Stanford Biosciences student working at bench

Advice From Students

Thanks to the Stanford Biosciences Student Association for their contributions to this page.

Thesis Research

  • The fundamental basis for getting a PhD is understanding your work inside and out and taking responsibility for finding new approaches and identifying any potential issues or caveats. You should take the initiative to understand your project as soon as possible—and not rely solely on other people.
  • On the other hand, don't be afraid to ask questions! Take the initiative to seek out the information you need, whether it be from the literature, your advisor, or other people in your field. Discussion is highly encouraged.
  • Stay on top of the literature. Scan the journals relevant to your field often. You may want to sign up for a weekly email-based alerting service that notifies you when papers with your user-defined topics are published. Both PubMed and Faculty of 1000 send out these types of emails. The major journals (Nature, Science, Cell, and many specialty journals) will also email you the table of contents for each new issue when it is published online.
  • Be aware of how your project fits into the other projects in your lab as well as those in your field as a whole. How likely are you to get scooped? Is it a collaborative project, and do you trust your collaborators and work well with them? Do you have ownership over your work?
  • It is common for graduate students to go through more than one project before they get interesting results, so don't give up! Just communicate with your PI (Principal Investigator) frequently so you learn how to realize when it is time to abandon a project or change the experimental approach.

Teaching Assistantship

  • Determine the kind of teaching experience you want. For example, are you interested in an undergraduate course with a lab component or a graduate course? Also, consider the format: Do you want a class based around lectures or discussions?
  • Every Home Program has its own teaching requirements, so check with your Home Program for specifics.
  • Talk to professors who teach courses you are interested in as well as students who have completed teaching assistantships in similar settings.
  • Consider the amount of time you want to spend teaching before committing to a class. Make sure you understand the time requirements for each opportunity, as they do vary.

Qualifying Exam

  • The purpose of the qualifying exam is to show that you understand what you are doing in the lab, why you are doing it, and how it fits into the field as a whole. Since the format may vary between Home Programs, you should consult people within your Home Program for requirements and advice specific to you.
  • You need to understand broadly how your work fits into your field. What is the motivation, and why will it make a difference? What are the possible approaches you can take to answer the question, and what are the strengths and weaknesses of those approaches?
  • Know the literature that pertains to your chosen topic, both directly and indirectly.
  • You will need to demonstrate that you can effectively design experiments that answer the question that you are asking. You should go through the process of writing and presenting a proposed set of experiments in a logical format.
  • It is always a good idea to seek feedback from classmates and your fellow lab mates as you develop your proposal. classmates and your fellow lab mates. This may even include a practice talk.

Committee Meetings

  • Your thesis committee is an important complement and counterbalance to your advisor. Although it is important to choose committee members who can contribute scientifically, it is also important that they be supportive of your graduate career. Your committee influences when you graduate and will be writing you letters of recommendation, so choose them carefully.
  • Meet with your committee at least once a year—and more often if you are having problems. Ask them candid questions about your progress towards graduation (time frame, remaining experiments, constructive criticism, etc.).
  • Committee meetings are your chance to bring up new and interesting data, problems you're having with experiments or choosing a direction, potential implications, and new projects that come out of your work. These are very valuable opportunities for you to get feedback, suggestions, and advice on anything pertaining to your PhD. With that in mind, you should prepare for your committee meeting and have a sense of what you want to get out of it when you walk in. If you want help in specific areas, be ready to bring them up and discuss them.
  • Your committee is there to help you, but the initiative is yours to get what you want. Help them help you.
  • Committee meetings are not something to be feared. This is an opportunity for you to talk about your work with a group of people who are giving you their undivided attention. Turn it into an interactive discussion, and enjoy it!


  • Goal-setting is about organizing your time and your thoughts, and having a plan. You walk in to lab each day knowing what you are going to do that day and deciding what you are going to accomplish that day, week, month, etc.
  • The benefits to goal-setting are that you can maximize your efficiency and avoid needless experiments or time-wasting. It leaves you time for other things: to read the literature, go to the gym, or attend a seminar.
  • Pay attention to how other people go about their day. If you see something useful, adopt those habits! Everyone does things differently, from note-taking and keeping a planner to scheduling experiments and structuring one's day. Be open-minded to other ways of doing things so that you can pick and choose habits that will help you be a more efficient and effective graduate student.

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