What to Expect During the First Year of Graduate Studies

Q: How much time will I need to study to succeed and achieve good grades in my first-year courses?
A: Obviously, this will depend on your previous background and academic abilities. However, students should take into consideration that the coursework is challenging, and they will be expected to understand the material conceptually. Taking into consideration the necessity of preparing for upcoming classes by reading assigned material, and the need to continually review lecture material in the midst of the course (and not only at exam time), it would be expected that students put in no less than an average of 4-5 hours a day of effective reading and study. Being a graduate student is a full-time occupation, even in the first year of the program.

Q: What should I do if I am having difficulties in understanding coursework material?
A: Another key skill to pick up in graduate studies is initiative. A graduate student who finds he/she has difficulties should immediately seek assistance. Do not be shy about finding assistance. This can be done by asking for help from other BMB students currently enrolled in the courses, or from BMB students who have already completed their coursework. If this does not solve the problem, seek out the course instructors and/or course coordinator(s) and discuss strategies to better understand the material and prepare for exams. DO NOT WAIT UNTIL EXAM TIME. Experience shows that students who do not seek assistance in a timely manner do poorly on exams.

Q: What does my mentor expect of me during my rotations?
A: As noted, rotations are a critical time that allow the student to explore his/her research interests without having yet committed to a laboratory. Rotations also allow the student to assess how well he/she will get along with a potential future mentor and colleagues in the laboratory. At the same time, this is also a period of evaluation that allows the mentor to judge how well the student would fit into his/her laboratory. Mentors are individuals and many have slightly different expectations from rotation students. Although mentors are well aware of the coursework, and expect the students to dedicate sufficient time to obtain good grades in the course work, mentors will also be interested in finding out whether prospective students are committed to their research projects, whether they are responsible and ethical in their approach to science and laboratory work, and whether they show intellectual curiosity and enthusiasm. Students who are unsure of their performance in rotations should be encouraged to ask the mentors how they are doing so that they can improve during the course of the rotation and in subsequent rotations.

Q: How do I manage to satisfy the demands of my mentors during rotations with such a heavy load of coursework?
A: As a graduate student, one of the key skills you will need to learn is to effectively utilize your time. An efficient and well-motivated student should be able to put in a full day in the laboratory, and still spend 3-5 hours studying in the evening. In addition, weekends are a great time to catch up on studies before the new week begins, or to complete laboratory experiments. Efficient time management can also be done by studying during incubations or 'down-time' in the lab.

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