What to Expect in the First Year of your PhD

On Thursday, July 29, 2021, we hosted our second PhD panel, this time on the topic of what to expect in the first year of your PhD. Grad school is a whole new experience, and while it’s super exciting, it can also be pretty anxiety inducing! We had a great discussion that hopefully (and according to the feedback we got) put our mentees a bit more at ease, if only because they realized that everyone has felt similar feelings and we’ve all survived!  

We had a lively and content-packed discussion, with our panelists answering some questions from the moderator (that’s me) as well as many from the audience. Below I’ve attempted to organize their words of wisdom:

Imposter Syndrome

  • You should be getting some things wrong. Understanding that fact may make it easier for you to speak up and ask questions. If you do get something wrong, that’s great! It’s an opportunity to learn something new. If you happen to get it right, that’s also great! It will help you build confidence.
  • Avoid the temptation to compare yourself to others. Everyone comes from a different background. Don’t worry about the hours other people work.
  • It’s ok not to be super passionate about what you’re doing all the time. It doesn’t make you less of a scientist. Most people have their interest wax and wane throughout their PhD (and probably their entire careers). Hardly anyone can (or should!) be 100% hyped about everything 100% of the time.
  • It’s also ok to decide academia isn’t the place for you.

Choosing a lab/PI

  • Doing early rotations doesn’t necessarily put you at an advantage in terms of finishing earlier, so think (and consult with others) about when the best time to do your rotations is.
  • When considering the size of the lab you might join, think about what fits your goals and personality better. In smaller labs the pace of research might feel quicker because it’s easier to stay on top of what everyone is doing. It might also be easier to connect with a small group. However, smaller labs might also be limited in the resources they have to offer, and in the help you can expect to receive. It also limits the number of people you’re working with directly.
  • Ideally, the perfect PI balances personality fit/lab environment and science. But if you have to choose between those two factors, choose fit over field (i.e., pick a lab you’re comfortable in with people you like over a project you’re wildly excited about if the two are mutually exclusive).

Working with a new advisor

  • Programs differ in whether you apply directly to your advisor or do rotations in several labs, so some advice won’t apply to everyone.
  • Ask your advisor about their mentoring style, and get into the specifics—how often do you meet? Who sets goals and priorities? Do they reach out to students, or wait for them to reach out? How do they keep track of everyone’s progress? Etc.
  • It might be a good idea to schedule regular check-ins in advance, since the rest of your meeting will likely be focused on talking about research. It’s important to carve out the time to talk about your progress and broader goals.
  • Keep in mind that your PI is likely also developing as a scholar and mentor. If they’ll be going up for tenure soon, consider having a conversation about what that means in terms of their availability to be a resource for you.
  • Sometimes advisors can be very hands-off, but if you feel like you’re not getting the support you need, make sure you reach out to ask for more frequent meetings and closer supervision.
  • It can be good to talk to your advisor about what your long-term plans are, and ask them to help you break it down it to smaller short term goals.
  • Hopefully you’ll have a PI who recognizes that there should be work-life balance, but if you don’t, it’s ok to speak up for your needs.
  • If you are doing rotations, you might want to consider how understanding the potential advisors are of people who are underrepresented in science.


  • Start simple—don’t work on projects that are too complicated right off the bat.
  • First take the time to convince yourself that the idea is worthwhile before spending too much time on it. Imagine you got the results you were hoping for. Would that be interesting? How can you build up to the broader result you’re aiming for?
  • Stay organized! Use technology: Notion, Trello, Jira, Google Calendars, Zotero, ResearchRabbit… the possibilities are endless! It can be overwhelming, but try a few things out and/or ask others what they use. You’ll definitely want some way to keep track of your projects, your references, and your time!
  • To make sure you’re staying on track, most PhD programs have built-in check-in points. You can also ask your advisor from time to time if they think you’re on track. Some people also fill out individual development plans and review them regularly with their advisor.

Research Funding

  • This again will vary between programs and labs—you might be fully funded by your PI, you might get external funding, you might TA to get funding, or get another part time job on campus.
  • There are often small grants you can apply for to let you start your own projects. You can usually check university resources and national granting agencies.


  • In some programs there are specific classes you’re supposed to take, and/or a specific number of a certain kind (e.g., three “area” classes and three “outside” classes). Usually someone will tell you what classes to take in your first year. If you haven’t heard from anyone in the weeks leading up to the start of the semester, reach out to the program director or program coordinator to ask!
  • Some classes will be more like lectures, and others will be more like journal clubs. In some you’ll have homework like problem sets, and in others you’ll be writing papers. Depending on your program, you may or may not have quizzes and exams.
  • Don’t sweat too much about needing to get all your courses done right away - it might be better to wait for the ones you want to take to be offered. And you can always ask faculty when the next time they’ll be teaching a class is.
  • Classes can be really hard. Take advantage of your TAs and professors. Ask questions if you don’t understand something—in all likelihood, other students don’t understand either so you’ll be doing them a favor.
  • Try to use your classes to get the most out of them for what your needs are. If you know you’re never going to use a particular method (though that’s hard to know for sure), spend less time trying to get it down.
  • It’s totally normal not to like some classes.
  • Grades aren’t really important. As long as you put in some work, professors are highly unlikely to fail you, and all that really matters is that you pass. No one is going to care about your transcript.
  • Same for readings—don’t read every word! Learn to skip to the parts that are new or interesting.
  • If you have a paper to write, try to choose a topic that could either turn into a publication or will help you build foundational knowledge for your existing projects.
  • Professors tend to be very understanding! If you need an extension or are having trouble with anything, just communicate about it with them. They’re usually happy to grant extensions or help in other ways.
  • Ultimately, what matters the most is your research. As hard as it may be to not give it 100% effort when that’s something you might be used to doing from undergrad, your goal in grad school should be to just put in enough effort to pass, and to get practical knowledge you might need for your research.

