The Ultimate List of Grad School Essentials: People Edition

The further you get in a wet lab-based STEM Ph.D. program., the more isolated you become. At least, that was the case for a lot of folks that I knew, including myself. Sure, we have relationships outside of the academic environment, but for a lot of us, as we progress through the program, the daily routine starts to get a little mundane and our labs start to feel like the only place we ever go when on campus.

In the 1st year, we take courses, feel motivated to attend campus events, and maybe even have neighbors we’re friendly with in on-campus housing. But as the years go on, we start to spend almost all our time in the lab, we don’t really go to as many on-campus events, and we move out of on-campus housing.

Even before COVID made all of us feel even more isolated, it felt really valuable to me to have healthy and positive relationships with certain people in grad school.

They say people enter your life for a reason, a season, or a lifetime. The people in this list may not all be in the “lifetime” category, and that’s okay – that’s life. But, they all provided me with a really important feeling of connection, support, and camaraderie at some points during, or throughout, the 6 years of my Ph.D. program.

I highly encourage you to actively seek out personal connections during grad school. It’s something I wish I did more of, but the ones I did have, I really valued. Here’s a list of 6 essential connections from grad school. Each one has a ton of tips on how to maintain the connection or develop it.

1. Your Advisor

Your advisor is crucial to a healthy grad school experience. They are hands down the most important component and player in your success.

If you’re still on the market for an advisor, don’t think that a “productive”, “superstar” PI is by default the best choice for you. They have to be a genuinely good human being who cares about you as a human being.

Just remember, they’re human too. They have flaws and they have bad days, just like you. Don’t think of them as an infallible superhuman who has all the answers. See them as a coworker who’s been through a little bit more than you have. They need you just as much as you need them, so don’t give them all the power in your mind either.

Keep a cordial, professional relationship with them where you communicate regularly, either through weekly lab meetings or bi-weekly meetings (or whatever frequency you guys work best at). When you communicate with them, be prepared, because they are usually really busy, and deliver your ideas with supporting evidence and a plan for what to do next. Don’t be afraid to speak up when necessary to get something across or to clarify something. Your PI should treat you with respect, not as an underling.

Your advisor should want you to be happy. I was lucky to have a really great advisor who not only supported me in a really fair way during grad school, but was fully accepting of my decision to leave academia after. 

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2. Your Cohort Pal

My cohort consisted of just 3 women, including myself.

I wasn’t sure if I would connect with either of my cohort-mates, as they were a bit older than me and already had a lot of stuff going on outside of grad school, but I had met one of them during interviews and we pretty much had spent the whole day together due to logistics.

It turned out we got along pretty well, and we had a lot of things in common. We ended up being pretty good friends throughout grad school, always texting each other in times of frustration, celebration, and mundane daily life. Although we didn’t spend a lot of time together in person aside from some planned lunches, a few hangouts and birthday parties and seeing each other at seminars, it was really nice to have a friend who understood everything I was going through – something that a partner or outside friends can’t fully understand.

I definitely recommend having at least one friend or acquaintance to turn to from your cohort. It can even start off as something to do with studying for a class you’re in together, or discussing something related to program requirements. It’s just really nice to have someone to commiserate with through it all. 

3. Your Therapist

I think everyone in grad school needs to see a therapist. Not necessarily because of the mental health issues that plague grad students, but because I think therapy is really important for personal development, even outside of grad school. Every adult should have the opportunity to, honestly.

Sometimes, an unbiased, trained professional is who you need to talk through mental health issues, life situations, and personal development with. Try to make the most of the services offered by your university or health coverage.

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I saw 3 therapists during grad school through on-campus services, and the 3rd one was definitely my favorite and the one that I felt was the most effective for me. Finding a good therapist is like dating. Not everyone you work with is going to be a good match for you, and that’s totally normal. It’s simply a manifestation of how diverse we are as individuals.

What was interesting to me was that the fewer things I had in common with my therapist, the more effectively I worked with them. Of course, this is just an anecdotal perspective of mine, so it might not be the case for you. But, it definitely wasn’t what I expected so I thought it’d be interesting to share!

My 1st therapist in grad school was a woman who I had a lot in common with, demographically, who had an innate understanding of my issues due to similar experiences. I found it more difficult to put into words the issues I was having, because I felt a strange block; she already knew a lot about where I was coming from. She was very understanding and sometimes finished my sentences and thought processes for me. Her input was biased due to her own personal experiences with what I was going through. It’s kind of complicated but essentially, it didn’t feel very effective for a lot of reasons and I felt like branching out.

