Avoiding the 'spiraling graduate school grind’

By Tomi Nano, PhD Candidate
In just a short stroll around the Western University campus, I notice various community event schedules and student organization flyers that serve to make positive impact. Roaming the halls of the Medical Science Building or Robarts Research Institute, I discover a breadth of interesting research projects that I had not heard of before, from furthering understanding of cardiovascular disease to developing technology for earlier detection of cancer. As a graduate trainee at  Schulich Medicine and Dentistry, I encounter daily opportunities to get involved with community events or participate in interesting research projects.
But there is a risk in this—and it is due to time. We cannot be in graduate school forever (although some of us can make a career of it) and there is a risk of getting off-course of your graduation plan and falling into a ‘spiraling graduate school grind’.
An explanation of what I consider a ‘spiraling graduate school grind’ in research is: the state of performing experiment, after experiment, after experiment, with no defined end-goal in search of something new that has not before been achieved. Like any other spiraling habit, it is a chase of something that is (normally) unachievable—the 'white whale' of research. I could easily fall into this spiral without the supervision from my mentors and advisors.
Completing graduate studies usually requires completion of a proper thesis and a successful oral defense. A graduation plan is a timeline for completing your thesis, which often includes publications in scientific journals and other program requirements. For example, my graduation plan is to complete the clinical requirements of my CAMPEP degree and publish three manuscripts in the medical physics field within four years. But in addition to my research, I collaborate on different research projects with colleagues, I am a teaching assistant, help run three student groups and I am involved with entrepreneurial projects. If I don't stay focused on completing my thesis requirements, I could easily lose track of time and not complete my graduation plan.

Time spent pondering new ideas or making discoveries is great, but if it is not done in an organized, achievable and focused manner it can be unproductive and complicate graduation plans. And although ideas for new experiments seem to be endless, research funding is not, so a graduate trainee's work must come to an end.
With that being said, most graduate trainees are extremely passionate, engaged and curious about their research work. These qualities are what make graduate trainees successful, as explained in this previous article by Andrew Watson, PhD.
Staying publication-focused, prioritizing your time and being resilient are skills a successful graduate trainee needs to stay the course. But how does one achieve them? Below are three points I consider helpful for staying productive and resilient during graduate studies.

  1. Start projects that are achievable in your graduation plan
  2. Finish projects you start
  3. Keep networking and building relationships with colleagues and mentors

Staying the course on a graduation plan takes constant work and awareness. It helps focus your research time and can help ensure your graduate training will be useful for your career after graduation.

-Tomi Nano

The Schulich Medicine & Dentistry Graduate Student Council (SGSC) aims to provide all graduate trainees with the necessary support they need to successfully complete their graduate studies. SGSC represents the interests and needs of the graduate student body to ensure trainees receive the fullest experience during their graduate studies. The council consists of members from all Schulich Medicine & Dentistry graduate programs who act as a voice at council for each discipline. Feel free to contact your representative or the current chair, Tomi Nano (tnano@uwo.ca), for more information regarding the council.