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How to Succeed in Grad School: maximizing your grad school experience

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1 How to Succeed in Grad School: maximizing your grad school experience
Iris Lindberg, University of Maryland Medical School 2014

2 The take-home message first:
Personal initiative underlies all successful careers. -actively pursue different opportunities to succeed! Every successful person has originated their own success. They take responsibility for themselves. They DO stuff rather than passively waiting for things to happen.

3 What’s “Success”? Operational: the ability to graduate and move on to the next phase of your life (with choices!) with all of the skills you need -within a reasonable time frame (4-6 years)

4 What’s “Basic” (Common)Success?
One good publication, in a specialty journal 3.0 GPA in graduate school Mastery of bench science Mastering specific techniques in your field and peripheral but related fields Experimental design- some independence and someanalytical skills Ability to communicate: write proposals and papers, give talks Acquisition of people resources (network) and information resources Two good recommendations from faculty familiar with your work Includes using controls

5 What’s “Excellent” Success?
Three good publications (on important topics, in widely-read, higher-impact journals) Complete mastery of bench science Independence at the bench; ability to design new projects from the literature Complete mastery of a field Excellent ability to communicate: to write proposals and papers, give talks, work with others Honors- grants, awards, etc Stellar recommendations (top 5%) from three or more faculty familiar with your work Includes using controls

6 How to Succeed? You must connect your stated goals with your actual effort There are hundreds of applicants for every good academic position Biotech companies want the same excellent credentials as academia Your competition will have those credentials There is no substitute for hard work Most successful scientists say they put in 50-60h weeks as students If it always feels like work, this may be the wrong job for you! this isn’t as bad as it seems because your area of focus will eliminate most of the assistant professor applicants, ie if the job is for a bioinformatics person in cancer research they will not hire a developmental person- and many people apply who are in the wrong area.

7 Personal Qualities Required for Success
Passion for science, enjoyment of intellectual challenge, viewing bench science as “fun”: CURIOSITY Tenacity, persistence= DRIVE Ability to visualize and work for a long-term goal (drive to finish): VISION Positive outlook Vast intelligence and brilliant coursework are less important than the above qualities Scientists often use words like “playing around” with a technique, “cool new equipment”, etc, I cannot stress enough how important it is to enjoy bench science, to hardly be able to wait to see a result. If you do not feel that way about your work, you should think about switching careers Anxiety- a little bit is GOOD; paralyzing anxiety is not. A basically optimistic personality is a plus.

8 This Presentation Efficiency at the bench
Obtaining, organizing, and presenting information Maximizing your grad school experience

9 Efficiency at the Bench

10 How to Succeed? While you need to have a hypothesis, much success is just luck You can get lucky if you try A LOT of different experiments As you mature scientifically you will be able to run several projects concurrently (and test many effects in a single experiment) Increase your odds of being lucky by doing more! Be ambitious at the bench.

11 Maximize Your Efficiency at the Bench
Start with a daily list of things to do Prioritize this list: do the most important things first Interleave items so that the most jobs get done Plan for the next day’s work before you leave Put a date on EVERYTHING! It’s a locator device! Do something on at least one weekend day (this will actually save you months over the course of your graduate career!) Read/search literature mostly in the evenings (or while waiting for a process to finish) Watch out for inefficient use of computer/web time People with ADD have to be especially organized -and may need to shut out distractions with headphones.

12 Always Do Feasibility Estimates
Many experiments (especially assays) benefit from a preliminary calculation prior to starting These estimates need not be exact- ballpark it! Example: a band on a gel like the standard is 2 ug. What is your yield of protein? (is it worth proceeding?) Saves time!

