STEM Grad School Boot-camp: Week 1

This will be part 1 of 4 in a weekly series focused on preparing for graduate school in STEM if you come from a humanities based undergrad or other graduate experience. Please make sure to follow my blog to get the latest update to the series.

You did it- you got in! Now what? Entering graduate school can be daunting for some, exciting for others and confusing for most. Unlike day one in undergrad, there are no orientation leaders helping you get your mattress up the stair or guides to walk you to your first class. You need to take full control of the process, which can be both intimidating and empowering. Luckily you are not alone. This blog and a few of my other favorites, will lay out the steps needed to take control of your STEM graduate experience.

*Brief caveat: Although I aim to generalize to the sciences, specific fields can vary in direct experience. I hope only that the skills and habits I recommend will give you the tools to transition from the humanities into that field more smoothly.*

This week we will cover the what, how and why of your transition. This will be your big picture week:

Big thinkers take time to gather their thoughts. Bill Gates famously takes full weeks out of the year to comb through esoteric papers and books in order to frame his actions for the rest of the year. Einstein and Darwin scheduled long walks during their work day. Steve Jobs would habitually walk around the building before launching new Apple Products. Allow yourself space to do the same type of big idea thinking.


Before you dive into the details of financial aid, classes, and publication plans, ask yourself why. Generating a why for your process will create intrinsic motivation and feed into your internal locus of control – a mechanism which may significantly impact your ability to stick with the program even when it gets tough. Think of laying out your why as the outline to a term paper. You might lose interest or purpose if you just start rambling about Twelfth Night and have to address symbols present in five other works of the Bard.

How to get your why?

Option 1: I have some tried and true methods for uncovering ideas of such depth. The recommended, but not required, ingredients include: a park with trees, shoes, your mind, a significant other, and a dog. You could realistically get along with just the first two, but talking with someone you trust about these big ideas can be really enlightening about your own intentions. Option 2: Phone a friend. It works on game shows and it works in your life. Your friends probably know you better than you know yourself, and you should be making time to catch up with them anyway.

What will the process look like?

While more detailed than the existential why of graduate school, the what can be just as important. I recommend a five year plan (or at least two) be sketched around a month out from your start. Adopted from Dr. Karen Kelsky’s book and accompanying blog The Professor is In: The Essential Guide to Turning your PhD into a Job, this plan will give you 1) piece of mind that all deadlines are written down, 2) a tangible finish line, and 3) the same two things for your loved ones. Map out when you start, plan to finish, big life events (marriage? moving?) and holidays then fill in as you (inevitably) collect obligations.

That’s all for this week! Check in here to say how your big ideas are flowing- what did you find? What do others in your life think?

3 thoughts on “STEM Grad School Boot-camp: Week 1”

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