DEI in Academia

  • Many areas of academia tend to be majority cisgender, straight, White, and affluent. For students from underrepresented backgrounds it can be hard to relate to professors. One thing that helps is focusing on your shared research interests.
  • Be protective of your mental health and needs. If you join initiatives, panels, committees, etc., make sure it’s something you actually want to do, and you’re not just doing it because you’re being pressured into it.
  • Find a community of people who look like you and share your experience. Sometimes that will be outside your program or even outside the academic setting (e.g., joining a local church).

Pursuing an alt-ac career

  • Some people start their programs thinking they’re going to be tenure-track professors, but end up deciding to leave academia altogether. It’s okay to let your goals evolve as you learn more and are exposed to more of the inner workings of academia.
  • Unless you’re really miserable, it is probably worth finishing your PhD even if you don’t want to stay in academia. There are many opportunities for people with PhDs outside of academia, it’s just a matter of finding them!
  • On most campuses there are career centers with great resources and connections.
  • You could also try informational interviews and/or shadowing people who are working in careers you may be interested in.

Work-life balance and time off

  • Everyone has their own schedule that works for them. Some people like to crank out their work in long stretches and then take long breaks, others pace themselves more. Find the rhythm that works for you!
  • Learn to set boundaries and stick to them. That might mean not working at all on Saturdays (and/or Sundays!), and/or it might mean logging off/going home at 6 pm every day. Whatever works for you, just try to make sure you do have a life!
  • Ask around in your program because each program is different, but generally you should be able to take time off for the holidays and during the summer. Visit family, go on vacation, or even take a “staycation”!
  • If you want to start a family while in grad school (or have one already), it definitely is doable, but you should make sure to do the research on what resources are available and what your rights are as a parent.
  • If mental health is ever an issue for you, make sure you’re doing what you need to take care of yourself. It’s okay to take time off if you need it! Learn where your limits are and try not to push yourself too hard.

Social life

  • Start creating a network with your cohort right away. Suggest opening a virtual group space (WhatsApp, GroupMe, Slack, you name it!).
  • Taking courses together is a huge advantage. Take initiative. It’s like college, everyone wants to make friends. Be proactive in starting a study group.
  • Celebrate wins and losses together! Go to brunch after an exam, or go for drinks when people submit their first papers.
  • Even if you’re an introvert and it’s mentally taxing, step out of your comfort zone!
  • Hopefully this won’t be relevant for much longer, but if COVID is a concern for hanging out in person, you might want to make a pact to only hang out with each other.
  • If you’re not too concerned about COVID, and want to meet people outside your program/cohort, find an activity that’ll help you meet people (e.g., rock climbing)!

Managing a long-distance relationship

  • Communication is key. Let each other know what you’ll be available to chat on the phone, and when you’ll be able to visit.
  • For most people, it’s not as hard as it sounds! There’s a lot of flexibility in grad school, and this can be used to your advantage.

Moving to a new place

  • Use BBB website for movers
  • If you’re in a city, see if your neighborhood has a Buy Nothing Facebook group or equivalent! It’s basically a neighborhood group where people give away free stuff.

Personal finances

  • Speak with a financial advisor early on. They can help you set budgets and savings goals.
  • Some schools offer financial literacy workshops and seminars.
  • Build financially healthy habits.
  • Consider living with roommates—it’ll also help you make friends!


  • Pretty much anything you want it to be! Some people wear sweatpants, others opt for business casual. The most important thing is that you feel comfortable.

Parting words of wisdom

  • Nicolas Camacho: Grad school is really hard. Seek help. Go to the university for resources, or find an outside doctor—take care of your mental health at all times!
  • Hannah Loo: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. Take care of yourself - you’re in it for the long haul.
  • Jenea Adams: Don’t be afraid to say no to things. Practice doing that now. Remember why you’re doing this, stay connected to that. Be comfortable with your “why” evolving as you do. I thought the change in my priorities was bad, but it’s normal.
  • Gabriella Perez: Taking care of your mental health is number one. My top advice is ask for help. Simple but hard to do. Have a good network of people. It’s ok to be wrong sometimes. Be ok with failure. Have hobbies! Motivation is going to wax and wane, that’s normal. You’ll get through it though! Don’t worry.

Back to Blog