13 Experimental Design: Thinking vs Doing
Think about the actual figure in your eventual paper- how should it look? Run all appropriate controls and standards together with samples The sample data should always fall in the middle of the standard curve! More controls are better than fewer: positive AND negative Ahead of time, think hard about potential sources of error and ambiguity in data interpretation

14 Experimental Analysis
Be your own worst critic: do the right number of replicates you need (or more) If error bars overlap, are results really significant? What does a power analysis show? Is this a generally accepted method in the field? Are there other experimental approaches which could confirm? Is there any way you could have obtained your results through artifact? (position on a plate, etc). Do not EVER give results to more than 3 figures since no one can pipet this well! Do not routinely “normalize” or take out “errant” points Even if the computer gives you ten digits! Note that many experiments just will not give you interpretable results. Do not do them again and again! Learn to let go! Ultimately someone else has to judge this work. Would you buy this car?

15 Establish Your Conventions (examples: you can make your own)
Put standards on same side of gel Set up the control samples first, then experimental (i.e. always the same) When labeling tubes use the same color for control, and a different color for experimental Try to make data analysis as easy as possible (for example, by using the same percentage of medium and lysate)

16 Experimental Analysis, II
Do not keep repeating an experiment again and again in the hopes of getting a different answer. You must change something! (get advice) Do not be afraid to change your entire approach/project if you have really tried your best and you have not been able to get an unambiguous answer re-search= repetition. If you do not get the results you expect after two perfectly controlled experiments, nature is telling you something. Repeating it will just give you the same result! This is a very very common mistake, inability to let go of an unproductive approach or problem


18 You Need to Know How it Works
Make sure you understand the theoretical basis for all: Kits you are using Equipment you are using Techniques you are using You can’t troubleshoot if you don’t know what is happening Ask your advisor first when having problems Company literature and internet can help- just Google it

19 How to Develop Analytical Skills
Critique your own experiments before you ask for advice: locate possible sources of artifact and error compare your results to published data in terms of units Read the literature in your area! Thinking vs Doing: remember to balance Trouble shooting methods

20 Reading the Literature
You are responsible for finding and digesting all papers relevant to your projects Your mentor will love it if you provide them with hot new references related to your lab projects! Be ACTIVELY intellectually engaged! Learn to read papers critically. Were enough controls done? What is really new in the paper? What would be the next step? Not all papers in Cell or Nature are true… Take a cue from Michael Pollin: Read papers, mostly in your field, and not too much. Be ACTIVELY intellectually engaged!

21 How to Organize a Project
Plan a paper! (aim for a top journal) Make a flow diagram of what you would like to put into this paper assuming your hypothesis is true (things will change) Set up a timeline for accomplishing the various parts of the project (specifics) Line up all reagents and people you need well in advance It is immature to ask someone else to drop everything and help you right away because you didn’t plan ahead…

22 When You Have Problems First analyze the experiment yourself, then take this analysis and get help You must show you have mastered the technique before you can claim that the line of work is unprofitable- are you getting reproducible results? Investigate the use of alternative techniques Depending on the importance of the problem, you might want to use several approaches simultaneously

23 Other Problems in Grad School
Mentor is not available to you Pros and cons- you will become independent; however, it will take more time Most mentors will meet at least once or twice a week with students Courses vs lab work- reach a balance Troublesome interpersonal dynamics in the lab Go to your mentor and discuss privately

24 What to do if you have fallen out of love with your project
Think about why the experiments no longer interest you Personal reasons? Constant ambiguity in results? Hypothesis wrong? Too small a question? No existing context for the question? Decide with your mentor if it is time to switch projects; if not: Read more papers in the general area Go to a meeting and present your results to the group of people who work in this particular area Ie, motivational crisis Personal crisis, depression, things not going right (redouble your efforts) bottom line- you must love what you are doing. This is not mcdonald’s! the hours are long and the pay is small. Why stay if you are not truly involved?

