Everyone loves me but who should be my recommenders?

You’ve interacted with a lot of people who know you very well, but your great Aunt Mary’s gushing comments will probably not get you into graduate school. If not everyone is appropriate as a graduate school recommender, who should you ask to write these important letters?
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Twenty things I wish I’d known when I started my PhD

I have recently posted a number of great articles with advice for young scientists. While some of the advice can be similar, you could never hear this too often! This list of 20 pieces of advice might seem a bit daunting (I might have been overwhelmed reading this during my graduate career!), I think you should really take it in and try to incorporate at least a couple of these things that you don’t already do! It is spot on! Don’t worry, no one will be perfect in following all of this advice, but hopefully doing some of this will make an impact!

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

How to ask what you want to know while choosing a rotation

Conversations with important faculty as a freshly-arrived first year graduate student can seem intimidating and awkward. Throw into this mix the fact that you are both sizing each other up when discussing a possible rotation. As a new student, how do you find out the information you are seeking without coming across as pushy or needy? Get some advice from faculty and students who navigate this best at Vanderbilt.

What are important features about a lab that a student should ask about during a rotation conversation?

FACULTY

1. Expectations
2. Graduate student training experiences and current trainees
4. Ability to commit to taking a student this year
-Dr. Bill Tansey

1. How accessible is the PI?
2. Do you have opportunities to go to meetings?
3. What is the funding situation?
4. What are the PIs expectations for work hours, vacation, weekly conference?
5. How much input do students have in their own projects?
-Dr. Maureen Gannon

1. Mentoring Style – This is KEY!!
2. Mentor-Student degree of interaction
3. Opportunity to write (grants. papers etc)
4. Project availability
5. Funding and how many students is the lab planning to recruit this year
-Dr. Maria Hadjifrangiskou

STUDENTS

1. How do projects get decided?
2. What are the expectations for grad students in the long term or the short term (how much you should publish, how many hours you should be there, etc.)?
3. How often do grad students see the PI?
4. Are they hands on or hands off?
5. What conferences might you go to in this lab someday?
-Brad Davidson

1. It is important to ask about whether you will be working with a member in the lab or whether you will be working independently and reporting to the PI directly.
2. It is also important to know what their expectations of you are, including attendance at lab meetings and any presentations you may have to give.
-Sara Kassel

1. How many hours Do You expect of a rotation student?
2. What techniques will I be using?
3. Is this a potential thesis project?
4. Who will I be working with?
5. What is the history of this project?
-Noah Bradley

How can first year students ask difficult questions? Any tips on specific questions?

FACULTY

Be upfront. Beating around the bush leads to confusion and potential problems later on.

-Dr. Bill Tansey

If there is a key question, be sure and ask it. However, how you ask the question can be just as important for getting a valid answer as the question itself. Ask the question as part of a conversation not as if it was an interrogation of the faculty member.
-Dr. Jay Jerome

You can phrase questions strategically. For example, instead of flat-out asking: DO YOU HAVE MONEY?, you can gain the same information by asking: “What will determine how many students you get this year?” and “I am very interested in learning the grant writing process. Do your students participate in that? What is your funding strategy?”
-Dr. Maria Hadjifrangiskou

STUDENTS

I think running your question and phrasing by either another student or someone in the BRET office who can help you is a good step.
-Abbie Neininger

Don’t be pushy or gauche, but still get the question across by being straightforward. Most PI’s will understand these difficult questions are on most students’ minds, and will be forthcoming in answering. If they’re not, that could be another good thing to consider. You should ideally feel comfortable and be able to talk to your PI about anything, including difficult conversations.
-Slavi Goleva

You need to ask about funding, but don’t be so direct about it. Ask if any grants have been written recently or on this project.
-Noah Bradley

What were you asked during your rotation conversations?

FACULTY

What is my mentoring style? How many students do you currently have? How many have you trained? Where are they now? What are the working hours you expect? When will we meet?
-Dr. Bill Tansey

How many years do students take to finish? What is your mentoring style? What are your expectations from a student? What do your current students want to be? – I think this is a key question and I love getting it. I am a big supporter of all careers powered by a PhD, not just academia. You need to know this in your PI so that you can freely develop into the future scientist you want to be!
-Dr. Maria Hadjifrangiskou

STUDENTS

Usually a bit about my background (really in order to talk about projects). Why I was interested in the lab, what I wanted to get out of it. Some also asked how much interaction I wanted to have with each PI (which is a good sign).
-Steven Walker

What are you interested in? What do you see yourself doing with your PhD? How would you say you work, more collaboratively or independently?
-Grace Morales

I was asked a lot about my skills, what I wanted to learn, what project in specific I was interested in, and what my long-term goals were. I definitely needed to come into a rotation conversation prepared about what the lab studies and what I wanted to do.
-Abigail Neininger

Is “optional” really “optional” for submitting GRE scores?

As you may be aware, many biology and biomedical graduate programs have eliminated the GRE as a requirement for their applications. While some schools have completely removed the GRE as a part of the application, many others now list the GRE as “optional”. So, what does “optional” really mean and are committees still expecting you to list scores?
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Simple Beginnings

To those of you at Vandy, you are familiar with our Simple Beginnings, white coat ceremony. For those of you not here, you should know that we celebrate the beginning of our students’ scientific journeys with an event that equally congratulates the start of their graduate experience while also highlighting the importance of their position in the community. It is open to friends and family, and it is one of my favorite parts of the year! This year, one of our older graduate students delivered a meaningful speech that highlights the transition to graduate school. I thought it was worth posting, both to repeat this for our first years and to highlight the journey for prospective students. Enjoy!
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An SDS Excerpt: “Writing to Understand”

Today I am thrilled to highlight a guest post from “Sabrina Does Science”, a blog started by a Vanderbilt IGP student, Sabrina Van Ravenstein, during her first year at Vandy. Sabrina decided to start her blog about the academic sciences to offer her own unique perspective as a woman in the scientific field as well as offer advice to newer or potential grad students. This is a great example post, and you should check out more of her stuff on her blog!
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Letter to My Younger Self: Advice for Graduate School

Have you heard of the NIH BEST schools? These are graduate programs that won a grant to fund initiatives to support career development. Vanderbilt was among the first to win and has served as the coordinating institution for all BEST institutions. They also have an incredible blog for grad students and postdocs. One of my favorite recent posts provides incredible advice for students starting a graduate program! Read this now and read it often to remind yourself of these important points!