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Taking Initiative in a Budding Scientific Career

I’ve been attending seminars from professors, postdocs, and alumni during this first year at grad school, and have been able to gain some great advice. What are some good habits to build, according to my latest teachers?

Take charge of your rotation.

Lab rotations are a great way to kick off your PhD, learn diverse research skills, and get a feel for different lab cultures. They’re also where we’ll likely meet our future PI’s. Professors can be pulled many directions, and even with the best of intentions, communications can drop. By taking the initiative to reach out, set up meetings, ask about the research, or just looking for time to chat about mentorship styles, you’ll set yourself apart. According to PI’s I’ve heard from so far, this kind of take-charge attitude is greatly appreciated.

Develop a broad knowledge of science.

The university offers so many opportunities to learn! Go to seminars outside your thesis – even outside your department. Meet people outside your field. Choose broad conferences over more specialized ones. Read literature beyond what will eventually go into your literature review. A thesis can be very specific, so it’s great to take the time to learn more broadly about science. Tool development and collaborations rely on scientists with breadth, and sometimes, a new discovery is based off of insight no one ever had before. One professor we’ve talked to switched fields in between her PhD and postdoc – and has developed a field no one knew about before, simply because they didn’t have her knowledge in two (seemingly unrelated) areas.

Talk to people.

Check in on other grad students in your lab rotations. How do committee meetings go? What’s their experience been like with their advisors? What’s their response when experiments aren’t going as planned – do they feel supported? Students are often honest about their PIs and lab culture. And also? Reach out when struggling with something. There’s probably lots of people in your department with experience troubleshooting PCRs or debugging in R. Network early – especially in your cohort – we’ve all got some set of impactful skills, and most of us are happy to help when asked.

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