Surviving your first day in grad school

7:00 am: Wake up and drink some coffee

8:30 am: First meeting with your adviser

10:00 am: First graduate class

11:30 - XX: ?????

Okay, so you just moved in to your shiny (or for most of us on a grad student budget, somewhat grimy) apartment. IKEA furniture is still in pieces on the floor - who has time for that anyway when you have your FIRST DAY of graduate school ahead of you? You've got it all planned out. First, you'll have coffee, because did you really even wake up if you aren't fueled by caffeine? Next, you'll meet with your adviser to talk about your project and the term ahead for the first time. Next, you have your first graduate class coming up, which, I'm not going to sugar coat it, will be hard, but it'll definitely be interesting. Then you'll......what?

No, seriously, what are you going to do after that? Like, how does that first day even shape out? Do you stick around and do research? You don't even know the layout of the lab, much less what your project truly entails to actually get some experiments going. Do you do homework? Nah, it's the first day of class, you realistically won't have homework. So....what do you actually do the rest of the day? You don't want to just go home because let's be real. You came to grad school. You're motivated. You didn't get there by twirling your thumbs in math class all the time.

I know I hated the uncertainty of what to do on that first day when I didn't know what to expect. So, to help avoid that same thing happening to you, here are a few tips on what you CAN do to be productive without going nuts and spinning your wheels.

1. Go on a walk

No seriously, go on a walk around the buildings and campus. Unless this is the same school you went to undergrad at, you don't know the lay of the land. You don't know where the administrative offices are, you don't know where the gym is, etc. If you want to be cool and show off to all of your new grad friends, take a walk and discover all of the resource locations that you need to know for the next 4-6 years.

2. Read some papers

Easily one of the most underappreciated aspects of science in new scientists is reading papers before starting experiments. You are going to read. A LOT. You'll end up reading dozens and dozens of papers in your field on your project and still need more literature. Get started ASAP and it will make your life way easier in the long run.

3. Set up your schedule

I live by google calendar. From classes and meetings, to when I'm eating lunch and working out. If you have a schedule, you're way more likely to actually do the things you're going to say you're going to do. Plus, you won't have to worry about missing an all important rendez-vous with your adviser on a Tuesday afternoon at lunch! That's always a bonus.

4. Organize your lab notebooks

This is a saving grace. You don't need to be the world's most optimized, clean, structured, grad student, but you also shouldn't be willy-nilly with your documentation either. I personally have 3 different binders - one for my written lab notebook, one for my papers and their annotations, and one for protocols. I also keep an electronic lab notebook. Set up the organization for these things on this day, and you'll have a much easier time keeping track of everything the rest of the semester. Plus, your adviser will surely take notice and be more likely to want to keep you around as a student!

I know there are only 4 things here, but you would be amazed at how long it will actually take you to do all of these. Reading papers specifically will take you a lifetime. But I know I wish someone had pointed these tasks to me before I started my first day so I didn't have so much apprehension going in.

Good luck!


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