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!

Choosing a Lab:

  • Thoroughly check out potential PIs before joining a lab. Suggestion: ask other students who rotated in but didn’t join lab – they may have picked up on something important.
  • Find out as much about the PI as possible during rotations. One easy way to do this is to invite other lab members out to coffee.
  • Look for a mentor who will always “have your back”.
  • Choose your thesis mentor and lab environment carefully – pick what works for you. Choice of project should be secondary, but good training & training environment is most important.
  • Look at how PI treats other people, from students to postdocs to techs to janitorial staff. You want to work for someone who treats everyone with respect, regardless of their position.

Experience in Lab:

  • Find a way to effectively communicate with your PI early in your training.
  • As long as the controls work, make sure you always trust/listen to your experimental results.
  • Publish as much as possible in grad school, it will only help your future career in many fields.
  • Plan project around what needs to go into a publishable paper.
  • Try to work on a project whose results will be publishable, no matter what the research outcome is.
  • Have a plan a, plan b, and plan c for your thesis project. You can start to narrow focus toward one of these and away from the others as you progress in your research.


  • Start thinking about your future career as early as possible & tailor your grad school experience to that goal (don’t wait until your last year). You are in charge of your own career path.
  • You are the driver of your career beginning the day you start graduate school. Be your own champion, ask for things you need to succeed, and don’t wait for anyone to tell you what to do or when to do it.

General Advice:

  • Don’t be afraid to ask questions, even in the first year. No one expects students to have all of the answers.
  • Don’t let the normal ups & downs of graduate school frustrate you too much. Use counseling service for help if you need it.
  • Be your own strong advocate and use your committee & DGS if you need help.
  • Don’t forget to take time for yourself outside of lab. Working 80 hours a week is not healthy.
  • Don’t hesitate to ask for help if you need it. This includes scientific expertise, academic, and mental health.
  • Learn biostatistics – this skill is necessary to be successful in the current biomedical research environment.

Agree? Disagree? We'd love to hear your discussion!

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