BCMB Academic Program Manager and esteemed alumna Lesley R. Brown, PhD, shares some comments on the graduate student experience.
Congratulations to our newcomers! You have been accepted into the Biochemistry, Cellular & Molecular Biology [BCMB] graduate program at Johns Hopkins, and you are, quite naturally, on top of the world. The journey to BCMB is long and arduous, but you have shown that you are up to the task. Hopefully, you have caught your breath, because the second leg of the trip has begun. No matter what you think you know about graduate school, the reality is bound to be quite different. Different is good; it’s even better when you have prepared for it. While there is no one formula that will guarantee success, going in with the appropriate expectations will make your transition easier.
Graduate school is designed to make you an expert in a specialized area of study by taking part in making a unique discovery in your field. There are many components to graduate school. The one with which you are probably most familiar is the mastery of coursework. You may welcome the lighter course load until you realize that the courses require a greater depth of understanding than what was required as an undergraduate. Graduate education is much less general and theoretical than undergraduate education. There is no single path that leads to understanding because students enter graduate school with different backgrounds. You have to become very good at analyzing your own particular situation and then adjusting accordingly.
Getting through the coursework, however, will be among one of the easier things required of you. It’s the area in which new graduate students have the most experience and confidence. The biggest challenge of graduate school is the research project – it provides you with the tools to discover new knowledge. If you were fortunate enough to have a significant research experience before entering graduate school then you won’t be surprised to discover that failure is an integral part of the research endeavor. Yes, it’s a bummer, but failure presents exceptional learning opportunities. The drive and desire to discover what happens “if I do this” or “when I do that” will help you to develop the exceptional levels of perseverance and motivation that are characteristic of successful researchers. If you are easily discouraged, a pessimist at heart, or need constant stroking, graduate school will be that much tougher.
Success in graduate school favors those who know how to focus, prioritize and be resourceful. As an undergraduate, your course of study was well-defined. The journey was well laid out, the destination was clear, and you were given a detailed travel plan that may have even pointed out scenic highlights along the way. You will progress more quickly in graduate school if you develop the ability to recognize areas for improvement and subsequently make the necessary adjustments. Research projects often take unexpected turns and because you are doing original and unique work, there are often no clear indicators of the path to take. You will need to seek opinions from colleagues – ie, engage in the robust culture of peer-review. Timely and frequent constructive feedback can save hours in the lab. Contrary to how scientists are often portrayed, research is not a solitary endeavor. Finally, learn to look for opportunity at every turn and be prepared to act on it.
It’s no secret that being a graduate student is hard work. It requires long hours [typically much more than a 40-hour work week], physical stamina and the ability to focus for extended periods of time. There is, however, a well-kept secret about how to sustain this level of productivity throughout graduate school – maintain a balance between extracurricular activities and school work. Time away from intense focus on research can often spark creativity, new patterns of thought and does wonders for one’s outlook on life.
Despite the hard work and intense focus, it is going to be a very stimulating experience. Why? Because you will be surrounded by hundreds “kindred spirits”. You’ll feed off of all the energy of students, post-docs and faculty who love science and the scientific endeavor. You will be fortunate and privileged to meet the “scientists“ who come to Hopkins to see and be seen. You’ll have a ring-side seat as you watch and participate in expanding our understanding of biomedical sciences. Welcome to Hopkins and I hope you make the most of the experience.