Last week I attended an education dept talk on skill development of PhD students in Biology. This talk covered results from a longitudinal study of doctoral students as they move through grad school and now some students are also being tracked post graduation. It’s an impressively large and detailed long term study. Although it’s worth noting that the study was restricted to biology subfields that are predominately wet lab based (i.e. not field biologists or computational biologists).
The most recent results were published this week in PNAS and the main takeaway is that increasing skill sets is predicted by level of involvement from post-docs and senior grad students in the lab. In other words, if you want to grow your professional skills as a graduate student, you should be looking not just to your PI but also post-docs and senior grad students.
My lab currently has three post-docs and eight grad students and is one of the largest labs in our department. This makes getting one-on-one time with our PI a highly limited resource. As a result, members of the lab often lean on each other for support and mentorship. I actually swapped desk positions in the lab because my three neighbors of a post-doc and two senior grad students were no longer around. (Two left for new jobs and the last person frequently works in her other advisor’s lab.) Now I sit next to three grad students who have been in the program longer than me. I definitely appreciate how often we all check in on each other and all the advice I’ve gotten just from talking though my work with them.
Additionally, we have a new student in the lab who has prior experience as a professional grant writer! He was kind enough to look over a small grant proposal for me and provide many clear and immensely helpful comments. Everything he suggested made perfect sense, but was certainly not something I would have picked up on my own. So don’t discount your newer grad student colleagues from being mentors too! Get to know your lab mates, learn their strengths and don’t be afraid to ask them for help.