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On Managing First-Year in Graduate School

When Winston walked into the Smith Lab and was introduced to his labmates, a happy and friendly Winston asked, “so, uh, how’s your research going?” Everyone was hilariously panicking while Mike patted Winston’s head with an epic response: “Don’t you know you are never supposed to ask a grad student that question? It’s just rude!”

Maybe you have realized what scene I am referring to or maybe not, but “Piled Higher and Deeper” is one of the best movies that captures most of the fun, real or exaggerated, parts of being a Ph.D. student in the graduate school. What makes this question a taboo for any graduate student? Going to graduate schools is a difficult decision, but it also comes with excitement and hope. When all these feelings cool down, and one starts to realize that the rotation period will soon be over and it is time to choose a home lab, the dedication and commitment expected of a Ph.D. student become evident. To stay on top of the game, availing the resources that graduate schools generally provide may be a good strategy. This article aims to provide some tips on how to be more productive in your first year of graduate education.

A Reading List is the First Step

Once graduate students pick their home labs and research projects, the picture about where they want to make a little bump on the circle becomes clearer, but the knowledge gap that they need to catch up with is even more intimidating. Reading textbooks to build the foundation is necessary, However, it is very important to keep oneself updated with the latest research, especially when the topic is particularly niche. Creating a list of relevant journals to read becomes a vital solution. Yet, when the list exceeds 20 journals while one is busy with their experiments, cooking, working out, writing, and class assignments, maintaining the reading habit becomes a real challenge.

Exhibition 1: The circle of knowledge and the little bump that a Ph.D. student will make on the circle. (Credit: Matt Might)

Fortunately, technology can be a savior for students to maintain the journal list. One prominent example is an app called Browzine, developed by Third Iron, a private company in Missouri and accessed through university libraries nationally and internationally. The main advantage of Browzine is that it allows the users to customize their virtual bookshelves and to have all their favorite journals in one place. Not only that, one can read papers directly on the app or even save them into different folders. My experience with the app is superb, especially when using an iPad or smartphone. Skimming through the latest issues of 20+ journals becomes an exciting experience and can be done during my breakfast or bus time. Another app with a different design but a similar function is Researcher, developed by a company in London. In contrast to other apps, Researcher offers the infinite scrolling feature, similar to social networking apps, so one can keep their fingers moving while tons of research papers relevant to their interests are popping up.

Of course, there will be more apps that can help students to keep their reading entertaining and productive, but the challenging common denominator is the commitment to keep the habit alive. In a recent article published by Nature Index, Olivia Rissland shares her lesson after reading one research paper a day for 899 days. Being a biologist running a dynamic lab in the University of Colorado Denver, Rissland acknowledges that reading is essential, so she started a self-imposed program by setting her goal on the first day of January 2018. Since then, she has implanted the reading habit into her routine schedule, and now Rissland even expands her reading flavors to different fields. This experience has transformed Rissland and enabled her to become a more “well-rounded scientist.” To keep a record of what she has read, Rissland uses an Excel spreadsheet and fills in the papers she finished day after day. Seeing the spreadsheet building up is a rewarding feeling, but Rissland must consistently enforce herself to keep up with the task even though her schedule is always packed. Therefore, when it comes to the reading game, the most important factor is perseverance.

Asking Questions and Designing Experiments

Being a Ph.D. student means developing critical thinking capacity and analytical skills, and asking intriguing and important questions is an essential exercise. In “Creativity in Science”, Dean K. Simonton suggested that lab meetings are the playground for developing creativity through asking questions. Usually, members in the same research groups work on different but related projects, and contributing to the meetings with questions or comments helps clarify and improve the research design and operation. Moreover, department seminars and journal clubs are also a good chance for graduate students to be exposed to new ideas and techniques. By making connections between their ongoing projects with others’, students often realize there are more intriguing perspectives to approach their problems. Sometimes, using a different set of tools from one discipline to solve a problem in another discipline can lead to the establishment of an entirely new field. One example of such an innovative partnership is the groundbreaking works published by geneticist Johnjoe McFadden and theoretical physicist Jim Al-Khalili leading to the development of quantum biology.

Another avenue to learn science is to embrace a scientific framework as a guide to developing thinking capacity and experimental design. There are several excellent books that can help one develop a scientific foundation in developing such a framework; among them is the classic “Experimental Design for Biologist” written by David J. Glass. In this book, Glass describes the two opposing pillars of scientific mindsets, the hypothesis-based and the question-based approaches. He argues that the former is problematic since starting the research with a hypothesis inadvertently imposes bias and create a filter for positive vs negative data. Moreover, the identical vocabularies between a hypothesis and a conclusion, either reject or accept a hypothesis, may cause confusion between the expected results with the actual results of an experiment. This confusion makes research become a task of confirmation. To avoid such convolution, Glass advocates the use of question/model-validation framework. The proper approach, as Glass demonstrates, is to start the project with a question and consider any outcome obtained from an experiment as important. Using these initial results, investigators can build a model. Further experiments will be used to validate and refine the model. This process continues until the model is well supported by scientific evidence. As a graduate student, one often works on a project segueing from prior discoveries of the lab. By inheriting a priori model, the graduate student can have a good start on their research endeavor.


Coming back to the welcome scene of Winston in the Smith Lab, I would also admit that it is indeed hard to say how my research is going. After finishing my first year in graduate school, I realized that I must really focus on expanding my knowledge and improving my skills. The road to self-improvement seems to be clearer, and the urge to learn seems to grow bigger and stronger. I believe when it comes to learning, the key is commitment: either I choose to stay ignorant or to reach out and learn from great resources that my graduate school provides. Despite the diversity of methods and their efficiency may vary at an individual level, I hope my experience will be beneficial for anyone starting their journey.

Acknowledgment: The author thanks Anamika Singh and Isabela Fraga de Andrade for their valuable time and comments/suggestions.


  1. Parletta, Natalie. This scientist read a paper every day for 899 days. Here’s what she learned. Nature Index. 8 September 2020.

  2. The PhD Movie. 2011,

  3. Simonton, Dean K. Creativity in Science: Chance, Logic, Genius, and Zeitgeist. Cambridge University Press. 2004.

  4. McFadden, Johnjoe& Al-Khalili, Jim. Life on the edge: The coming of age of quantum biology. Crown. 2014.

  5. Glass, David J. Experimental design for biologists. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press. 2014.

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