STEM Grad School Boot-camp: Week 3

This will be part 3 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.

We must believe that we are gifted for something and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.” – Marie Curie

The impetus for a “big project” has pushed even the most stuck thinkers and writers of our time into the realm of productivity. While the particulars of each approach differ- JK Rowlings used to book luxury hotel rooms for the self-imposted financial pressure- the common thread of a “big project” remains. I propose that this type of project would exponentially improve your graduate experience (and subsequent job hunt). This week, we will be planning out our “big project,” or the one thing that if you finished it this semester or academic year would confer immense benefits to your career. This project comes with just two basic ground rules that, if followed, should confer these exponential benefits.

1) It should be both easy to describe and plan but hard to execute.

Since you are weeks from starting your STEM graduate experience, the precision of your planning should be ramping up. We’ve covered everything from the existential to the mundane. It’s time to put pen to paper. Take out a sheet of paper or open your journal and write down the following: what would I be most proud of myself for doing this year? Make sure this is related to graduate school, but not necessarily grades or GPA focused. By this, I mean, try not to write about getting a 4.0. While this is a great accomplishment, most employers and even PhD programs think in terms of grade bands. A 4.0 is nice, but not as weighty as it was in undergrad. It might be expected in some rare instances or institutions (check first), but a 3.5-3.7 may carry similar assurances of competency.

Instead, focus on planning something that the other students (who are chasing the 4.0) are not considering. Can you get on a peer-reviewed scientific manuscript or conference abstract? Can you co-write a computer program with an advisor or advanced PhD student? Are there skills that are not being taught in your program you could pick up and organize into a brief seminar for faculty and staff? These are flexible win-wins – even the efforts to produce deliverables as code or a paper increase your skills in the area and often lead to better letters of recommendation.

2) It’s what you work on first.

This next rule will certainly get me in trouble with your advisor and lecturers. However, if executed properly, should leave you in good shape for their classes in addition to your goals. This project should be the focus of that first chunk of study time during the day. When you are fresh and most likely to hang on to your attention , this time period becomes critical to advance the goals of your project. Even if you are in a lull and waiting on feedback from others, commit 30 minutes to planning your next moves. How will you approach feedback from this person? Should you meet with them personally (or over Skype) to discuss? Make a schedule to chip away and make your big project seem smaller.

That’s it. If planned carefully and attacked consistently, the big project could catapult your STEM graduate school experience into career success. Many careers follow exponential curves for success – marginal gains creep forward from hard work until they explode into life-altering achievement. The “big project” is a way to skip the plateau phase. In the same way that grants beget more grants, papers beget more papers and scientific expertise begets more scientific expertise. Make the moonshots now and you will reap rewards later.

Stay tuned for the final week of STEM Grad school boot-camp, where we will be fine tuning some day-to-day habits guaranteed to transition you fully from humanities to STEM!

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