Balancing coursework and lab work: the breadth and the depth

You’ve done the class thing and you’ve done the lab thing before you came to graduate school. You may have even tackled both of these together! However, your first year of graduate school is a totally new world, and all of the new responsibilities might shake your confidence. Between classes and the lab, you are bombarded with a flurry of learning objectives, styles, and expectations and you are on your own to learn it. How do you manage all of this successfully?

The differences between class and the lab

Your first year is full of learning; both in the class and in the lab. All of this newness is probably a little bit uncomfortable because you are faced with a new topic weekly or even daily. However, it is okay to be a little bit uncomfortable…it means that you are growing! Easier for me to say than for you to experience it, but think of where you’d be if you were completely comfortable: not moving or progressing. Graduate school is about being challenged in order to become your best possible thinker! Lean in to this discomfort and use it as motivation to continue challenging yourself. While your first year may be tough, you wouldn’t be in graduate school if you weren’t already somewhat successful in class and lab. Keep that in mind as you face your new challenges your first year.

The first step to success is recognizing that there are different learning styles for the classroom and the lab. The first year of coursework is designed to teach you a breadth of foundational knowledge. While some of your classes may aim to enhance critical thinking skills, the ones you will be tested on were developed to bring everyone to a similar level of foundational information about biology, with slightly less focus on critical thinking. You should learn this information actively! Don’t simply listen to lectures, hoping that it will stick. You are likely bombarded with new information constantly, and you’ll need to parse out the important parts to make it stick. I suggest you critically think about the information given in class in real time and ask questions when they come up. Create a working model of the information, which you store in your head or write down. If you have a question about what was discussed in class while you are studying, Google it and try to fill the gap yourself. Discuss the information with your classmates, and synthesize the topics together. Don’t feel like you have to know or question everything (it is impossible to learn the entire history of science in one year, let alone a lifetime!, This sort of information overload will keep you from focusing on the pertinent info), but keep one goal in mind: Actively learn the information you are taught rather than simply passively listening in class. If you have not yet learned this skill, now is the time to practice it.

In the lab, rather than keeping your knowledge superficial, you have to dive deep into your topic and understand the “knowns” and “unknowns” in that field. Essentially, you should question everything: “What data is this information based on?”, “What are the limitations of this previous data?”, “Is this data strong enough to build a model from?”, “What are the strengths of your current approach and what alternative approaches could you use to test your hypothesis?”. Of course, there likely aren’t “textbook-style” answers to these questions; you are working to fill some gaps in knowledge in this field! Instead, you should thoughtfully consider these questions and work to understand the primary information behind working models. Unlike the classroom where you should know a little bit about a lot of topics, in the lab, you should know a lot about a narrow topic.

How to keep it all straight

Yes, there are different learning objectives in the class and lab, and you need to keep all of the information straight. My suggestion to you for doing this involves a bit of extra work, but I think you’ll find it worth it. Although you are learning at different levels in each setting, to assess your grasp of class and lab knowledge, you should outline or diagram your knowledge framework for both. Putting your framework on paper (or computer) will help you by making you 1) write down what you know, 2) identify your gaps in knowledge, 3) see how different topics or sources of information relate to each other, and 4) create a document you can share with your mentor or other students you may study with.

For classwork, you probably have your own style of learning; however, I think you should consider outlining if you haven’t before because it may help you in the long run for your qualifying exam. Having a source where you have succinctly summarized information in your own way will be a huge benefit to you as you study. It will also help you get comfortable with communicating your knowledge simply during the oral exam. Your future self will be grateful to your current self.

In my opinion, writing down your conceptual framework is even more important for your lab work. Diving deep into your rotation project requires you to have a solid grasp on 1) the current knowledge in the field 2) the gap in knowledge you’re hoping to fill, 3) the question you are asking and/or hypothesis testing, 4) the specific experiments that have led to the purpose of your project and 5) the reasons/logic behind your specific experimental approaches. Outline these exact topics! You will be getting the information to fill these categories from a variety of sources including your PI, your direct supervisor, lab meetings, and your own literature reading. Synthesize all of this information into one outline. Importantly, if you feel like your framework is incomplete, use this as a starting point to discuss your project with your direct mentor or your PI to fill the gaps. Not only will they appreciate your initiative to synthesize your project, they will be impressed that you have a tangible document highlighting the depth of your understanding.

Stay the course

I realize as I’m writing this that my advice makes your work sound simple, but it is not! You’re being challenged with new information from many directions. You may find that you are not equally comfortable or confident in class and the lab. That is okay!!! We all learn differently and have our own sets of strengths and weaknesses. Your personal strengths will allow you to contribute to your lab and chosen field. Importantly, don’t let these challenges make you question your path. As I said before, feeling uncomfortable means that you are growing. If classwork is difficult for you, that means you are learning a lot of new information. If the lab is challenging, work on filling your gaps in understanding to pinpoint where you are struggling. It may be that a particular topic or lab just isn’t your cup of tea. That is okay! The goal of your first year is for you to find where your passion lies. It is exceptionally rare for a student to be strong in all classes and all labs, and NO ONE is perfect. In fact, I have definitely seen examples where students that struggle in classwork turn out to be top-tier scientists! While you should strive for success, don’t judge your scientific abilities only by your class letter grade.

Overall, you will definitely suffer from information overload your first year, and some of this discomfort will continue through your training. Outline your new knowledge to stay on top of it. Finally, know that imperfection is not an enemy but a tool you should use to improve.

One thought on “Balancing coursework and lab work: the breadth and the depth

  1. Pingback: Seeking comfort in the discomfort: How to approach your first year – Materials & Methods

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