25 Ideas “The best way to have a really good idea is to have lots of ideas”- Linus Pauling Reading the literature generates ideas. Ask your mentor if you can branch out to explore potentially interesting side areas which always pop up Do not be afraid to pursue the most important problems Do not continue indefinitely if unproductive, time-consuming and/or costly (risk-benefit analyses!) Focus on questions, not on techniques You will get better at generating ideas over time! No one starts out grad school with lots of relevant ideas. But the more you read, the more ideas you will have

26 Obtaining, Organizing, and Presenting Information

27 Obtaining and Organizing Information
Lab protocols- always use first Technique books = ie the “Red Book” Online manuals and lab websites Google as technical aid PubMed – look for papers Company technical information and equipment manuals People: seminars, s and phone calls It is much easier to have someone synopsize a field than to ferret out the information from primary sources

28 Obtaining and Organizing Information
Never let your experimental data pile up without filing. YOU WILL FORGET! Summarize your conclusions on the first page of your experiment when filing; paperclip or staple each experiment together Go look at previous lab members’ notebooks. Which ones are helpful? Which ones are useless? Why? Keep a separate protocol notebook or section File your references by subject and/or author Consider the use of color Organize your computer files- papers, techniques, letters, coursework. Back up!! Never throw out primary data Looking for things costs considerable time you could be spending doing other stuff. Always think about what you would like to see when you see someone else’s lab notebook – why they did the expt, what they did, how it came out. Filing systems vary by person. I like to put filed by subject in green folders and filed by person in red folders. I alphabetize all of them. Whatever saves you time in locating information is the best. BACK UP ALL COMPUTERS! (examples)

29 Obtaining and Organizing Information
Databases- learn how to access NIHreporter, PubMed, and any others specifically pertinent to your research Programs- learn very early on how to use a scientific graphing program (not Excel) and any other specialized programs your lab uses (references etc) Looking for things costs considerable time you could be spending doing other stuff. Always think about what you would like to see when you see someone else’s lab notebook – why they did the expt, what they did, how it came out. Filing systems vary by person. I like to put filed by subject in green folders and filed by person in red folders. I alphabetize all of them. Whatever saves you time in locating information is the best. BACK UP ALL COMPUTERS! (examples)

30 People Resources Your mentor should be your primary resource
Mentors are like movie producers- they organize the outside reagents and collaborations you need Other faculty members are nearly always willing to help Colleagues - students, postdocs, technicians Seminar speakers High school and college friends! (eventually- anyone you have ever met, at meetings and other scientific venues!) Some of these are for recommendations; some of these are for the future; some just file away metally- Joe knows how to do flotation assays, for later. Political skills fall in this arena. For example Laurent’s lack of attendance at parties..

31 Giving talks and writing papers and grants
See other presentations The more often you practice, the better you get

32 Cartoon here

33 Maximizing Your Grad School Experience

34 Choosing A Thesis Advisor
Does interesting work (to you!) History of productivity Search Pubmed Funded Search NIHreporter History of graduating students within 5 years Check this! Personnel from the lab have done well in the past (see papers; ask them; Google them) Look for successful outcomes, not a “great lab atmosphere”. This can change rapidly depending on the particular personnel at the time Follow your passion!

35 Funding Your Graduate Work
F32 awards for US citizens Disease foundations for non-citizens Ineligible if you apply too early or too late during graduate school- in the first committed year is best Again, be proactive! Look up deadlines your first year and aim to apply for something! Is your mentor a long-term member of a specific organization? That would be a good bet for you.

36 Mentors are Impressed by Grad Students Who…
Set their own deadlines (projects, papers, grant applications, exams) and actually meet them Read the literature on their own Think critically about their own experiments and those of others And of course, work hard… There is a lot to learn. As with a medical residency it is hard to fit it all into an 8 hour day. The more experiments you do, the more you learn. All of these show initiative..

37 Consider Taking on Multiple Projects
Discuss with mentor if you are ready to take on side projects Offer collaborations with other lab members, if mentor approves Outside collaborations also can provide other letters of reference

38 Attending Seminars Stay awake, listen, look
Try to anticipate where speaker is going Weigh the data- are conclusions supported? Mentally critique the speaker- could he/she have given a better talk? How? Think of questions to ask Take notes Most speakers could have given better talks. The best ones capture your attention all the way through, leave you wanting to know more, and with some kind of takehome message.

