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Excelling at Hopkins: How to Make the Most of Your Time in Graduate School

Smiling African-American student holding a digital tablet and cup of coffee while standing and laughing with his friend.

Guest blogger William (Billy) Mills is a 6th-year Ph.D. candidate at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine and an Adjunct Instructor in the Departments of Chemistry and Biology at Stevenson University. He received his Bachelor’s degree from the University Virginia double majoring in Biochemistry and Biology.

The resources and tips presented here were learned over the course of my Ph.D. at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine (JHUSOM). No matter where you are in your graduate school experience, this information can help you succeed in whatever career path you choose.

Apply for funding

The Johns Hopkins Research Office has created an amazing resource to help graduate students find funding opportunities. Even though your research is already funded in most graduate programs, applying for your own funding can help you stand out from the crowd, free up resources in your lab to help expand the breadth of your research, and earn some extra cash. Two of the more popular options for graduate students are the National Research Service Award (F31) from the NIH and the Graduate Research Fellowship Program from the NSF.

Even if you aren’t selected for the award, the process of applying can help you refine the direction and purpose of your research, and the writing you do for the application can often be used in the future (such as for the introduction of a manuscript). Additionally, you might be able to resubmit your application after receiving feedback from reviewers (in the case of the F31) or receive an honorable mention (in the case of the GRFP) that you can add to your CV. If you plan on applying for these or other funding sources, it is always a good idea to look at successful (and even unsuccessful) applications. Reach out to your peers who have received funding, such as those in neuroscience, cell biology and biological chemistry, to ask for help. Useful tip: No matter which fellowships or funding opportunities you apply for (or manuscripts you submit), take advantage of the free editing services at ReVision to make your application the best that it can be.

Lead an organization

Both inside and outside of Hopkins, there are numerous opportunities for graduate students to gain leadership experience. Within Hopkins, you can join the GSA executive board or be a program representative, serve on a committee with a volunteer organization like Project Bridge, or join one of the various committees at JHUSOM, just to name a few. The GSA maintains a great list of student groups at Hopkins that you can get involved with and help lead (or start your own!).

Outside of Hopkins, you can join committees within the local chapter of a professional organization such as the Baltimore or D.C. Metro Area chapters of the Society for Neuroscience or the Greater Baltimore Chapter of the Association for Women in Science. Useful tip: Joining the local chapter of a professional organization is a great way to expand your professional network beyond your own institution. Not only does helping lead an organization or committee help you develop leadership and management skills, it also shows readers of your CV that you invest in the organizations you are a part of to help them succeed; what employer wouldn’t find that appealing?

Present your work

The benefits of presenting your research are nearly too many to count. Presenting your work can help you improve your public speaking skills, increase recognition for you and your work, develop a narrative about your research and its broader importance, meet colleagues and receive feedback, build your CV and even win awards. Presentation opportunities can range from international conferences like the Gordon Research Conference or Keystone Symposia to the annual meetings of professional organizations such as ASBMB, ASCB or SfN and local events such as the GSA annual poster session, the JHUSOM Alumni Weekend Student Research Rounds poster session, or department retreats. Useful tip: If you are traveling to present your work, make sure to apply for travel awards offered by the GSA or the organization hosting the event; it looks great on a CV.

Go to seminars

As with presenting your work, going to seminars has countless benefits: helping you stay up to date on advances in your field, learning about research going on outside your area of expertise, building your professional network (especially if you join the speaker for lunch as is often available) and having evidence of professional development for grant and fellowship applications. In addition to learning something new, you can get free cookies and coffee, a break from lab and, when the speaker is enthusiastic about their work, a bit of inspiration to finish that difficult experiment. Useful tip: Cell biology has the best cookies of any seminar host, and the talks are pretty good too. JHUSOM maintains a calendar of all the seminars taking place across campus so you can know what seminars are being offered, even if you weren’t on the appropriate listserv. One particularly enjoyable type of seminar to attend is a graduate student’s thesis seminar. It is always encouraging to see the culmination of years’ worth of work from your peers come to an end and to hear about all the people in their life who helped them achieve this milestone.

