It Takes a Village April 19, 2016
by Christopher Evans, Third Year Ph.D. Student, Department of Microbiology and Molecular Genetics
Graduate school education is unlike any other step in a student’s academic career. From early childhood until the end of their undergraduate education, learning generally means listening to lectures, doing assignments, and taking tests. During most of graduate school, none of this actually happens! That can sometimes make explaining how graduate school works a little difficult to people that haven’t experienced it. So I thought I would take this opportunity to discuss all the different people that contribute to a graduate student’s education.
One of my favorite quotes that I try my best to live by is “If you want to be successful, surround yourself with successful people.” Graduate school is a perfect example of this in action! Grad students aren’t taught by a single person and we don’t learn most things in a lecture. It is the people around us that teach us every day. Everyone that a graduate student interacts with in the lab contributes to their education. So if you want to know how scientists are really taught, listen up!
Professors (AKA: The Boss): Every graduate student works in a lab that is run by a professor. The professor gives the grad student a project and usually guides them through completing the project. Every professor is different, but my professor has a very hands-on approach to teaching. He teaches me how to develop a project, how to move a project forward, and how to critically analyze new data and come up with experiments that answer important questions. It is safe to say that, at least in my case, my professor teaches me how to think critically, which is the most important lesson in graduate school.
Post-doctoral fellows: To pursue a career in academia, it is usually necessary to do a post-doctoral fellowship after graduate school. A post-doc has a PhD and works in the lab, but has a little more control over their project than a grad student. Post-docs are an invaluable resource to a graduate student. As a good comparison, a professor helps a grad student understand a project and a post-doc can help a student do a project. I have learned so much from the technical expertise of the post-docs in my lab. If you are looking to learn a new technique, try a new assay, or troubleshoot a problem that you can’t seem to solve, a post-doc can help!
Graduate Students: I’m not exaggerating when I tell you that my fellow grad students here at McGovern Medical School are like my extended family. That kind of familial connection happens when you spend every day together for 5-6 years. Going through grad school is a tough and long experience and it helps to talk to people who are going through the same thing. Not only are they good for moral support, but also I can’t think of anything that you don’t learn from other students. Senior grad students are just as knowledgeable about research as most post-docs and have an in-depth knowledge about how the graduate school process works.
Undergrads: Grad students are constantly surrounded by experts in research, but have a great opportunity to “become the teacher”, when undergraduates do rotations in the lab. Now, it is unreasonable to think that teaching someone everything about a research project in a short period of time (usually during the summer or a few days a week) is possible. That’s why I think graduate students learn perspective from undergrads. As a grad student, you have to pick the most important ideas to teach new students in the lab which can often get lost in the grind of everyday research.
There is always something to learn from everyone! Teaching a graduate student to be a successful scientist is truly a group effort. If you are a graduate student or thinking about going into grad school, keep your ears open and your mind sharp because you never know who may be your next teacher!