Beyond the dissertation: what I have learned in grad school

As graduate school admissions season ramps up and I near the end of my tenure as a graduate student, I find myself reflecting on my experience and offering advice to the undergraduates and early stage graduate students around me. A few key points stick out as reasons why I have been successful so far.

In that vein, here’s a few words of advice from a sage old graduate student…

  • Find an adviser who shares your values. If you care about outreach to K-12 students, make sure your adviser does too. If you want to be the next HHMI investigator at Harvard, make sure your adviser can help you get there. If you feel strongly that research should be published in pre-prints and open access journals, make sure your adviser does too.
  • Remember that you are a student first. You are in graduate school to further your own career, not your adviser’s. Work hard on your research, but make time for professional development activities that will help you build the skills you need to succeed after graduating.
  • Develop a hobby. I am in a band. My sister is a powerlifter. We both have dogs. This helps me balance my time and remember that there’s more to life than my research. On a daily basis, research often fails. My dog doesn’t care. He’s happy to see me no matter what. Even if my experiments aren’t working, I can see improvement in my clarinet playing.
  • Practice communicating your science as often as possible. Take as many opportunities as you can to talk about your research and why it matters, both formally and informally. Give talks, write blogs, present to your colleagues and people who haven’t taken a science class since high school. Being able to explain what you do and why anyone should care is a valuable skill, no matter what you do after graduate school, and it requires practice.
  • Keep track of the things you do. Every day you are developing transferable skills, leadership skills, project management skills and communication skills. Make sure you keep a list (and not just a CV) of what you have done, what you learned and why it mattered. That way, when you apply for fellowships or jobs, you have half the work done already.

Graduate school can be stressful. Completing a PhD is a long and difficult journey. But, you are developing skills in a variety of ways beyond the specifics of your research. You organize your project, collaborate with people and talk about your research because you need to in order to graduate. These activities help you build skills that are marketable both inside and outside academia. Seek opportunities and be open minded about your future.


About Torrey Truszkowski

Torrey is a sixth year PhD candidate in neuroscience at Brown University. Her research investigates the connections between brain cells that process sensory information. She hosts the Providence, Rhode Island Nerd Nite ( and teaches science communication. After graduating, she plans to embed science communication into her work. Find me on Twitter @TorreyTruszko
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