May 2024

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The grad school arc

By Serina DeSalvio

I’m a 5th year student in the Genetics & Genomics program, and now that I’m almost at graduation, I’m thrilled to finally share a summary of the grad school experience in a STEM PhD program, year-by-year.

First year: this is confusing

Your first year you have no idea what is going on- that is fine, and totally normal. If you are doing rotations, like I was, this will especially be the case. You have nowhere consistent to go to everyday, by the time you’re comfortable doing one type of research you switch groups and have to re-learn all over again… it’s a lot to manage! And you’re taking classes, which you’ve done a lot of before, but maybe these are less structured. Or just structured differently than you were used to in undergrad, and they are probably harder, too! So you are, in general, equal parts nervous and excited- unsure about what lies ahead, but enthusiastic to find out.

The good news is, and try to remember this- the real responsibilities haven’t kicked in yet. You’re focused on making sure you can do research you will find fulfilling, challenging, and fun. But, no one is pressing you for results (yet). So try to enjoy some of the chaos and freedom that rotations present- things will both calm down and ramp up all at once next.

Second year: wait, I think I can actually kind of do this

In your second year, you start to be a useful member of your group. You’re less lost than you were before, so instead, now you’re busy. You’re learning everything you possibly can, coming up with ideas when you feel like you’re getting close to mastering things, and you’re maybe producing some small results that make you feel like things will be alright. You are not the most senior or best at anything yet, which is nice because you don’t have to train anyone. You get to worry about you still, and what you can learn and use for the project that you will spearhead moving forward.

Third year: literally the worst

I can’t sugarcoat this: your third year is rough. Right when you started to feel like things got better, you had to start preparing for your prelims- which slows down your research, which is only a bummer because you just started getting to the hard parts of that, too! Prelims will definitely make you wonder if you are as smart as you think you are (study a bunch- it’s just a test, you have taken lots of those before, and it will be okay!). Try to keep your head down and power through it- there’s light on the other side, even though it might not always feel like it!

Fourth year: like your second year but much better

You passed your prelims, so you KNOW you’re smart enough to be here now! And now that you can turn your attention back to your research fully- things start working. And not just the silly little things, like when you first started- now things that you came up with, things you researched and created, those things are working. You have data to put into posters and talks and reports- you’re a machine! This is what you came here to do.

Only downside is, wow, you’re so good at what you’re doing- now, you have to teach other people how to do what you’re doing. It might be another grad student, or an undergrad, or a technician- but someone will definitely ask to start following you around and ask questions and learn from your experiments with you. This is a fun thing to get to do- but it does take time, so that’s something to remember if too many people start asking to learn from you. Set your boundaries as best as you can- your future self will thank you.

Fifth year: this has been great- when do I get to do something else?

Wow, what a crazy ride- you’ve struggled but succeeded, you’ve created new things and discovered new truths… now, you have to summarize all of it into a big book called a dissertation, that you know you and maybe two other people will actually read. Which is what you came here to do- a PhD obviously involves a dissertation. Now you just have to figure out how on earth to get yourself to write it and finish it! Coffee helps, and friends who are at the same point in their degree also help.

Plus, you’re kind of wondering- so, what’s next?

Which is where I’m at now. Trying to finish a dissertation, and wondering what’s next. It’s a little bit like I’m back to being a first year, in a way- equal parts nervous and excited- unsure about what lies ahead, but enthusiastic to find out.

About the Author

image of author Serina DeSalvio

Serina DeSalvio

Originally from Dallas, TX, Serina is a doctorate candidate at the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, in the Interdisciplinary Genetics and Genomics Graduate Program. Her current research specializes in genetics, cytogenetics, botany, chromosome structure and dynamics, science communication, plant breeding, and biology. She enjoys painting, playing guitar, playing sand volleyball, ice skating, and taking care of her houseplants.

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