Four tips for success in graduate school and beyond
The following are my words of wisdom for succeeding in graduate school and beyond. They are based on my own experience building a career in biomedical research and are based on my experience training more than a dozen graduate students in my own research lab.
1) Find your passion.
The most important predictor of success is to find the subject area that you are most passionate about. Graduate school requires total immersion and lots of hard work. Those graduate students that struggle most with the demands of graduate school tend to be the ones who are either there for the wrong reasons (e.g. didn't want to get a job, couldn't get into medical school, parents applied pressure) or the ones that end up working in a lab with an uninteresting research area. The bottom line is that you need to find a research area that excites you and gets you out of bed day in and day out.
2) Don't be afraid to fail.
This is so important for your entire career. Failure is part of learning and part of doing cutting-edge research. You need to be able to fail, learn from the experience, brush it off, put it behind you and move on to the next challenge. All successful people fail over and over. It is a healthy part of the process. I have seen a number of students and faculty over the years who were afraid to fail and they often become paralyzed. I have had great success with research funding from the NIH. However, this is not because every one of my grants succeeds. It is because I submit lots of grants many of which are never funded.
3) Seek out mentors.
I owe a lot of my success to the wonderful mentors I have had at every step of my career going all the way back to high school. You can't succeed without help no matter how smart you are. Faculty life, research and research funding are challenging in so many different ways. It is impossible to know the ins and outs of everything you need to do from navigating the politics of faculty life to the obscure details of how the NIH and its many institutes operates. Someone with experience has to be there to help you and give advice. For students it is important to know that people will be much more willing to help you and devote time for you if they see your passion and your hard work and dedication.
4) Work your ass off.
The final tip is that there is no substitute for hard work. It is not enough to be smart. I have seen many very smart graduate students and faculty fail or not reach their full potential due to lack of hard work. I personally believe that success in graduate school, postdoctoral research and faculty life requires total immersion. You need to live and breathe your research. This is not as hard as it sounds if you have found your passion. People who are passionate about what they do don't see it as work. It is much easier to do the things you don't enjoy doing if the payoff means you can do more of what you love. Also, as noted above, mentors are more likely to go to bat for you if they see you going the extra mile.