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Five tips for a smooth transition from undergraduate to PhD life

Image created by Kaitlind Howard

By Kaitlind Howard

Transitioning from being an undergraduate to a PhD student can be very scary and overwhelming! However, it doesn’t have to be so! Following on a blog from @GTsodikova on 10 tips for an efficient, successful, and fun PhD/postdoc experience!, here are five pieces of advice that I have learned since starting graduate school that I hope will help you have a smooth transition.


  1. Don’t be afraid to ask questions - to increase your productivity
    The more questions you ask, the better off you will be! If I had asked more questions at the beginning of my PhD when I was unsure, I would have been a lot more productive in the lab and would have been able to avoid a lot of mistakes. This advice applies to the classroom, the laboratory, as well as the selection of your PhD mentor. I have observed that people are always willing to help when you ask nicely! In the classroom, asking questions will allow you to stay on top of the material and have a better understanding of the subject. In the laboratory, it will lead to more productivity by avoiding simple, time-consuming mistakes. Asking questions when you choose a mentor will help you find someone who has similar values to yours, who will help guide you through your PhD and who will always be in your corner. Before you choose a mentor, talk about them with other professors in your program, current and/or previous lab members, students outside of the lab, and other students with that professor on their committee.


  2. Be the driver of your PhD
    Remember that this PhD is YOURS! You are the one getting the degree. If you want to broaden your knowledge in specific areas, find a mentor that will help you and encourage you. If you want to work on your non-technical skills (fellowship, grant writing, communication, etc.), then you need to find a mentor or someone who will not only work one-on-one with you, but also help you find workshops and other opportunities to work on these skills. Don’t be afraid to go out of your comfort zone. At the University of Kentucky, I have plenty of opportunities to be involved in public engagement (social media, blogs, course on public engagement, etc.) and outreach activities (Taste of Science, SciCats). Just go explore and have fun! You might fail or find out that you don’t like some of these, but that is okay because you won’t know until you try. So, take the wheel and go on your own PhD adventure!


  3. Build a support system/network
    Being off on your own and away from the familiar and from family and friends can be very scary. It is crucial that you start building a new support system and network right away at your new school! This starts with choosing a mentor who you are comfortable talking to and will help you connect with other professors, as discussed above. Participate in the various activities that your department and college organize. Get involved in different graduate student organizations, graduate student congress, and other activities. If you do that, it will take no time for you to feel right at home.


  4. Have a good work/life balance - for your sanity
    As a graduate student it is easy for you to say that you have to work all the time to be productive and successful in your PhD program. However, this does not have to be the case. Take time during graduate school to expand your knowledge, but also remember to HAVE FUN! But, don’t forget to take time for yourself: read your favorite book, spend quality time with your support system, or make time for your favorite hobby. This advice will help you keep good mental health as you go through your PhD journey.


  5. Remember -- Your PhD is your job now!
    Learn how to manage your time to ensure productivity. It is important to remember that you are no longer an undergraduate student. It is not just about studying for classes - it is a full time job and more. You need to learn early how to multitask and manage your time to optimize your schedule for maximum productivity. Experiments might require you to stay for long hours in the laboratory. But it is okay to study for class, read scientific articles, or prepare for your qualifying exam while waiting. Remember that you are working towards your dream career! The more you put into it, the more you will get out. However, remember to work smarter not harder. If the experiment can run all night make sure to set it up before you go home. A good way to organize and optimize your time is to use ONE calendar that you follow to the letter. Avoid multiple calendars! Both career and personal life calendars should be combined. You are one person and therefore only need one calendar.

​I hope this advice will help you jump-start your PhD career! If you have any tips please feel free to share with us! If you use any of these tips, we would love to hear how it goes!


About Kaitlind Howard
I am a first year graduate student in the Pharmaceutical Sciences program (College of Pharmacy) at the University of Kentucky. I am writing this blog as a part of my public engagement class #UKCOPPublicEngagement. I would like to thank all of the students in the public engagement class that contributed ideas to help create this blog! I would especially like to thank my mentor Prof. Sylvie Garneau-Tsodikova for helping me write this blog and for always being in my corner with support and guidance throughout my PhD journey! You can follow my mentor on Twitter @GTsodikova and me @KaitlindHoward. If you have any suggestions, questions, or advice for graduate students please feel free to share it with us!


Representative Image Caption
<p>Image created by Kaitlind Howard</p>