39 Seminar Speakers Use your time with seminar speakers wisely
Ask about merits of various techniques Ask for feedback about your research Ask about postdoctoral opportunities or grant opportunities Driving seminar speakers to and from the airport provides valuable one-on-one time

40 Attending a National Meeting
Meet as many new people as possible Learn about as many new techniques relevant to your work as possible Learn about reagents (antisera, plasmids) and suggest collaborators to your mentor Look at style of presentations as well as raw data and conclusions- what field/technique/ question impresses you most? Try to get something out of every talk you attend and poster you visit All levels, not just professors

41 Funding Meeting Travel
Many meetings offer travel support for students who are presenting as first authors WCBR; Endocrine Society; ASCB; SfN See websites and plan ahead Looks very good on your resume

42 Try to Accumulate Honors: this will distinguish you from others
Poster awards Travel awards Training awards Fellowships

43 For Non-native English Speakers
Try to take speaking and writing courses If this is not possible, get a native speaker to correct a half page of your writing several times a week There are no jobs for Ph.D.s who cannot formulate reasonable sentences in English And accent reduction helps too- even a spanish accent is considered a liability in teaching at a med school.

44 Meeting Your Deadlines
Personal vs official deadlines You should have both! (writing up papers vs proposal defense). Make your own deadline and stick to it by working hard with focus Procrastination “The best enemy of achievement” “The difference between your priorities and your results” (Barker, “At the Helm”) Perfectionism Sometimes valuable (quality products), but not if it keeps you from finishing a task With your lists and timelines you are setting your personal goals to be met. These should be specific and clear sets of experiments, not “graduate by May”. Official deadlines are things like departmental requirements and grant applications. It is always up to you to inform yourself and to meet those deadlines. There is NO excuse.

45 Program Expectations Meet all of the program deadlines on time (or early) regardless of what others are doing Organize your committee meetings WAY ahead of time, as faculty schedules will fill up Meet with your committee every six months: THIS IS IMPORTANT! Finish your thesis in 4-6 years or less. Unless there are mitigating circumstances, it looks bad on your CV if you have taken more than 6 years.

46 Qualifying and Preliminary Exams
Vary by program- learn your requirements in the first year AND MEET THE DEADLINES Do not put off the thesis proposal! It is just a proposal! You should not wait until shortly before you graduate. Do it in the late second or early third year! If you must write a proposal, do not be afraid to contact faculty for help Committee- literature, technique tips Mentor- general suggestions for improvement Ask fellow students for examples

47 Learn To Multi-Task It is neither necessary nor desirable to take 2-3 months off from the lab to prepare for your qualifying exam! You can devote some time each day to benchwork and some to literature analysis

48 Call On Your Committee! To help with experimental design and supply references for techniques To outline a game plan and keep you on track If your advisor won’t let you leave Once again, a yearly meeting (or more often) is required! More frequent meetings are better. Or if you are having any kind of trouble.

49 Taking Initiative and Assuming Personal Responsibility
You must seek out help when you need it Be proactive in other areas too- in suggesting seminar speakers, in locating new papers relevant to your research, outlining planned papers, suggesting collaborators You must become THE go-to expert in your field! You should know MORE than your mentor by the time you leave Be proactive!! This is the most important slide in the presentation

50 Taking Initiative and Assuming Personal Responsibility
Your mentor may identify meetings for you, but you can also identify meetings in the field - and try to get scholarships! Pre- and postdoctoral fellowships all have deadlines; you have to identify and meet them! Do not leave the lab before finishing/ submitting your manuscripts If submission not feasible, prepare the final figures to be used Be proactive!! This is your life! If you leave an unfinished manuscript, you may lose first authorship.

