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This is it.

After a year of classes and research rotations and all-nighters, I finally joined the lab where I’m going to get my PhD. This is a big deal — for the next several years this lab will be my home and the people in it my de facto family.

To get here, I slogged through classes in the morning and lab rotations in the afternoon. The classes taught me the current state of biomedical science. The rotations were my chance to practice.


And now here I am: a full-time scientist. Before long, I could be making exciting discoveries about how bacteria organize their innards using scaffolding proteins. I’m excited — I think it’s the coolest project this side of the Mississippi. Along the way this year, I learned a few things about myself, about science, and about relationships: Here are some of them.

Coffee: It’s a food group

As an undergraduate, I never pulled an all-nighter. Not once in four years.


But graduate school changed all that — if I went to a seminar or lecture without my brain juice, something was wrong.

My coffee consumption reached astonishing quantities this year as I dug into classwork that was fundamentally different than what I did in college. In my classes this year, I was asked to design experiments and explain their results. Often, there were many ways to set up these experiments and several possible interpretations of the results. So I had to figure out the best answers, not the right ones. Even when I started early, these kinds of questions took hours of background research, meaning that I often worked through nights, fueled by liters of coffee, right up to deadlines.

Most mountains are molehills

When you deal every day with complex problems (see #1), it’s easy to assume all the challenges you face require intricate solutions. And, yes, sometimes, the answer to a problem is complicated. But, sometimes, it’s obvious. Maintaining perspective on the scope of a challenge is critical for grad school success.

During one of my lab rotations, an expensive piece of equipment broke and, naturally, it was when one of our collaborators from another university had traveled to Pittsburgh to use it. Stuff breaks, but the time-crunch had people running around wildly and calling expensive technicians to come quickly and fix it.

As we huddled around the broken machine, I asked what I assumed was a naive question: If the machine is running, why isn’t the pressure gauge changing? It turned out that during routine maintenance, someone put a valve back on backwards. A quick flip, and we were back in business.

An important lab skill? Social skills

This is one every older scientist and adviser told me, yet it was hard to fully comprehend until I lived through the rotation process. As I entered grad school last fall and planned who I would work with, I thought I would bound from one incredible project to another and assumed the process would be pure scientific bliss. In many ways this was true, and I worked on three amazing projects.

But, I didn’t anticipate the emotional stress of adjusting to a new work environment every few weeks. Each lab has its own customs and style. The hours they work, whether they are talkative or quiet, how they prepare stock solutions and share lab duties — each time I entered a new lab I had to adjust to a different way of doing things.

Sometimes, these expectations were communicated. Other times I had to learn by observation. Either way, for several weeks my entire schedule was upended as I changed when I slept and did my homework to fit the lab schedule. On top of this, each move meant meeting 10-15 coworkers and reporting to a new boss.

In the end, social factors were as important in my lab choice as picking the type of science I want to do. I was told again and again to choose a lab where I felt like I “fit.” This was annoying back then, because I didn’t know what it meant. Now I’ve finally learned that “fit” means finding the lab and principal investigator that most closely match my work and communication styles, a place where I feel comfortable asking questions and sharing ideas with everyone. The scientific journey of grad school is going to be challenging enough, so it’s not a bad idea to take the interpersonal path of least resistance.

Fact: Grad school is a marathon, not a sprint

During college, my workload was finite. It often seemed impossible, but I had a set number of assignments to get done each day and week so I would do well in my classes. When I survived each 16-week semester, I could collapse in a heap of exhaustion on my parents’ couch, watching Netflix and sleeping 14 hours a day to recover.

Not so in grad school. The classes I take have set assignments, but my work in the lab is infinite. Every waking moment could be another second spent reading a paper to learn more about my field or doing an experiment to answer a question. As excited as I am to learn the answers to my questions about how bacteria organize themselves, I can’t work 90 hour weeks for the next five years until I graduate. Somehow, I need to find balance so I can remain happy, healthy, and productive.

The intellectual freedom is intoxicating

My boss likes to say that grad school is exciting because you get to choose your own adventure. I am ecstatic about having this level of intellectual freedom.

This year I started that process by choosing the research area I want to work in and the people I want to work with. Now I’m trying to decide what big, unanswered questions I’ll try to tackle to get my PhD. I decided to become a scientist because I had endless questions about the world that my science classes helped explain. Many years later, I’m finally positioned to do work that answers some open questions, and I can’t wait to see how the next few years unfold.

Coffee is a food group

Did I mention coffee? Well, it bears repeating.

Sara Whitlock is a first-year graduate student studying structural biology at the University of Pittsburgh. Her column, Under the Microscope, can be found here