is a lot more social than I expected. I am an older student and didn’t expect to make very many friends. However, since it is such a big class and we have many different classes and groups that come together it is a lot easier to find someone you have something in common with and maintain these friendships.
-Shawna McLetchie

Academically – I didn’t realize how intense FOCUS would be and it was a bit of a rude awakening once I started the 1st couple classes. I would warn the future class that do not take the first FOCUS class lightly, they (FOCUS leaders) will rip you apart.
Scientifically (i.e. rotations) – I didn’t expect rotations to be so completely different from one another. Every lab has its own environment and personality, and you have to make sure you get a feel for the lab for the 1st few days to understand what the environment is like. I realized you might not ever understand the lab environment and personality, and that is ok (it might be them and not you necessarily). Some rotations will completely take you in and teach you everything you ever need to know as far as lab techniques go. Others, leave it up to you to figure out your own project and kind of leave you on the back burner as a rotation student.
Socially – Vanderbilt does a great job recruiting students and it was really easy getting to know people in my class. My social life wasn’t limited to just my IGP class because the BRET office paired me up with an IGPal who is an upper classmen and to my luck, she turned out to be a phenomenal person who I am still good friends with. I was also able to make friends throughout my rotations and still occasionally hang out with a lab manager from a lab I didn’t end up joining.
-Salma Omer

First year was similar to what I was expecting. Everyone comes from a different background and so Bioreg was a nice class to get people on the same page. People also came in with all different skill sets they could bring to rotations. Overall, PIs did not expect you to have much background in a particular area but expect you to be self sufficient enough to work to figure it out. I had a few years of experience so I expected the level of self-motivation needed. What I did not expect was how difficult it would be to get up and running in a new lab and produce in only 8 weeks.
Socially, groups seem to come and go but level out by the end of the year.
-Chris Hofmann