1st Year: Corey Holman
Welcome to Penn!!! I’m a first year CPM student in the Seale Lab who loves studying brown adipose tissue and metabolism. I took a couple years off to work as a tech before coming to Penn. Taking time off was the best decision for me - I got to discover what area of science really fascinated me, knew exactly which labs I wanted to rotate in, and gained life experience working for a couple years before going back to school. However, I have to say, the transition from working life back to school was difficult. I had never struggled in classes before but getting back into the studying mindset was harder than expected, especially in areas I had never encountered in undergrad. To those who took a couple of years off - don’t forget that you now have classes that are important as well. Do not be afraid to ask CAMB for a free tutor! To those who did not take time off - I highly suggest putting lots of thought into your choice of rotations, especially if you do not know what area of science really interests you. Go to all the begining of the year faculty talks, follow up with professors, be bold, and assert yourself.
Most importantly, really get to know your fellow students. Eat lunch together. Plan things to do on weekends. Get together each week and watch a show. In my year, “Bachelor night,” where we order Thai food, watch The Bachelor, and catch up on the week’s happenings is by far the best night of my week. The friends you make the first year are many of the friends you will have for your entire PhD. After classes end in May, working in a lab across campus from your fellow classmates can feel very isolating, but do not let it be! Make the effort to hang out. Oh, and don’t forget to exercise!
2nd Year: James Gesualdi
Hi everyone. I’m a second year student in the MVP program and I began studying at Penn just after finishing undergrad. Like Corey mentioned, there are definitely pros and cons that come with this decision. For me, the hardest part was choosing which labs to rotate in and ultimately join given my relative lack of full time research experience compared to some of my peers who had spent a couple years working before matriculating. Luckily, Penn provides a great environment for making these decisions: attending seminars and chatting with faculty and older students was instrumental to my thought process, and I would strongly encourage first year students to do the same. Don’t be afraid to set up meetings with PIs and definitely don’t shy away from exploring research areas that don’t necessarily line up with your previous experiences. Interdisciplinary work is huge here, and you should take advantage of it.
Of course, choosing your rotation and thesis labs are just the first steps of your degree, and as you enter your second year, the spectre of your preliminary exam will be on your mind constantly. There’s no two ways about it, this exam will be one of the most stressful experiences of your academic career thus far. However, it’s important to keep your head up as you go through the process of preparing. Your prelim committee will not be “out to get you”, and your program wants you to pass just as much as you do. Personally, I found that seeking feedback from members of my own lab, as well as faculty and students in unrelated fields, was extremely helpful for putting together both the oral and written portions of my proposal. Practice is your best friend throughout this process,: so take every opportunity to meet with friends or lab mates to sure up your talk and become more comfortable answering questions. All that said, it’s crucial not tot let your exam take over your life. Of course, your prelim is important, but it’s a mistake to let it get in the way of your health or your relationships, so be sure to continue to make time for yourself and your friends, even as test day approaches. No one will fault you for taking a couple personal days in the weeks before.
Mid Year: Steph Sansbury
After cresting the hill of prelim, the average PhD student – eyes closed and fists extended triumphantly in the air – will unwittingly tumble down the hill in front of her and land in the third year slump. The third year and beyond is not, as your newly formed thesis committee might have you believe, a time of consistent productivity punctuated by moments of clarity or bouts of inspiration. You do not emerge into your third year as a markedly more developed and confident scientist, having passed the last major exam of your academic career. (And if you did, I don’t want to hear it.) For most of us, it marks the beginning of the hard but important work of figuring out how to nurture your own curiosities, and take responsibility for pursuing them efficiently and intelligently. Eventually you’ll stop waking up in a cold sweat, but not because you’ve suddenly figured out how to be a good grad student, as think your peers and mentors define it. Instead, you come to a realization: you are the one who will get you to your thesis defense. This will liberate you from the obligation of trying to act like a good grad student, and will instead motivate you to answer questions – which, conveniently, actually does make you a pretty good grad student.
Based on my extremely well-powered study (n=4, author included), 100% of mid-program PhD candidates question their life decisions one or more times a week. But with some self-compassion, a lot of humility and persistence, and a few good mentors and friends, you’ll do what we all came here for: to observe something about our universe for the first time, and expand the boundaries of human knowledge. If you ask me, it’s worth it.
Graduating: Gleb Basilevsky
Dear friends, estimable fellows, and most battle-hardened trenchmates, you know yourselves that the way is long, difficult, dark. Yet, here we are! We survived! We’re stronger for it!
The graduate student has a thousand faces. There will be the one who finishes in four years. You will admire them and envy them and wonder whether you should have joined their lab instead. There will be the one who disappears and reappears, like a candle’s flame, warm and welcome when so long missing. Where did they go since you saw them in your Prelim writing class? There will be the workhorse, consistent and prolific and indefatigable. You see them at seminars, in GAPSA, and perennially rotating into the elevator bank preview reel. You will at times meet them all. You will at times feel like them all. The graduate student has a thousand races to run.
Yet, there will be at least one spectacular moment. The moment. The groundswell. The flood. Your notebook will fill to bursting. Quantity will sublime to quality. Your story, it’s come. A year or two after you thought it would happen, you’re done?