Learn a new skill

As graduate students, we have the privilege of being able to take nearly any class at Hopkins, free of charge. With the approval of your graduate program, you can explore interests in teaching, business, data science and more. If you manage your time well and plan ahead, you might even be able to complete a certificate program such as the Johns Hopkins Teaching Academy, the Rigor, Reproducibility, and Responsibility in Scientific Practice Certificate Program at the school of public health, or the Post-Master’s Certificate in Sequence Analysis and Genomics at the Krieger School of Arts and Sciences. Useful Tip: It is often better to tell your PI, “Hey, I am interested in taking this course” and working out the certificate part on your own over time than telling them you want to do an entire certificate program; they like you to focus on lab for some reason…. Outside of formal coursework, there are plenty of opportunities to learn new skills for free using online platforms such as Coursera (including the widely popular Data Science Specialization created by Hopkins) and edX. Many of these platforms often give you credentials that you can add directly to your LinkedIn to show your network and potential employers what you’ve learned.

Volunteer your time

Volunteering is a great way to give back to Hopkins and the greater Baltimore area to help make them better places to live and work. You have no doubt received an email to help organize your department’s retreat or journal club. You might have seen an advertisement to volunteer with a local organization like Thread to mentor and build relationships with Baltimore’s youth. You may even have heard about a collection drive in your department during the holidays to support local food shelters and community outreach programs. No matter where you volunteer, giving of your time and resources to help those in need is never wasted. Useful tip: Check out Idealist for amazing volunteer opportunities in Baltimore.

Teach someone something

Toward the end of your time in graduate school, you will have amassed nearly a decade of training in your field. During that time, you will have interacted with dozens, if not hundreds, of teachers who will have passed on some of their knowledge and experience to you. As a graduate student, you have the opportunity to share in that culture of teaching and training in many unique ways. For example, you will most likely have the opportunity to train at least one person in your lab, whether it be an undergraduate, rotating graduate student or new research technician. You may even take on a long-term mentoring relationship with a student from a program such as the Summer Internship Program (SIP) or Summer Academic Research Experience (SARE). Outside of lab, you can volunteer to teach science lessons at local public schools with Science in Action, TA for a course or give a guest lecture on a topic from your thesis work.

If you are interested in more formal teaching experiences, there are numerous opportunities such as teaching at the Baltimore Underground Science Space (BUGSS), designing a SOUL course for undergraduates at the Homewood campus or teaching a course at a local college or university. Useful tip: Being an adjunct instructor pays well. Even if you aren’t interested in teaching as a career, trying out these and other teaching opportunities can help you develop transferable skills such as public speaking, organization and interpersonal skills, and will give you the opportunity to give back some of the time that was invested in you during your academic journey.

Take good notes

Taking notes and writing comes very easily to some students and is a(n) (arduously) learned skill for others. Good note-taking might be the single most important skill to develop during your time in graduate school. When you get to the end of your thesis (there is an end, I promise), you are going to look back at notes from experiments you did five years ago and wish you had taken better notes. Useful tip: If you ever find yourself thinking, “I’ll just finish up this step of the experiment and write that thing down later,” you are lying; write it down as soon as you have the opportunity to, you won’t regret it.

When you are applying for a fellowship and it asks you to list all the professional development workshops and Responsible Conduct of Research seminars you attended, you will wish you had been taking notes during them. When you are applying for a job and you vaguely remember meeting someone who worked there and offered to help you apply, you will wish you had written down their name. Taking good notes will save you time and headache and can help organize your thoughts to make your thesis work go more smoothly and be more successful.

No matter what your future aspirations are, taking the time to develop personally and professionally is critically important. The Professional Development and Career Office (PDCO) at Hopkins is replete with opportunities for professional development and career preparation. Take advantage of their resources and expertise. Set up an appointment to meet with a career counselor, attend workshops and learn about all of the opportunities that are available to you after your time at Hopkins is over. Though it is stressful and long, and sometimes you wonder if it was the right decision, your time in graduate school can be one of incredible growth and development. Hopefully the information compiled here can help make your time in graduate school a little more productive (and fun!).

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