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.

Getting research experience as an undergraduate/post-bacc student

Research is essential to advance our knowledge of the human body and to develop improved ways of treating diseases. Without the innovation of researchers, we still may be doing things like putting leeches on people to heal them of their illnesses or cutting holes in people’s heads to release “evil spirits” that were believed to be the cause of their ailments. To show your devotion to the medical field as a premed, you can get involved in research so that you can get a better understanding of how it is done and a better appreciation of the hard work that goes into the knowledge doctors use to diagnose and treat their patients.

So how do you actually go about getting involved in a research laboratory? If you go to a large research university like I did, it’s a little easier. You find professors that you’d be interested in working with from the university’s website and contact them asking if they’d be interested in taking on an undergraduate student. Your advisor will also be a good resource to contact for help with this. Expect to at least start off volunteering as putting money into an inexperienced undergraduate isn’t the most logical for someone working hard to maintain grants to fund their lab. Depending on the professor (also called the PI or primary investigator of the lab) they may ask you to take a directed research course to verify that you’ll spend enough time in the lab or they’ll at least expect you to be in the lab for a certain amount of time each week. Often, you’ll be paired with a graduate student or postdoctoral student who will be your mentor. You may just assist the student or once you’re more experienced you will get your own project that they will simply advise you about. If you don’t go to a large research university, you can still contact professors at your nearest university to see if they would be able to take you in their lab.

Also, keep your eyes and ears peeled for professors saying that they are looking for undergraduates for their labs. This is how I managed to land both of my research positions in undergrad. I found out about the first lab I worked in because the professor was a guest lecturer in my freshman genetics course. He began his presentation with talking about the importance of research for undergraduates and said that if any of us wanted experience, his lab was always willing to take more undergraduates. I emailed him the next day and he told me to come in and talk to his lab manager whenever I was ready to start work. I found out about the second lab I worked in from an email the professor had forwarded to the chemistry majors by our advisor that said she was looking for undergraduates. As this lab was in a more convenient location and was much closer to what I wanted to do, I jumped on the opportunity. Nonetheless, if you pick a lab this way, you may not be working on something that you would want to go into (like for me, genetic engineering of livestock, which I helped with in the first lab).

Another option is to apply for a Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, REU for short. These are summer research programs that let you to go to another school for 10 or so weeks to get full time research experience. The best part is that you get paid for it! To find more about these, search for “Research Experiences for Undergraduates” on your favorite university’s website or simply google it to find schools that are offering such programs. They are  highly prestigious programs that are highly competitive, so it is suggested that you apply to quite a few of them!

If you’ve graduated from college, there are still opportunities to get research experience without pursuing an advanced degree. One incredible opportunity that I wish I had known about before I applied to med school is the Post-baccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) offered by the NIH. This program is for college graduates who received their bachelor’s degrees less than two years prior to the date they begin the program who intend to apply to graduate or professional school during their tenure in the program. Essentially, the program consists of working in a primary investigator’s lab at one of the National Institutes of Health facilities. It has rolling admissions with just 10% or so admission rate, but it is a fabulous opportunity to try for! I applied in the late early spring of my senior year in case I didn’t get into medical school and had a PI contact me about working in his lab just a few weeks later. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I had been accepted to an MD/PhD program at that point, so such a backup plan was not needed. There’s a general application on the site, but it will help to contact PIs that you’re interested in working with to help you get into the program!

Surely there’s other places to get research experience such as individual study or at a hospital. When in doubt, your advisor is your best friend and can surely help you land a great research experience!


Featured image: Hanna Erickson