The Ultimate List of Grad School Essentials


I finished my Ph.D. in 2021. Here’s a shortlist of my top essential items that got me through those 6 grueling years. No, none of this is sponsored – I have a day job!

External hard drive

You should be backing up your data in multiple locations. You don’t want to lose all your hard work because of a drop, spill, or theft!

My external hard drive is the 4TB WD My Passport for Mac, and it was more than enough for my 6-year Ph.D.

An external hard drive is most likely the most expensive item on this list, but it’s very essential if you want that extra peace of mind. I generally didn’t bring it with me to campus; I used it to back up my laptop data on a regular basis at home. 

Towards the end of my Ph.D., I did a lot of bioinformatic analysis on single cell data, so I was able to keep massive files like raw sequencing data, gene expression spreadsheets, and RStudio projects on the external hard drive with no issues whatsoever!

A great home workstation setup

Hunching over your laptop with your wrists resting on the edge of the table is a big no-no (as shown in the picture)!

I developed an ulnar nerve issue in grad school because of the way the “pinky edges” of my hands were constantly pressing onto the laptop when I was typing. Basically, my “funny bone”, the ulnar nerve, got injured.

Don’t be like me, and practice proper ergonomics when you’re typing.

It may sound inconsequential, trivial, and not relatable, but trust me, when you start having trouble falling asleep because of how sore your ulnar nerve is, you’re going to wish you paid more attention to your posture.

There’s a reason why ergonomics are such a big deal!

What helped alleviate my symptoms a lot was raising my laptop to eye level, so I can sit up straight instead of hunching and tilting my head down to look at my screen.

I got an affordable laptop stand from Besign, and I also got a keyboard that connects via Bluetooth to my laptop, so I don’t type on my laptop anymore. I type with my hands “floating”, meaning they don’t rest on the edge of the table, or even on a soft foam wrist rest.

Finally, I got the Logitech M525 mouse that also connects to my laptop via Bluetooth. A mousepad would be great, too, and there are plenty of good options out there.

You’re a grad student, and chances are you’ll be typing away for many hours at your computer, working on things like homework assignments, manuscripts, emails, and your thesis/dissertation.

Make sure your workstation setup is truly good for your body!

Glass, dishwasher safe, microwave safe containers for food

Regardless of if you’re a master chef or an Uber Eats connoisseur, you’re going to want to have some reliable food containers at home to effectively store your food items.

The glass, sealed food containers have been the most reliable type to have. They make my meal prepped food last 7 days in the fridge, and are also microwavable and dishwasher-safe. They are also less prone to staining than plastic containers.

I don’t like those reddish pasta sauce stains as much as the next person.

I meal prep every Saturday to have food for the entire week; I don’t touch the stovetop the rest of the week! If you’re considering getting into meal prepping, try to obtain a set of 4-5 glass food containers with lids that lock on.

When I first started out, I made the mistake of getting containers that were too small. Make sure the containers you get are on the larger side. That way, you’ll have space to keep food properly, whether that’s cooked leftovers, ingredients or produce.

A lunch bag

I brought lunch to lab every single day in grad school, aside from a couple times a month, when I treated myself to something I bought.

After a year or two of bringing my lunch to lab in a regular tote bag, I switched to a real lunch bag. I realized that tote bags were fine, but an insulated lunch bag that fit the amount of food I tended to bring to campus turned out to be really useful for me.

I got a simple black one from Mier, and it had a really low profile and fit my lunch, snacks, and utensils perfectly.

I could throw it in my bag for my commute, and it also didn’t take up a lot of space in the food fridge at work. I highly recommend getting a reliable lunch bag if you are the type to bring your food to campus! It’s also really useful for trips.

A notebook (no, not your lab notebook)

When I first started grad school, I noticed that some people that I saw in seminars and presentations had little notebooks with them that they were using to takes notes in.

I was really intrigued because I had just assumed everyone used their laptops to take notes in grad school, or didn’t take notes in seminars. The longer I was in my program, the more I realized that it would actually be useful to be taking notes during some peoples’ presentations, and that having a notebook to jot notes in was a bit more socially acceptable and less conspicuous than taking notes on a phone or a laptop.

I had a navy blue Moleskine notebook that I used for all of my miscellaneous note-taking during grad school, and it was honestly a lot more useful than I thought it’d be when I initially purchased it.

I took it with me to seminars and presentations, conferences, meetings with my committee and advisor, career and networking events, campus meetings, and so much more.

This isn’t your lab notebook. I didn’t open it much in the lab.

This was an “everything else” notebook that served a completely different, but important purpose outside of the lab for all my note-taking needs. Even if you don’t attend as many in-person seminars and presentations now, there’s something really satisfying about writing in a notebook sometimes, so if you feel that way about written notes, too, try it out!

Noise-canceling headphones

Whether you’re on the bus and need some peace and quiet, trying to block out your labmate who’s on a personal call in the lab, or just want to work with white noise in the background, noise-canceling headphones definitely come in handy during grad school. 

I like headphones more than earbuds because they feel less damaging to my ears and are more comfortable. I also like being able to put them around my neck if needed.

I had the Audio-Technica ATH-S700BT and they worked great for me throughout grad school.

Lab shoes

I had a pair of Birkenstock clogs that I wore in the lab.

No, I’m not kidding; they were so comfortable. This allowed me to wear the footwear that I wanted during my commute, even rain boots.

I also didn’t have to worry about anything from the floor of the lab coming home with me on my shoes, either.

The clogs were made of a thick leather material that was well-cushioned and gave me plenty of support when I was on my feet. The leather completely covered my feet, and I felt perfectly safe wearing them while doing experiments.

It took me less than 10 seconds to switch shoes at my desk, with socks on, of course. This helped my sneakers maintain their longevity.

On days when I had to stop by the lab on a whim, I knew that I’d be covered, regardless of what kind of shoes I was wearing that day.

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