Learning Medicine

Learning Medicine
The Ultimate Guide to Study Skills in Medical School

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

What do you wish you knew before starting graduate school?

So I'm at the midpoint of my clinical year and I'm beginning to think more and more about getting back into the laboratory for the PhD portion of my training. Being on the wards really has opened my eyes to the myriad medical problems that need more research and understanding at the basic level. Seeing the unmet needs makes me eager and excited to get into the lab so I can play a role - albeit small for now - in tackling some of those problems.

I'm not sure of the specific topic of my PhD or what lab I'll join, but broadly, I'll likely be working within the domain of chemical biology and something related to neuroscience. That's my hope at least.

I'm writing this post because I want to start laying the groundwork for a successful and enjoyable graduate school experience. So, I'm soliciting any and all advice from current or former graduate students (and others). 

Here are some questions to help guide the advice-giving:

First a general question - What things do you wish had known before starting your PhD?

Some other questions
  • How do you pick a lab?
  • What qualities do you look for in a PI?
  • Are there any books you would read before graduate school? Any papers?
    • For the organic chemists out there, what is the essentials list of books to have in my collection?
    • For the neurobiologists, same question. What are the essentials?
    • General books about graduate school (thesis writing, lab techniques, research methods, etc)
  • How would you select the kinds of projects you work on? 
    • Multiple projects with varying risk (low-risk, medium risk, high risk)?
    • Just one project and give it your all?
    • None of the above
  • How do you organize your workflow in the lab? What works and what doesn't?
  • What things do you do that make you maximally efficient in the lab?
  • What features do you look for in the graduate department you choose?

Closing questions: What mistakes did you make that could have been easily prevented if you had been given some specific advise?

I know everyone's experience will be different, but I want to hear it all. I think there are some general things that work for everyone, and hopefully, we can compile that wisdom here.

I'm all ears...


  1. I'm working on a medium-risk project. Risky enough to stay engaged and to lead to some higher impact publications. The problem with high risk projects is that there's a risk of getting scooped. Getting a good mentor (rather than worrying about working in a specific field on a specific problem) is definitely key.

    Since I know you're into the business/biotech/pharma side of things, make sure you get an adviser who's pro-industry and, preferably, has connections/networks to industry and the start up/tech world. Chances are, you'll need to use those connections to leverage your career after you [eventually] graduate!

    Workflow: my philosophy is to think and plan a bunch of projects so if something doesn't pan out (for technical, financial or other reasons) you can easily switch gears without too much mental anguish.

    I wouldn't say there are any specific books that would have helped me. Like life, success seems to come from experience.

    Good luck starting your phd side of things. Hope I've helped a bit!

  2. Hi Zach,

    Thanks a lot! Definitely food for thought. Good to hear from you. I'm sure you're having much success yourself in grad school.

  3. I am not yet into the research portion of my MD/PhD program yet, but in my graduate classes and lab rotation, one tool I have found useful is the program Papers2. It is essentially an iTunes for PDF files, and is designed to work for academic research, so it allows mark up of the papers (highlighting, adding notes, etc). I am a big fan of it now, and am fairly confident/hopeful it will help me keep my papers organized as graduate school progresses. I would recommend trying the trial version at the very least. SMB

  4. To add to what anonymous said, I've been using Mendeley. It's a similar program, but cross platform and (unlike papers) is platform independent and free. Also integrates web2.0 features (social and research networks based on common scientific interests). Also great as a citation manager.


  5. Thanks guys. Yeah, I've been using Papers for years. I think it's an amazing tool. I'm going to upgrade to Papers 2.0 in the near term. I've also tried Mendeley and I like the cross platform capability. I have a PC as well as a mac. I wish Papers worked with windows.

    I need to learn more about citation managing software. Endnote is OK. I hear Papers 2.0 has its own bibliography and citation manager. Is that true?

    I'm also thinking about how I want to write my dissertation. I think piecemeal, over time is the best way. I hate leaving a huge pile of work for the end. I've looked at a program called Scrivener that is really popular with professional authors. I think it could be used well to write an academic work like a dissertation.

    Likewise, I'm pretty certain that I'm going to make all of my lab notes electronic. Evernote is a good program for that I think. When I get data, it'll go right into my computer, along with any associated images or figures. In this way, all my data will be searchable and organized and when it comes time to write a paper, there won't be any scurrying to backtrack or rendering data from a physical lab notebook to the computer.

    With respect to reading papers, I'm also going to try something new. It's no secret that I've used Anki (spaced repetition flashcards) for medical school and I'm a huge fan. I'm going to give it a shot with journal articles too. Why shouldn't I care about remembering what I read in articles as much as what I'm learning in med school? Every paper has at least one take away point that you should log into your memory so that you can integrate that info and do something with it. So that's my plan. When I read a paper, I want to distill at least one main point and make an Anki card for it.

    Think about all the scientific papers you've read in your time as a grad student. Wouldn't it be great if you had that knowledge in your head, ready to be used to make new connections or synthesize new ideas? Does this sound wacky?

  6. Hmm...I think you are at least a little bit addicted to Anki! Soon you will be using it to memorize things outside of medicine/school! A good quality to have for medical school and perhaps as an academic, but as with all addictions, it may become an obsession that can possibly overtake your life. The next TV show you watch, the magazine that you read, how can you resist not entering those delicious morsels of facts into Anki? I guess this is when they say, caveat emptor?