Skip to main content
U.S. flag

An official website of the United States government

Help Is Out There: Navigating Graduate School’s Challenges

Submitted by Lori Conlan February 14, 2022

Embarking on your graduate career can be exciting. You’re designing your own experiments, directing your own scientific inquiry, uncovering new knowledge. There’s so much to learn! It also comes with a unique set of challenges. There is a lack of structure – there’s no set end time, and the milestones along the way aren’t rigidly defined and often depend on you. You’re expected to work more independently than you have in the past. In addition, you may receive infrequent feedback on your work, and what you do hear is often critical. Whether it’s the result of imposter fears on your first day in lab or a string of unsuccessful experiments in your third year, there will be a time when you doubt yourself. (Okay, many times!) Follow these suggestions to prepare for those doubts and challenges so you can build the skills you need, move your project forward, and plan for your career after graduating.

  • Take care of yourself. To do your best science, you need to be able to bring your creativity and resilience to your work. You can only do that when you are taking care of your whole self. Be sure to make time outside of lab for the activities that energize you. Pay attention to your stress level and self-talk and develop wellness strategies that work for you. Find wellness resources offered by the OITE here.
  • Be proactive. It’s important to realize that you are ultimately responsible for both the success of your scientific projects and your future career. That doesn’t mean that you need to do it alone, though. Ask for the help that you need and be assertive in seeking out resources that will help you along the way. Know your program requirements and key milestones and keep them in mind throughout your journey. Self-directed graduate students succeed.
  • Find good mentors. Choosing a graduate advisor who will support your science, your future career, and you as a person may be the most important decision you make as a graduate student. But even if you have a great thesis advisor, no one person can meet all your mentoring needs. Having multiple mentors, within and outside of your lab, can ensure that you receive good mentorship for your scientific, professional, and personal goals. In addition, seeking multiple perspectives when you face a problem will help you arrive at creative solutions.
  • Develop a network of support. During graduate school, you’ll need support in a variety of arenas, including from friends and loved ones. Make sure you also learn about the support that’s available at your institution. Find and take advantage of available career and professional development resources. Get to know your graduate program staff and the important people in leadership and administrative roles in your program. Know who you can turn to when you run into a problem and reach out when you need support. If you are conducting research at the NIH, familiarize yourself with resources for students in the Graduate Partnerships Program and know that the GPP staff are always here for you.
  • Have a training plan. A training plan is a dynamic document that can help you identify your short- and long-term scientific and career goals. Creating one will help you think through what you hope to accomplish and what skills you want to develop to reach your goals. It can also facilitate communicating those goals to your mentor and your committee. You can explore your skills, values, and interests and develop an Individual Development Plan (IDP) on the Science Careers website using myIDP.

Being a graduate student means constantly learning something new. While that can be overwhelming at times, it can also be exhilarating. Maintaining a growth mindset and using the tools above will help you avoid common pitfalls and succeed in your graduate career.

Guest Blogger: Laura Marler, PhD: Director of Student Services, NIH Graduate Partnerships Program, OITE
Part of the “Voices of OITE” series.

Related posts: