Category Archives: Guidebook


I’m not sure how many times I’ve referred to Rotations in my previous posts and assumed that the reader understands what they are, but I’ve come to realize that maybe they aren’t as common and as well known to people as I think they are. In the past couple of weeks, as I’ve started working in a different department, I’ve had to explain the concept several different times, so I thought I’d just write a quick post on what exactly Rotations are.

First of all, let me just remind you that these are my experiences at MSU and may not be the same at every university (although I think they are probably similar in many ways).

Rotations are an opportunitiy for first year graduate students to work in several different labs at the university. At MSU, we have to do 2, most people do 3 and some people do up to 5. These are 10 week sessions where you join in a lab and work on a small project to understand how the advisor mentors students and how the lab group operates. The project is either an original question that stems from a project in the lab, a small part of someone’s project, a pilot or proof of concept idea for a new project (that could be the start of your thesis if you joined), or something else. Basically, a small project that, hopefully, allows for some original thought, new ideas/techniques and an appropriate representation of how things operate in the lab.

Not only are they good opportunities to understand how an advisor and lab operates, they can be great learning experiences. They will add tools to your ever-expanding box. They will also help you sort out what type of research you want to do. Sure, you got accepted to X program, but within that program are a variety of different fields and topics, each of which will inspire you differently.

I like to call them 10 week interviews – for both of you. You’re trying to find out if the lab is a right fit for you, and they’re trying to figure out if you’ll be a good fit in the lab.

Have any more questions about rotations? Let me know! Or, let me know what you think about them!




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Tis the season to be… recruited!

It’s time for your hard work of searching, choosing, and applying to pay off! If your application makes the admissions cut, you’re likely to be asked to visit your schools of choice for some tours and interviews. If you’re lucky- also for a fellowship! So if you got an invitation – congratulations!

Here’s where the dating analogies start… recruitment is kind of like you, your university’s, and maybe your advisor’s first date.  Not only are they checking you out, but you’re also checking them out – and don’t forget that. You’re going to spend your time trying to impress every person you meet, but don’t forget to take a careful look around yourself.

This is how the recruiting goes at MSU – but I’m guessing it’s similar at other universities.

There are three main components:

  • People getting to know you — this takes place in the form of usually a short introduction or a presentation to the faculty and/or current students. Here’s your chance to shine – make sure you’ve rehearsed your strengths and have a solid idea of where you’re going- and how this school/advisor fits into that. Also if you’re a good communicator, this is a good place to show that too. If you’re not, something you might want to try to improve beforehand.
  •  You getting to know the people — The researchers, the grad students, the support staff – this takes place in various social events (usually around food/drink) or more formally, with potential advisors, with a short “interview” (just a meeting really – and this is also them getting to know you).
  • You getting to know the school and the area — Campus tours as well as tours of highlights around the city. Ask about good places to live- if you decide to move here, that will come in handy later.

How to act/behave

If you’re like me, I was not certain at all that I was admitted to the university. Some people think, if they’re going to spend $1000’s of dollars on bringing you to the school, you’re probably in. And if you’re that secure, that’s fine. But I definitely wasn’t, and I honestly think, better safe than sorry!

On that note, I think there are really two important things to remember here.

  • EVERYONE you meet could be a potential friend/colleague/mentor/etc. for you in the near future. And they WILL remember you (esp. if you do something rude/stupid/inappropriate). Remember that when you meet with grad students, researchers and secretaries- EVERYONE. If you decide to attend this university, it will make things a lot easier. I don’t say that to make you nervous/scared while you’re there, but just don’t act like you’re never going to see these people again.
  • And with that, the only other important thing I want to note is that, if your recruitment is anything like mine, you will be served alcohol. Maybe never-ending supplies.  I know peer pressure is tough here, but if you don’t handle alcohol well, stay away. People may forget if you’re drinking a soda rather than a beer, but they will never forget if you do something rude/stupid/inappropriate whilst drunk.

In the end – have fun, and learn lots.

Be yourself – but be your-best-self.

How about you? How did your recruiting go? Or what else do you have questions about for your upcoming recruitment?

PS. These, “how to behave tips” are probably always a good idea in most social situations.

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Finding a Graduate Program

Alright. We’ve decided we want to go to grad school … time to figure out where and with whom.

Obviously, this is a different beast than undergraduate. I’m not sure what you looked at, but you’re no longer looking at majors, extracurriculars, costs, or how close it is to your high school friends or parents. Alright, so maybe you still need to consider those things, but we all know the most important thing to consider is the person you’ll be working with, or your thesis advisor.

So in some respects, you’re not really looking for a school or even a program,  you’re looking for a person. But the school can be important too. If you’re worried about your academic pedigree, this can be very important. And honestly, we all know, that sometimes we just choose the place that gives us the most money.

However, before the offers roll in, you need to apply. So what’s a good way to find these schools/programs/people?

