Get data-driven advice for grad school

“Do you have any advice for future graduate students?” I asked. The student had recently defended his Ph.D., and I was conducting an exit interview—something I do with every graduating biomedical Ph.D. student at my university, where I am in charge of evaluating our medical school’s Ph.D. training programs. He sat back in his chair and thought for a minute before responding: He wished he had started to plan for his post-Ph.D. career earlier. My shoulders dropped and I let out a sigh. “Program directors recommend this to incoming students every year, but some don’t seem to hear it,” I said. “How do you think we can get them to listen?” This time, he didn’t hesitate. “They are graduate students in science,” he exclaimed. “Show them the data!”

Read more in this Science Careers article, by Dr. Abigail M. Brown is the director of outcomes research for biomedical Ph.D. programs at Vanderbilt University School of Medicine in Nashville, Tennessee.

Becoming a Resilient Scientist and more from the NIH

While I am writing this post, Vanderbilt and other institutions across the country are in “remote” mode. This has been challenging, but has given me a new perspective on the importance of resiliency in life and in graduate training. I have run across these incredible resources from the NIH OITE, that provide training outside of the lab to graduate students and postdocs. In addition to many others, I would like to point out 3 workshops that are especially important at this time and beyond:

You should watch them, no matter your stage in training! Watch them now and watch them often; I know I will!

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?


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


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?


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


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?


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


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

Knowing nothing: keeping an open mind

During your undergraduate experience, you probably had a fairly good idea of what you “needed to know” for your coursework. In contrast, you’ve probably heard that the biggest lesson of graduate school is that you know nothing. That is not entirely true, but you certainly realize in grad school just how big the world of science is and that your goal is not to learn everything but to become increasingly specialized in your knowledge and to think through information. How do you adapt to these newer, bigger goals?
Continue reading “Knowing nothing: keeping an open mind”

Learning rotation dynamics: how to really understand a lab

If you are in a PhD program with rotations, your goal is to (fairly quickly) experience, participate in, and evaluate a lab culture. The goal is to find a compatible lab that will be your major training environment for the next 5 years: a very tall order, especially since you might not have had a job at the same place for that long before. You’re likely doing 3-4 rotations in less than a year, which means you are changing labs right when you begin to get comfortable. How can you efficiently evaluate a lab to be sure you pick the best fit in the end?
Continue reading “Learning rotation dynamics: how to really understand a lab”

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?
Continue reading “Balancing coursework and lab work: the breadth and the depth”

Seeking comfort in the discomfort: How to approach your first year

Today I will be starting a blog post series on the challenges and rewards of starting a new PhD program. I hope to write every couple of weeks, so keep an eye out for the links below to become active!

As a primer, Science just published and advice column with thoughts from upper-level graduate students. It is a great start to these important topics!

The basics of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program

Admission into most biomedical PhD programs come with tuition coverage and a stipend. However, as a young scientist, you have the opportunity to fund yourself by obtaining your own competitive fellowship. Writing for your own funding at this stage is a great training opportunity, and receiving a fellowship can make you a more attractive candidate for graduate program admission or for postdoctoral positions. Read on for an introduction to the most broad fellowship for prospective and early graduate students, the NSF GRFP.

Continue reading “The basics of the NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program”