How I Survived My First Semester of Grad School

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Like almost everyone, I started grad school with the confidence that I was going to conquer it. I was foremost elated to be accepted into the PhD Graduate Program in Molecular Biosciences at Rutgers University. I was excited that I had begun a journey to becoming a scientist, and had a resolve that I was going to find a cure for cancer…….yeah right!

At the start of September 2018, classes began and I was thrilled to be in a classroom again. I’m honestly one of those people who can’t wait for school to be over, and then after a month of being on break, I get bored and want to be at school again. Even so, I was eager to begin working in a lab.

As part of my PhD program, we are required to rotate in 3 different labs of our choosing, and in the end, select one of the three to complete our thesis in. In addition to these rotations, we were required to take Fundamentals of Molecular Biology, a 6 credit class with everything you could possibly think of concerning biology condensed and packed together in the first semester. There was a quiz at the start of each class, and endless required readings to complete. It was honestly exhausting.

Most of my undergraduate research experience was in neuro-virology, and now I was learning about cancer research. The sheer workload of learning new techniques in lab and reading related literature to the research, in addition to keeping up with studying and readings for the class was A LOT. I found myself sacrificing sleep and becoming miserable. I knew something had to give, so here’s how I sort of survived:


Prioritizing and executing the important stuff helped tremendously. It was evident that while we had exams every three weeks, we had quizzes every class. So I prioritized doing the required class readings after lab and left studying for the weekends.


Knowing that I wasn’t the only one going through it with all the responsibilities of grad school actually helped. I began a close friendship with a group of girls in my cohort and we would have lunch and study together. Sharing my burdens and talking about how I’m going actually make it through with people who understood my struggle was everything.


There was a period of time where I began to feel overwhelmed and started burning out. I had personal family issues I was dealing with and that added so much stress to my life. My health started to deteriorate which in turn affected my attendance at school. I decided I needed to share my situation with an advisor. It was one of the best decisions I made because I was offered so much support that it was so refreshing. Without their encouragement, I honestly don’t know if I would’ve made it through the semester.


For me, this goes without question. I am a believer in that prayer changes things. Praying for strength and guidance was pivotal in helping me to remain sane every day.


Well, need I say more? Caffeine is probably every graduate student’s best friend. I definitely wouldn’t have made it through the countless nights of studying and reading without it. I am not a huge coffee fan, but green tea matcha is my holy grail.

Life doesn’t get easier or more forgiving; we get stronger and more resilient
— Dr. Steve Maraboli

My struggles last semester taught me how resilient I really am, and I feel better prepared to tackle this new semester. I am about to start my third and hopefully last rotation soon, and I’m also attending class, so I’ll be sure to let you know if I survive this semester too.

Rukia HenryComment