First of all, hopefully if you’ve decided to go to grad school, you’ve already narrowed your desired field to a pretty specific topic. This will help immensely and if you haven’t,  you might want to consider some soul searching, an internship/undergrad research, or starting with a master’s first.

  1. Ask your professors/advisors.
    Find someone at least related to what you want to do (the more specific the better) and tell them that you want to go to grad school for X. If they aren’t jerks (you don’t want to talk to them if they are)  they will probably be very happy to tell you about so and so at such and such of school that does exactly what you’re looking for. I’m not kidding. They all know each other (especially if it’s a small field).
  2. Journals
    Again, if you have a specific field in mind, start reading the corresponding journal. You might find someone working on exactly what you’re interested in. If not, you might notice a school that commonly comes up and check that out.
  3. Google that shit
    I’m definitely not against Google in any way. Again, just search your topic/field of study you’re interested in. Scholar will help you find the journals, but a simple Google search will help you find departments at schools which will let you find faculty that way.
  4. Attend a Conference
    This is probably one of the best ways, but maybe not the most feasible. If your field has a designated society, try to go to the (bi-)annual  meeting. If not, go the next level out (general biology/ecology instead of microbial ecology). Read posters and go to talks that are related to what you want to study and follow them back to the schools/people involved. It might not be feasible – but check out the programs (usually listed online) for topics and speakers that’ll interest you.
  5. Online Grad School Search engines
    I found these to be too generic for me, but they might work for you. Check them out, they’re easy enough to find.
  6. Read the literature
    This has come up a couple times, but again, it’s important, so I’m saying it again. Search the databases for topics you’re interested in, find the names that continually come up and stalk them to see what they’re up to (research-wise, of course).
What were your strategies for finding programs?
Once you’ve identified people/programs/schools you’re interested in, it’s time to start applying.

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Doctorate vs. Master’s

While you’re working on deciding whether or not to go to grad school, you also need to consider if you should go for your M.S. or for your Ph.D.

There are a couple things to consider here.

  1. What’s your end goal?
    Again, you have to have some idea for what career you want at the end of this. Make sure you know what degree is right for this career. Maybe having a Ph.D will make you overqualified (if you’re lucky, maybe having a master’s will).
  2. So you need a Ph.D. – straight through or Master’s first?

    Let’s start this discussion with me saying, I skipped my Master’s. I’m not saying this is the best option- but it’s the one I chose. For example, I recently found myself listening to someone I respect a lot telling me that getting a master’s first is really the better thing to do. (Kind of awkward, yeah?)

    When I applied to graduate schools, I applied to both master’s and Ph.D.  programs. I knew I wanted my Ph.D. in the end, but I was completely comfortable getting my M.S. first if I didn’t get into a Ph.D. program. The way I saw it was that I was going to be getting 2 more years of an experience, another 2 years of learning.

    The things this respected person was saying, was that they graduated with some publications from their Master’s and that gave them an edge in their Ph.D. Also, that a M.S. is a good way to figure out if you want to continue on to get your Ph.D.

    If your goal is to remain in academia, and you know for sure that’s what you want to do, then getting a Master’s before your Ph.D. isn’t a bad option. If you just want a Ph.D to work somewhere else, then maybe getting in and getting out with a degree quickly is more important to you and you’ll want to focus on getting into those Ph.D programs.

Getting out quickly isn’t that important to me. However, I ended up getting into a Ph.D. program in the best possible place I could imagine for the field I’m in. So I went with it. It’ll depend on your situation, but don’t write off getting a Master’s – even if you know you want your Ph.D. in the end.

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Why Graduate School?

This is an important question to consider. It’s one you’ll ask yourself many times. It’s one other people will ask you even more times. But making the decision to go to graduate school isn’t one you should take lightly (especially for doctoral students).

Reasons to go to graduate school :

  • You have a strong desire to learn, and want to keep learning more about a particular field
  • Your end goal career requires a degree of that level
  • Again, you want to learn more  (this is important, so it’s here twice)
Reasons you shouldn’t go to graduate school for :
  • Someone told you to
  • Vanity/ the title at the end
  • Seemed liked a good idea at the time
  • Don’t know what else to do
  • Have nothing better to do
  • Waiting for the job market to improve (and you hadn’t considered graduate school before

Contrary to public belief, I’m not going to graduate school to delay getting/finding a job. (Case in point, I already had a job as a microbiologist). For a student of science, graduate school is a whole different story.

One of the reasons I’ve created this blog is because I found it hard to find information/experiences from other science graduate students. I appreciate, as well as you probably did, advice from other masters/doctoral students from the English department… but we all know things are a bit different for us.

No, for a science student, it is not about delaying the workforce. It is not really all about getting more education. We go to graduate school because it is the beginning of our careers. For some of us, it will be our first experiences in labs and doing research. It will produce our first publications. It’ll introduce us to the leaders in our fields. And while I’m considering a career in academia, I’m confident these skills are necessary for science industry jobs too.

So, make sure you ask yourself why you’re going to graduate school and be comfortable and confident with your response. And not just so you have something to say to your relatives.

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