I just submitted the final draft of my Master’s thesis to the Graduate School and I will graduate with an M.S. in Biology in May. I went directly from undergrad to my Master’s, so the learning curve was not as steep as it could have been, but, obviously, graduate school has been much different from undergrad. Lately, I’ve been looking back on what I learned in the past two years while doing my research. Hopefully, I will be able to save others from making the same mistakes that I did!
Do it (right) now
Simply put, parts of research/thesis writing are busy work. I recommend getting these things done and out of the way. Have 77 graphs to make? Have citations that need to be added to your literature cited? Don’t wait until the last minute. It’s so much easier to make little changes along the way than to have to change all the things at the last minute.If you are looking for a reference manager, I recommend Mendeley. Along those lines, do things right the first time. You will probably have to pretty things up later, but do Future You a favor and don’t just throw something together.
Write it down
Write down everything. Have an epiphany? Write it down. Change something? Write it down. Seriously. In the first few semesters of my Master’s, I would just assume that Future Me would remember what I had changed. Nope. I’ve had to start analyses from scratch because I didn’t write down what I had done. My advice: get a notebook and write in it every time you do anything with your research. If you like writing things down by hand, there are composition notebooks and Rite in the Rain notebooks, as well as online notebooks such as Evernote (check out Dave Pappano’s open lab notebook).
Back it up
Save everything. All the time. There’s nothing like having your computer freeze to remind you that you haven’t saved your file in the past few hours. It seems to be a fact of the universe that your computer will die at the worst possible point in the semester, so back everything up multiple times. And for sanity’s sake, give it a name that makes sense. One of my fellow grad students learned that naming all the files you don’t like “poop” or “poop2” isn’t actually helpful and leads to the urge to flip tables.
Ask for help
I learned early on that it is better to ask for help when I don’t understand than to tough it out and struggle on my own in an effort to seem self-sufficient. Sure, there is merit to figuring things out on your own, but sometimes it is better to get help. I’ve had to unlearn convoluted methods that I figured out on my own because someone showed me an easier way to do things.
Take care of yourself
This advice is constantly repeated in lists of tips to get through grad school, but that’s because it is vitally important. I feel like a hypocrite saying it, because I know that in the last few months I haven’t been following this advice as well as I could have been, but I recognize its value. I know that when I ran regularly, I managed to work out kinks in my research and my life while on the trails. I know that I when I eat and sleep on a regular basis, I’m a more functional human being. I know that without the emotional support of my fellow grad students and my department chair, finishing my Master’s would have been orders of magnitude more difficult. My advice: exercise, eat healthy and regularly, get enough sleep, and ask for emotional support when you need it. Grad school is hard on everyone, so there’s no need to go through it alone.
The core of my paleoclimate research came from data-mined information and the analyses that I ran on it, so my experiences might be different from yours. Not all of my tips will be relevant to everyone, but hopefully they can give a push in the right direction. If you’re reading this because you’re in grad school, I hope you find it helpful and good luck!