What Not to Do in Grad School

Rebecca Hood, Ph.D. candidate in Behavioral Neuroscience

As I finish up my fifth year in graduate school, I’d like to share some lessons about things to not do that I’ve learned during my time here.

  1. Don’t, upon making an unexpected observation early on in your dissertation work, partially investigate it, hypothesize a potential explanation, call the manufacturer for troubleshooting, believe them when they say it’s fine, shrug your shoulders, and continue on with your project. This is important.
  2. Don’t think that, just because you’ve never read anything about something having off-target effects, your treatment/strategy/drug/injection/virus won’t have off-target effects.
  3. Don’t wait until the end of your experiments to do your control experiments, because, again, you didn’t think that your treatment/strategy/drug/injection/virus would have off-target effects.
  4. Don’t hesitate to call a family member/friend/partner/spouse for support as you sit in front of the microscope and begin to realize that there were, in fact, off-target effects. Even if your person doesn’t fully understand the technicalities of, say, the AAV viral titer being so high that it’s causing toxicity in the brains of your mice, a sympathetic “I’m so sorry” still helps.
  5. Don’t forget to engage in some self-care after your committee tells you that you’ll need to iron out the kinks and start your dissertation work all over again. Splurging on overpriced doughnuts is a good start, but do what works best for you. I hope you’ve figured that out by this point in grad school.
  6. Don’t spend too much time looking at listings of potential jobs because you thought the end was in sight, because that can change quickly.
  7. Don’t, for the love of God, look at the salaries for those potential jobs and start to fantasize about what you’ll do when you have disposable income. Maybe someday you’ll be able to afford an apartment with a washer and dryer that don’t operate on quarters, but this is not that time.
  8. Don’t ever, ever say, “This will be a straightforward experiment” when you start simple control experiments. If you do, you’ll have just jinxed yourself and results that should have taken one month to obtain will now take six.
  9. Don’t work with a genetic mouse line that has such an unexpectedly short lifespan that the mice begin to die before your repeat of your experiment even begins because you’ve jinxed yourself in saying the preliminary control experiments will be straightforward.
  10. Don’t forget to have a second dissertation project planned out in case all of your mice die and you can’t afford the time or expense to breed more. Ideally, this won’t involve any of the things that you learned can go wrong from the first dissertation project.
  11. Don’t let your family pressure you into giving them a specific date for your defense 6 months ahead of time. Tell them that, as much as you appreciate their interest and willingness to attend, trying to pick a date so far out is nearly impossible and, in the event that you can’t get everything finished in time, watching that day come and go is a very depressing reminder of your mistakes.
  12. Don’t underestimate how much your classmates can help you through all of this. They know how frustrating failed experiments are and can commiserate. If your experiments have failed spectacularly enough, they’ll even feel bad enough for you to buy you a beer to cry into.
  13. Don’t give up! You’ll graduate someday and your (many, many) grad school woes will make for a good story.

About the Author

Ph.D. candidate Rebecca Hood

See Rebecca’s academic profile







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