Graduate Students

Yuanchi Zhao | yuanchi.zhao@yale.edu December 1, 2010

Scientific research labs throughout Yale probe the frontiers of human knowledge. Graduate students are at the heart of this process. Every day, graduate students perform the experiments and analyses that eventually produce new discoveries. For graduate students, research is their principal responsibility, the foundation upon which their thesis defense is erected. Graduate students learn the specialized knowledge and skills of researchers.

Graduate school is a long, self-driven, and independent effort. The median time to a natural sciences Ph.D. at Yale is 5.7 years. During their first year and part of their second year, graduate students take classes while rotating through research labs. Once a student chooses a lab, research towards the doctoral thesis begins.

Many students enter graduate school immediately after graduating from their undergraduate institutions. Others, such as Tarek Fadel, a fifth year student in chemical engineering, work for a few years before deciding to apply to graduate school. But they all share the same passions: a love of science, learning, and making discoveries. Eugene Douglass, a third year student in chemistry, describes his motivations: “You’re here because you’re interested. You figure out things that no one has done before. ”

Scientific discovery, however, does not come easily or quickly. Long working hours are an obligatory part of the graduate school experience. According to Eugene, graduate students are expected to work twelve hour days. Yet the quality of the results is more important than the quantity of hours worked, and graduate students have latitude and independence in choosing to leave work early or late. Eugene says that members of his lab usually have time to talk with each other and joke around. Being able to discuss non-science topics with colleagues is “the landmark of a healthy lab,” Tarek affirms. Because each hour of work is an investment in one’s own research, many graduate students willingly put in the hours. Tarek views research as more than an ordinary job, “I don’t think about when to leave. This is your life. Even at home, in the shower, you’re thinking science.”

The typical day in the lab for a graduate student involves two main activities: experimentation and literature review. At the border between the known and unknown, researchers must design their own procedures or improve upon existing ones. Jill Goldstein, a third year student in Molecular, Cellular and Developmental Biology, began working in the Horsley Lab only a few months after her principal investigator began working at Yale. “Everything we do I’ve helped set up and optimize. I’ve learned about experiments from the ground up.” While her experiments run, Jill uses the time to review scientific journals.

Because science explores the unknown, experimental results can be unpredictable. Experiments fail for a variety of reasons, occasionally bringing unexpected findings but more often causing confusion. When a long chemical synthesis or DNA extraction does not work as expected, it’s not easy to discover what went wrong. These obstacles, coupled with a deep, personal investment into the work, can be discouraging at times. “When experiments don’t work, frustration gets to you,” Jill admits. It’s important to instead “rejoice in small wins.” For Tarek, part of being a graduate student is “navigating through a landscape of uncertainty.” Even though he feels research is his life, he also recommends that, “it’s important to get out of it at times, to regain perspective.”

Yale graduate students have plenty of ways to get involved with the larger Yale community. Xiaoxiao Wang, a second year student in physics, appreciates Yale’s cultural resources and international feel. This year, he is living with students from England and Iran in the Hall of Graduate Studies. In addition to physics coursework, Xiaoxiao audited a course on modern social thought last semester. “Grad students to some extent need a liberal education because it’s hard to say what you will do in the future,” he says. Tarek is likewise highly involved in the Yale community. As a former McDougal Fellow of the Graduate School, Tarek organized events for fellow students. He participates in intramural sports and also plays drums with a band. The student life at Yale is “world class,” he says.

Although graduate school is a long and difficult undertaking, it is only the beginning of a career. At the end of the process, after years of research, intense learning, and personal discovery, newly minted PhDs can proudly say that they have made an original contribution towards the advancement of human knowledge. As Jill puts it, “grad school is the most challenging thing I’ve ever done. But when I take time to reflect, I realize how much I’ve grown.”