What Not to do in Your First Year of Grad School

Acclimating to graduate school can be a rough adjustment for even the most flexible person. Depending on your circumstances, you could be coming from an undergraduate university, an industry job, a postbac program, a lab technician position or any combination of these backgrounds. For me, transitioning straight from undergraduate education at my HBCU (Historically-Black College/University), North Carolina Central University, to the very PWI (Predominantly White Institution) Johns Hopkins University was a rough adjustment. 

Through my first year pursuing a Ph.D. in Biochemistry, I have made mistakes, overcame obstacles, failed classes, lost friends, and been rejected from labs, but I’ve also received fellowships, won grants, chosen a thesis lab, and successfully moved out of my parents’ house. (The last one might’ve been the most difficult of all.)

Despite my extreme ups and downs, I feel more resilient, empowered, and prepared than ever to tackle the next 4+ years of my life. 

Grad school is like a roller coaster, there will be peaks and valleys, but it is all a part of the ride.

My goal is to pay it forward to those who might be facing similar struggles out there as they matriculate in school or life. Based on my experience, here  are 4 things that you should absolutely not do in your first year of graduate school: 

1.    Don’t believe that classes aren’t important in graduate school

A common adage that I heard before starting grad school was that the classes don’t matter and the priority of grad school is to contribute meaningful research to your field of study. 

While this may be largely true, I think hearing this line of thought lulled me into a false sense of security towards my curriculum. I wish I’d had a better understanding of the rigors of graduate school before beginning. Here, you are required to balance full-time research and classes, and that can be tough academically. The truth is, grad school is hard and the classes are no exception. Take your classes seriously despite the other responsibilities that you will have. There are high standards set upon you as a graduate student and repercussions if you don’t meet them (more on this later), so try your best and study diligently. You are here for a reason and your previous experiences have prepared you for this moment. It is time to lock in. 

2.    Don’t expect to be best friends with your classmates

I feel like this one needs to be expounded upon briefly. As someone transitioning to grad school directly from undergrad, I have been in school almost all of my life. Previously, my social circle was dictated by the people I was surrounded by at school. In high school, I had friends I had grown up with since elementary school, and in college, I had friends that were never more than a phone call away. I was constantly surrounded by supportive people and a strong social circle. Grad school is not like that. 

A lot of my classmates come from different educational backgrounds and age ranges, and have different career goals. We are cordial with each other, but I wouldn’t consider them to be the friends for life that I developed in college. I wish someone would’ve told me before I started graduate school that my classmates are not going to be my best friends, and that’s ok. 

You will find a few loyal friends you can depend on, but for the most part, grad school can be pretty lonely. Grad school is more similar to a job than a traditional school experience and thus I now view most of my classmates as coworkers (there are definitely some coworkers I like more than others). What is important is to build and strengthen the meaningful relationships that you do develop and worry less about trying to be liked by everyone. Grad school is tough, so it’s good to have genuine, authentic people around you to help you succeed. 

3.    Don’t wait for opportunities to come to you

It is easy to get lost in the transition of your first year of graduate school and lose focus on your many obligations. Your primary goal in grad school is to get a degree and to prepare yourself for a career after that degree. As you invariably encounter obstacles along your academic path, remember that it is important to make the most of every situation and to maximize your opportunities to be successful. Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there and pursue things that you believe will further your career. 

I chose to apply for the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP), a premier early-career science fellowship, through the National Science Foundation despite balancing laboratory rotations, classes, moving to a new city, being homesick 24/7, missing my mom, running a nonprofit organization (Black Scientists Matter), and battling many personal struggles, because I believed that I was a great candidate. I put a significant amount of effort into my application and I was fortunate enough to be awarded 1 of roughly 2000 of these prestigious fellowships awarded across the United States to graduate students of every scientific discipline. 

I say all that to say, it’s nice when opportunities are handed to you and success falls into your lap, but life doesn’t work that way. Don’t be afraid to shoot your shot on an opportunity/relationship/project that could benefit you later, Success is where preparation meets opportunity.

4.    Don’t forget to focus on your mental health

Graduate school can be a huge burden on your mental health. A recent study published in the journal Nature Biotechnology found that graduate students are 6 times more likely than the general population to experience depression and anxiety. Said students cite graduate education as their primary source of stress. Grad students are overworked and underpaid, and it can feel like every predicament will make or break your future career. It is very easy to succumb to the stress of graduate school. 

My best advice to help you weather the ups and downs is to just take it one day at a time and don’t forget to make time for your mental health. For me, attending church every Sunday is a top priority, and one of the main outlets I use to remain mentally strong. It is good to have things in your life that allow you to take your mind off graduate school, because it can take over your life if you allow it to. Remember that grad school is a marathon, not a sprint—don’t tire yourself out by running too fast too soon. 

The journey you are embarking on will profoundly change your life. You are learning more than you’ve ever learned before and you will be challenged in new ways every single day. Believe in yourself and make the most of each day, but don’t forget to rest. 

Graduate school is a rollercoaster; strap yourself in, sit back, and enjoy the ride. I can’t wait to see how you tackle your first year of graduate school, future Ph.D.


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Michael Hopkins is a second-year Ph.D. Student at the Johns Hopkins University, where he studies the biochemistry of protein homeostasis in the brain. He is also the founder and CEO of Black Scientists Matter Inc. and a proud alumnus of North Carolina Central University.

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