51 Working With Others Documented ability to work in teams is critical for industry/biotech jobs Must prove that you can direct students Don’t turn down summer undergraduates! Being a good lab member means helping out with chores without being asked Synergy: you get more done when each person helps a project with their particular expertise! Volunteer to help. More papers! Do not decline summer students…even if they distract you from your work

52 Learning How to Mentor Others
Undergraduates are valuable sources of labor but must be taught basic research as well as background Positive: help with laborious techniques Negative: need to train, often many times, as well as closely supervise= time-consuming Supervision includes making sure students keep a good lab notebook

53 Other Grad School Opportunities
Voluntary teaching- helps presentation skills Collaborations- you can initiate under certain circumstances (ask your boss) Provides more faculty recommendations Reviewing papers (ask your mentor if possible) Writing IACUC applications (ask if you can help) Learning as much as possible at all times- Techniques which may be useful to you in the future Learn how to operate available specialized equipment Mini-courses from companies Seminars from all departments (2-3 a week maximum) Proactive is the key word here

54 Starting Collaborations and Getting Reagents
Your mentor will generally be the one who writes another lab for reagents and collaborations However, you can make suggestions for collaborations and reagents that will facilitate/expand your work

55 Writing Reviews Volunteer to help write reviews that are requested of your mentor If there is no recent review of your field, ask your mentor if you can write one You will need to show that you can multi-task effectively (i.e. keep up with benchwork) before your mentor will agree Reviews are great for preparing for writing a thesis..

56 Looking for Postdoctoral Positions
It is never too early to start identifying potential postdoctoral mentors and grant opportunities Invite for seminars; look up at meetings Look for a mentor whose previous postdocs have been successful (ask where they have gone; talk to other lab members) Funding- constant? Publications- good rate? The best predictor of success is… success!

57 What Do PIs Look For in Postdocs?
INDEPENDENT thinkers! Ability to trouble-shoot, analyze results critically, and think of the next step Ability to set up new techniques from the literature Hard workers with a passion for science Appropriate background for the lab Best: bring something new to the lab Willingness to write a grant to support themselves Must plan at least a year ahead in order to do this

58 What other skills do companies look for in a postdoc?
Do you have experience writing up proposals? Do you have experience writing up regulatory documents such as IACUC applications? Do you have experience critiquing and summarizing the literature for others? Do you have experience presenting information to others?

59 Writing a Postdoctoral Training Grant (F32)
You need to show you will grow intellectually Going to another institution recommended Learn other techniques or a new field Identify an experienced postdoctoral mentor One year or more before anticipated graduation Be proactive- most people are looking for fellows Submit your proposal well before moving Success elements - in order of priority Your mentor’s reputation (pubs, grants, status) Your own accomplishments (grades, pubs) Training plan (courses, techniques to be learned) Research plan (clear, doable)

60 Graduate Student Bill of Rights
You will receive general training in a specific field You will receive training in experimental design You will meet regularly and often with PI and other trainers You will receive training in writing papers and grants You will write the first draft of papers You will get input on your proposals and see your mentor’s You will receive training in giving talks Your mentor will always listen to you first before you go public If your mentor is not training you in these areas, ask why!

61 At the End of the Day… You are not an “electrophysiologist”- you are trained in SCIENCE You have valuable design and analytical skills You can organize information efficiently You have communication skills, both written and verbal You are trained for many jobs!

62 Do Not Worry About Your Ability to Do Things in the Distant Future
when the time comes, you will have those skills!

63 Resources At the Bench, by Kathy Barker (Cold Spring Harbor Press)
At the Helm (same author) Survival Skills for Grad Students: talks, posters, grants, papers, jobs: Similar Site Run by IBRO: MIT’s site: Grant writing: Tips on Writing Scientific Reports: American Society for Cell Biology has lots of information:

64 Resources- Predoctoral and Postdoctoral Fellowships
NIH individual grant NIH training grant Many, many other sources- disease-related AHA and ACS are the largest NIH research training opportunities Howard Hughes Medical Institute Alfred P. Sloan Foundation Burroughs Wellcome Fund Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Many, many disease foundations

65 The future….

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