Life of a Grad Student: Fifth Year

Graduate Division

Student 1

Female, Mission Bay

Tell me about your experience starting out at UCSF.

I never originally intended on going to UCSF.   I had actually wanted to go over to the East Coast, but I distinctly remember my interview weekend, and after being here, I just couldn’t imagine going anywhere else.  The facilities were amazing; the people were so smart, so friendly, so approachable. Nothing else could compare. 

You’re going into your fifth year now.  How has this attitude changed, or is it the same? 

Somebody told me when I started that graduate school isn’t a test of intelligence; it’s a test of endurance.  I didn’t really understand that in my first year, or even in my third year. 

But as you hit the fourth year, you realize that everybody comes in with approximately the same level of raw intelligence, but the confidence and the general understanding take time.

I think it’s a comforting concept — that everybody can do it.  You just have to put in the time and the effort, and you’ll get there.   

How has your lab experience been — is it different from what you expected?

Not really. I worked in a lab as an undergraduate, and my PI was pretty hands-off, so they let me do a lot of my own research, and I got to train graduates as an undergraduate. It was a pretty small lab.

So the lab experience I’m getting now as a graduate student, obviously it’s more intense, but it isn’t a far stretch from what I anticipated things to be like — you come into work, you put in your hours, you do your experiments, you do your timelines. 

My PI is really wonderful. I can’t complain.  She’s hands-off, but if you need her, she’s there for you.  

It’s also a matter of figuring out what style of lab you like during rotations.

Yes, (rotations) are like a dating experience.  You have to see if you like this level of hands on or that level of hands on.  But honestly, I feel like a good portion of that is luck.  The interaction with the PI as a rotation student is completely different from the interaction with the PI as a graduate student.

Were there any obstacles you had to overcome? 

I think the most important thing to understand is that life occurs regardless of you being a graduate student or not, and the science still needs to happen. 

You have to find the time to balance all of these aspects of your life that are important — your social life, your scientific development, keeping up with new and relevant literature, your personal time — because if you’re missing any one of those aspects of your life, everything is going to start to go downhill. 

I think it’s really important to keep some sort of work/life balance.  We’re at a point in our lives where we’re totally financially independent, and there are a lot of challenges that come with that — big grown-up problems that we’re having to deal with for the first time while getting our PhD. 

I think it’s really important to make sure you can stay on top of it and be open and honest with your faculty mentor. 

There was one point in my graduate career where there was a lot of social and personal stuff going on, and I told her, “Look, I’m dealing with X, Y and Z right now, and I’m doing the best I can in lab, but as soon as it’s done I’ll be good to go,” and she was totally supportive of that, so I think that’s important.

Any other advice you want to give?

Everybody wants to graduate. Nobody comes in thinking they want to do eight years — even six years — of graduate school.  But what I’ve started to notice as I get closer and closer to graduating and I’ve had these discussions with my PI on how to graduate in a timely manner, it’s not so much how much you’ve learned, but it’s how well you’ve managed your time and overcome challenges. 

It’s helpful to learn a lot about your field, but what’s really important is the ability to overcome challenges, which is what makes a graduate program so great — you can take one skill set and apply it to everything.  And the only way you get better at that is if you fail a lot. 

Student 2

Female, Parnassus

Tell me about your general experience at UCSF. 

It’s been really positive.  The people here really make the place, not just the PIs, but the other students.  I really like the people I’ve been working with, and the experience has generally been really positive. 

I would say it’s varied throughout the years in terms of the positivity, and there have been a lot of highs and lows, but I would say overall it’s been a positive experience. 

What were those highs and lows, specifically in lab?

It was hard for me in the beginning because — not having a research background with a very independent project — coming here was a big transition, and the project in the lab that I ended up joining wasn’t a ready-made project.

It was one I had to come up with myself, and that was extremely difficult.  But, I think it incurred a lot of personal growth, so I’m actually really happy that it worked out that way. I didn’t have to just pick up someone else’s project, and I really appreciate that. 

Also I became much more aggressive with my own project.  My PI was so busy with other commitments that (those of us in lab) started talking amongst ourselves, and that actually helped a lot. 

The grad student who’s more senior than me is probably going to graduate soon and — probably because we kind of all just took things into our own hands — it’s actually been positive.

Do you think this experience has positively affected your future?

I think so.  I think it’s going to be very helpful in the future.  This lab is not a hand-holding type of lab.  I think that if someone needed a lot of hand-holding, I would not advise them to join this lab, but for me, it was a good choice. 

I think that’s a big part of choosing the right lab — it has to be a good fit for you. Someone can tell you that the PI’s awful or the PI’s great, but you don’t really know until you’re in that situation, and that’s exactly what I found.  And sometimes things change, and you have to adapt to that situation, otherwise you’re not going to make it.

Are there any obstacles that you have had to overcome? 

Grant funding — either as a PI or a student — is difficult to get.  I applied for the National Science Foundation twice and didn’t get it.  I applied for a ton of large grants and didn’t get any. I only get small grants. 

What would you tell other students to do about this? 

Don’t get discouraged — apply to everything you want to.  In your first or second year, they’re all open for you.  Once you pass quals, you can only apply for mostly small grants, but you just really shouldn’t lose hope.

I got a (relatively) big grant in my second or third year, and the last conference I went to was completely funded.  You just have to keep trying — and it benefits not only your lab, but also you, if you’re going into academia. That’s basically what your life is going to be, so you’d better get used to it, and get used to rejection. Most people don’t have a 100% success rate.

What advice do you have for other students?

If you make it to quals, then that’s when the real test [begins].  Some people think that once you’re done with quals, your plan is there, and you’re ready, but I think the third, the fourth and the fifth years are the hardest — those interim years. 

That’s when you start having to think about going to conferences, having to present, and it’s a lot more stressful than before.  The expectations are a lot higher — especially after you’re done with the fourth year. People expect a lot more out of you.  But if you can get past that, then you’re going to make it out in the end.