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Preparing for Success in Graduate Studies During COVID

If you are reading this, you are likely interested in or have been accepted to a graduate program for a doctoral or master’s degree. In my experience, graduate study is a mix of anxiety, excitement, and sometimes disappointment when experiments don’t work. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about many changes to graduate programs that will probably affect your graduate training. ASH, however, is committed to supporting trainees in the basic science of hematology research (see resources for PhDs and career resources), even during these uncertain times. Below I highlight my own advice for preparing to successfully begin a graduate program.

  1. Find the right mentors early on. We need mentors at every stage of our career. I believe that there is nothing more important than having a mentor who you trust and who gives you honest advice. In many graduate programs, your mentor will be the thesis lab’s principal investigator or the person training you. A mentor is also someone who will support you during your career development and help you stay on track; therefore, you should get along well with them and their training style should suit your training needs. I also recommend having a team of mentors to get a second opinion on issues that are hard to navigate. Although more clinically oriented, ASH has a portal for finding a hematologist that can help you identify mentors with similar research interests. ASH also provides pointers on how to find good mentors at Finding a Mentor.
  2. Assess the work environment. Although your work environment may be individualized based on the institution, it is also key to your success; it will become almost like a second home as you will spend many hours per week there. In assessing your work environment, it's important to determine what it is that you value. For example, is a sense of collegiality important to you? Are you looking for a more competitive, fast-paced environment, or do you prefer people getting along and being kind towards one another? Spending five to six years in a workplace that constantly clashes with your values is uninspiring and greatly contributes to burnout. Along these lines, assess whether the lab has enough funding to support your training for multiple years. Additionally, it may be worth looking at the ASH Grants Clearinghouse to see if there are any grants you qualify for to supplement your training. Obtaining grants looks fantastic on your CV for the next step after your degree!
  3. Identify an enjoyable project. Many graduate programs require a thesis project. Work with your mentor to identify a project you like. It is important to understand what the knowledge gaps are in your field. Ask yourself, what are some of the key unaddressed questions in your field? As someone starting out in research, it is necessary to be up to date on the latest developments in your field. ASH maintains several publications that disseminate exciting original research and reviews covering many different topics within malignant and nonmalignant hematology.
  4. Get involved in your field and don’t be afraid of new opportunities. A strong career development skill is knowing how to identify ways to get involved in the field. It helps you develop leadership and networking abilities as well as “soft” skills such as becoming a good communicator. These networks may be the seed that gets you that job in the future or lands you that much needed research partnership, and these skills, which are not usually taught during graduate studies, make you competitive in your career. Lastly, as you finish up your degree, you might consider applying for the ASH Trainee Council as the hematology community is in great need of more representation from PhD hematologists!