Five things EVERYONE should learn in grad school


What should you learn in grad school that’s not on the curriculum?

Dr. Alex Jentsch has (thankfully!) put together a list of 5 things every scientist should learn in grad school. Being a a postdoc at Brookhaven National Laboratory studying high energy nuclear particle physics, he’s been around the academia block.

So, just what’s on the list?

1) Communication Skills

This might seem fairly obvious, but as a researcher you’re going to be doing a lot of different kinds of communication with your peers. Giving talks, sending emails (that are surprisingly hard to type up professionally to someone), interacting with your colleagues, or connecting with folks from different institutions that you might be getting to know through conferences (or Zoom during COVID) . Part of what can be challenging is being comfortable talking to people without feeling intimidated, or worried that they know more than you. Getting lots of practice in communicating is key to learning to not worry so much.

Advice: Make sure you take lots of opportunities to give talks, even at small conferences. Get good feedback from people who are willing to be honest with you, and help you to grow your skills in that area.

2) Programming / Coding Skills

Not ever scientific research area for a graduate program requires a direct programming language like C++ or Python. But, no matter what you’re doing, having a little bit of experience doing programming will be important. Learn some web development, HTML, something you can use to better put your results in place where they’re easier to access to other people and colleagues.

If you’re trying to solve a complex problem, maybe learn something that requires a little bit of numerical calculation. Not something as high as rocket science, so to speak. But, you’ll be able to solve a problem much more easily on your own with some skills in this area.

3) Statistics

Just a little bit. Grab a statistics textbook, or even Statistics for Dummies equivalent, just something where you can get used to the jargon that’s used. Get used to how to do some of the basic calculations in statistics to understand what the quantities mean.

Example: Even areas like medicine, statistics is the language that’s spoken to describe the efficacy of different things that are used such as different medicines or vaccines. This is true in many fields in science. So, don’t take for granted how important it is to understand the language of statistics to some degree.

4) Time Management

Most universities will have different courses on professional development areas. They also might have this for the communication skills mentioned earlier. But, learning how to manage your time is really important. It can be as simple as starting small and having a calendar that you keep up to date.

For a lot of people, it can be daunting to maintain your schedule in a more formal way. But, there’s so many apps available to make this really easy and even simple apps for whatever you’re using for your email. It will help you to reduce your stress, worry less about missing deadlines, and make it easier to plan your week if you know what’s coming up.

5) Have a Hobby!

This can be the most important one. It’s really really easy to get wrapped up in your scientific work and spend all of your time doing just that. It’s super important that you take some time for self care, and part of that is just do something you ENJOY. For fun. It can be anything you enjoy doing – playing a video game, reading a book, building something, etc.

Dr. Jentsch, for example, likes to play guitar (you can see them in the background of the video!). It’s really helpful for maintaining his sanity as he moves forward through is scientific career.

Whatever it might be for you, make it a priority to have in your life. Put it in your calendar to take time out of your day to do that hobby.

What keeps you sane?

These are a great start, but obviously not a comprehensive list. So, what keeps you sane? We would love for you to comment below with what important things you learned in grad school outside of the curriculum.

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