My 3rd therapist, who I enjoyed working with the most, ended up being as different (or “opposite”, if you will) from me as possible in terms of everything you could imagine. He was a really experienced therapist as well, with decades of experience, and it really showed in his behavior, which really helped me feel comfortable in his presence. He had a quirky way of talking that kept the mood light and encouraging, and it worked for me. I’m so glad I shopped around for a therapist and found him. I really recommend doing so if you’re on the market for one. You don’t have to settle if things don’t feel comfortable with any one therapist.

I also recommend looking outside of the university’s recommendations for therapists. I started off by going to the same on-campus psychiatric center that the undergraduates go to, simply because it was the only one being actively advertised to new grad students.

A few years later, one of my friends in another Ph.D. program told me about a psychiatric center on campus designated specifically for students, fellows and residents in the School of Medicine. I’m still super grateful to her for telling me about it! Booking with them was a lot easier and it was more conveniently located. Try looking for these specialized services in your “school” within the university, or by asking student affairs officers or staff advisors about options available to you.

4. Your Labmate

They really get what you’re going through, and you work with them regularly, so it’s important to keep a healthy relationship with them. What this entails is going to vary depending on the size of the lab, how closely you work with each other on projects, personalities, and even the setup of the lab. In general, simply being reliable, cordial, and communicating effectively can get you very far and help you maintain a healthy relationship with them.

I’m the type to only talk about work at work unless directly asked about something else. This was generally the case for my labmates as well. Still, being able to exchange ideas and work together peacefully helped cultivate a really healthy and calm working environment.

Because you work with them for so many years, they can end up being really helpful references for future employment – I’m going through this now as all industry jobs that I’ve gotten to the reference stage ask for a lot of references. I highly recommend being on your best behavior at work, and not slacking off when it comes to cleanliness, considerateness, and communication.

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5. Your Program Senior 

This just refers to someone who’s been in your Ph.D. program longer than you. If you can get to know anyone in your program who’s even 1 year ahead of you, you’ll gain a treasure trove of valuable knowledge of everything to come (even if it’s anecdotal and just from 1 person).

There’s so much grad school bureaucracy of paperwork related to reimbursements, stipend payouts, fellowship applications, committee formation, advancement to candidacy, scheduling important committee meetings, declaring you’re ABD, etc. Figuring things out can be daunting at times and it really helps to have someone to get insight from.

They are also a great resource for post-Ph.D. career choices and tips. Even if the person you know isn’t in the exact position you’d personally want to be in, asking them about their experiences getting there can still give you valuable insight into what you should be doing now, as a student. They can also refer you to people they know, and that can end up being a very useful network to learn about what your options are after graduation.

People generally like talking about themselves and feel flattered when they are asked for advice. It can be as easy as email. Just try reaching out – you’ll probably learn more than you thought you would.

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6. Your Industry Connection

Even if you’re not entirely sure what you want to do after grad school, it’s really valuable to open up your mind to all the possibilities. If you ever run into someone in industry that has a similar degree as the one you’re working towards, try to exchange contact info and pick their brain a bit.

This happened a few times in my grad program and I really wish I maintained connections with them! I met a few alumni through conferences and they worked at environmental consulting companies and biotech companies. I also met one professor in my department who worked for a major think tank after she did a postdoc. I did an informational interview with her in the 5th year of my Ph.D. I also got a mentor through a mentorship program at my university and she was a medical writer. She got that job after doing a postdoc in the same lab she did her Ph.D. in (like me right now). We met a few times over Zoom to discuss how she got to where she was and I got a sense of what her work entailed.

Like I said above, people like talking about themselves and it’s flattering to be asked questions about their success. It’s definitely possible that some of them might be too busy to make time to speak with you, but trust me, it won’t be all of them.

Conclusion

A lot of you might have the introverted desire to cruise through your grad program without actively cultivating and maintaining connections. I know that feeling. But trust me, it’s worth making connections. Even if it’s just 1 person from each category on this list. That’s only 6 people, with the advisor essentially being a freebee. You can do it!

Connections are everything in life. It’s actually what gets a lot of people into grad school in the first place: cold emailing faculty and seeing what’s out there. It’s the same for what’s after (I have an entire blog post about how I got into an R1 research university straight from undergrad if you’re curious about how I did that, as well as an email template post for you to use when reaching out to people to network).

Don’t be like me, an aimless postdoc regretting not being the best at keeping in touch with people. Be friendly, be curious, be conversational. It’ll only do you good!

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