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 did. I knew pretty exactly what I wanted to do, Human Genetics. I knew the field I wanted, and had done an undergrad internship in the specific department and gotten to know it fairly well.
-Laura Colbran

Not entirely. Since I was broadly interested in cytoskeleton/motor proteins I thought I was going to end up in CDB, but I enjoyed the idea of physics too much to fully commit beforehand.
-Steven Walker

I preferentially leaned towards Cell and Developmental Biology based on my previous research experience.
-Erik Beadle

Somewhat, I had done physiology in undergraduate, and the Molecular Physiology and Biophysics department seemed really in line with what I had already been doing.
-Slavi Goleva

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

Yes, I did. It was the one with the best support for the research i wanted to do, and matched fairly exactly with my more general interests. And more generally, I’d been very impressed by how supportive and nice everyone I’d met from that program was. I felt like even if my specific plans fell through, I could trust everyone there to help me fix it.
-Laura Colbran

I ended up joining CPB, which is more of a large encompassing program rather than a strict department. It definitely fits better with what I plan on doing (single molecule optical tweezer experiments).
-Steven Walker

I wound up joining the Cancer Biology program. My research interests slowly shifted over time and it transitioned me into cancer.
-Erik Beadle

I did! I ended up really liking the program, and the PI I was working for actually ended up getting a secondary appointment in the department because they knew I liked it
-Slavi Goleva

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

Yes; I had done an undergrad internship with that lab. I was willing to be convinced that another would be a better fit, but I was pretty sold already.
-Laura Colbran

I thought it would be a choice between 2 labs (both working with microtubules), but it ended up being neither of them.
-Steven Walker

During my initial research of faculty at Vandy, I did find a lab that seemed to really fit my research interests.
-Erik Beadle

No, I enjoyed the general atmosphere of Vanderbilt, and because I wasn’t tied to any particular field or topic, I was more excited to explore all the possibilities.
-Slavi Goleva

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

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

While I probably would have been happy in one of those labs, I found a lab that was just a better fit (both socially and topic wise).
-Steven Walker

I did not join that lab. I met with the PI about possibly rotating, and the projects had shifted in a direction I was not interested in pursuing.
-Erik Beadle

I did not have a particular lab in mind
-Slavi Goleva

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 it was the best thing for me because it helped solidify my area of scientific interest and broadened my scope of science so that now I can put my research into a bigger context biologically. I can understand more complex systems and techniques because of things I learned specifically in the IGP.
-Noah Bradley

Yes! It gave me a safe environment to explore many different fields and learn about a lot of topics.
-Tiffany Richardson

Yes! I loved the umbrella program. It exposed me to a variety of topics that I never would’ve sought out and a range of faculty that I never would’ve conversed with otherwise. The broad scope of coursework was also entirely beneficial to help me see how all of science fits into a bigger picture, which I think will help my own research, career ventures, and collaborations down the road.
-Katie Volk

The umbrella program was perfect for me! I’m a very indecisive person and needed that flexibility to find the lab I was happiest in.
-Abbie Neininger

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

Academically: I thought there would be a need to study all of the time, but I found that I could balance study and lab pretty easily. Scientifically: I thought labs would possibly be uptight, but the exact opposite was observed. Labs are extremely collaborative and cordial with one another. Socially: I made tons of friends both within and outside my program and year. Not something that has always been easy-even in my undergraduate program.
-Noah Bradley

It was not as academically challenging as I first expected. I was very prepared after my undergraduate degree to excel in graduate school. My laboratory skills were also up to par for rotations (especially since labs are willing to teach you what you need to know for that specific lab)
-Tiffany Richardson

I think my first year was different from what I expected, socially. Coming from undergrad, where clubs and events bring people inherently together, graduate school was a little different. You often have to go out of your way to hang out with people and differences in constantly-fluctuating schedules can make that difficult during rotations.
-Katie Volk

It was very different from what I expected, but in the best way. I thought I would be a miserable graduate student studying constantly and working until the wee hours of the morning. I got a lot of work done and worked very hard, but I was surprisingly happy and still had time to make friends and enjoy both science and a social life, while getting solid projects done in my rotations.
-Abbie Neininger

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