Guest post: Keeping it Real: How to Excel in Graduate School

The purpose of this blog is to share personal accounts of MD/PhD training, and I’m excited to expand the perspectives presented here with guests posts. This post is by Alex Yang, who also contributed the blog’s first guest post.


Keeping it Real: How to Excel in Graduate School

Alex Yang, PhD

As I am writing this piece, I have just finished my PhD years, and I am awaiting to start clerkships in medical school as soon as I’m able. Although challenging, my PhD years have been extremely rewarding. I was able to share my work in an international conference in Colorado, receive my own F30 NIH funding, publish a first-author manuscript in Nature Metabolism, and make lifelong friends. Some of you might be interested in graduate school, pursuing graduate school, or currently in graduate school right now. I want to personally share with you my top three tips for success for all of you.

1. Choosing a mentor

 I think the number one decision that influences your success in graduate school is choosing the right mentor for you. While it is true that the right mentor is different for everyone, there are some general rules you should follow in my experience to choose the right one for you. Depending on the department, there are minimum number of rotations to do before you commit to a lab. I strongly suggest you take up all of the rotations even if you feel strongly about one lab. It will increase your experiences as a scientist, and even if you don’t end up joining the lab, it can open doors for future collaborations as well.

When the time comes to make a decision, there are a lot of factors that might end up crossing your mind: environment, personnel, funding, and the actual science. While different people might have differing opinions, I strongly suggest prioritizing the lab environment and funding of the lab over the actual science in the lab. A PhD is challenging enough as it is. Don’t make it even harder on yourself joining a lab struggling to fund itself even if the science interests you the most. You are not bound by the subject matter that you study during your PhD. Most people I know enter another subject matter as a post-doc. What is important is that you receive the best training under the best environment possible as a PhD student. So, if it comes down to it, choose the environment over the science. Who knows? You might fall in love with the science like I did over time. I was not initially interested in adipocyte biology. Over the years though, I cannot imagine researching anything else besides adipocytes.

2. Work on multiple projects at once

For MD-PhD students and even normal PhD students, time is of the essence. We all hear horror stories of 6-8 years PhDs. That’s not ideal for any graduate student. While some circumstances are unavoidable, there are things directly under your control. We all know the failure rate of science is extremely high. Probably 95-99 % of science is failure. What we can do to hedge ourselves against failure is to work on multiple projects at once. Even if one fails, you have others going at the same time. This might be extremely hard to do and to balance your time, but it’ll be worth it when the failures start to mount.

For me personally, I was able to finish my PhD in 3.5 years. Even for a MD-PhD student, that’s relatively quick. I was extremely lucky to do so of course. However, luck favors the prepared. In the beginning, I worked on 3 different projects simultaneously. One project completely failed, another project was slowed by mass spectrometry difficulties, and my third project evolved into my thesis. As a result of diversifying my projects and not sticking to one project, I was able to find a project that successfully worked and was able to graduate quickly.

3. Be aware of your mental health

Science is hard. Failure is not easy to accept, yet we fail everyday as scientists. Compound the failure you experience in lab with the failure you might experience in your personal life and that can result in mental hardships. Graduate students are 3-6x more likely to experience depression and anxiety compared the general population. It’s time to address the problem and end the stigma of mental health problems. Mental health is your health. If you are feeling burned out, tell your mentor and seek professional health as hard as it might be.

For me personally, despite my successes in graduate school, I experienced symptoms of depression and anxiety during the last 6 months of my graduate school as I worked on my thesis. The stress of writing a review paper, finishing my experiments, writing my thesis, and preparing to defend compounded with my own personal problems. I started to feel burned out and had to seek professional help. Today, I am glad to say I’ve recovered and look forward to my future. I am mentally healthy now, and I owe that to the professionals that helped me through it. If you are struggling, don’t hesitate to seek out help.

These are my top tips for you to succeed in graduate school. Every journey is different, but if you take these tips at heart, I think it will truly make your experience in graduate school better. If you want more advice, Hanna and I are more than welcome to answer any questions and give you advice. We are both active on Twitter she is @MDPhDtoBe and mine is @MDPhDinProgress. Since we are both interested in hepatology, class of 2022, and have such similar account names, I consider her my Twitter twin. It has been an honor to contribute to her blog not once but now twice. Don’t be afraid to reach out to us!


About Alex

I’m a 7th year MD/PhD student at Wayne State University studying genetic mechanisms of fatty liver disease. In my spare time I like to cook, exercise, play video games, and write. Check me out on twitter @MDPhDinProgress.

Advice for pre-pharmacy students

A couple days ago, I was asked on my ask.fm account, ask.fm/MDPhDToBe, the following question:

“You mentioned that you wanted to go to pharmacy school initially, why? What advice could you give to pre-pharm students? What made you change your mind?”

And my response was:

“I was actually first pre-med at the start of high school, but then decided I wanted to do pharmacy instead during my first summer of volunteering at a hospital because I didn’t think I’d want the extensive patient contact (I was rather shy). I wanted whatever I did to contribute to healthcare and I liked pharmacy’s emphasis on drugs and drug interactions.

When I came to college, I was overwhelmed with the amount of people wanting to do pharmacy, and so I wanted to do something different. Also, it was at this time that I was introduced to research and became fascinated with genetics research and the possibility of designing personalized medicine. And so, I changed to wanting to do research that contributed to the design of drugs – as I still want to. It’s not like I completely decided against pharmacy but rather that I incorporated my interest in pharmacy into another way of contributing to health care.

As for my advice, I’ll tell you what a pharmacist that I shadowed in high school told me. Learn chemistry. Lots and lots of chemistry. In fact, her advice was a major reason that I decided to take AP chemistry in high school, which led to majoring in chemistry in college. Also, if your college has a pharmacy school, look to see if they offer courses for undergraduate students. Mine did and so through it I have taken Introduction to Pharmacy, Applied Medical Terminology, Non-Prescription Medications and Self-Care, and Drugs and the U.S. Healthcare System, which all would be helpful classes for the pre-pharm student. My favorite was definitely Drugs and the U.S. Healthcare System because it was an online forum class that we seriously just read about and discussed issues with pharmaceuticals in the healthcare system and what could be done to fix those issues. It was very stimulating and helped me learn a ton about the pharmaceutical industry and ethical issues that doctors and pharmacists face!”

BUT WAIT! THERE’S MORE! I talked to one of my best friends and fellow lab mate who was just accepted to pharmacy school this year (yay her!) for any advice she would have for a pre-pharmacy student. Here’s her biggest piece of advice:

When deciding which classes to take, make sure to check what classes are required by the pharmacy schools you plan on applying to! Their requirements are not as consistent as medical schools. For example, she only took one semester of biology because our school’s pharmacy school only required that, but most colleges require two semesters, which severely limited her options for schools. Also, some are more picky about which classes will fill their requirements. So have schools in mind when you plan what classes you take in undergrad so that you can make sure that you fulfill ALL of the requirements.

Best of luck! 🙂