Early Graduate Life

Getting Off to a Good Start

Once you have received and accepted an offer to attend graduate school, the third phase of planning for graduate work begins.   

Transitioning into graduate school involves a number of aspects:

  • Making the Move
  • Serving as a Graduate Teaching Assistant
  • Setting Goals – The Individual Development Plan
  • Serving as a Graduate Research Assistant
  • Choosing an Adviser
  • Building a Network

The experiences you have and the connections you make during your first months in a graduate program provide a foundation for additional experiences and connections.  How can you shape your graduate school experience so that it positions you to achieve your career goals?  How will the experience develop the skills, knowledge, and network you need?

Have a Change in Plans?

Communicate with your graduate program as soon as you know you may not be attending or your start will need to be delayed.

Making the Move

Your graduate school responsibilities will start before the first day of classes. You may have an opportunity to do research during the summer. You may be among the graduate teaching assistants required to take training or an international student required to take an additional language exam. Exams and orientation can take place prior to the start of classes or shortly thereafter.  Be sure to confirm when you need to be on campus.  Regardless of whether moving across town, country, or the ocean, all of your planning will be driven by this deadline.

The details and timing of your moving plan will reflect your personal situation and the place to which you are moving.  Among the things to consider:

  • Housing
  • Transportation
  • Access to grocery stores and restaurants
  • Access to medical facilities

If you have children, day care and/or schools will also be a consideration.

Orientation Programs

Orientation programs tend to be full of information sessions, training, and other activities.  Some will be focused on institutional requirements and resources. Others will be focused on the chemical sciences:

  • Program Placement Exams (Note: Placement exams are often based on the various chemistry subdisciplines and designed to identify knowledge gaps)
  • Responsible conduct of research
  • Safety training
  • GTA training
  • Language exams (international students)

Make the Most of Orientation

Look for knowledge and skills that will be useful throughout your career, as well as in graduate school.

Build a network of people within the department and across campus.


Serving as a Graduate Teaching Assistant

Most graduate students will serve as teaching assistants, usually at the beginning of their studies. In some programs, even those students with fellowships are required to teach, due to the benefits:

  • Basic knowledge of chemistry
  • Communication skills
  • Time management skills
  • Research skills

Financial support for graduate teaching assistants generally comes from the department.

Teaching laboratory and recitation sections come with their challenges. Training sessions are becoming more popular, especially as programs reform undergraduate courses. In addition to faculty and staff supporting undergraduate curricula, you can also turn to:

It has been established that serving as a teaching assistant also helps develop the skills needed to be successful in research, whether carried out in academia or industry.

Looking for instructional information?

Center for the Integration of Research, Training and Learning (CIRTL)

CIRTL uses graduate education as the leverage point to develop a national STEM faculty committed to implementing and advancing effective teaching practices for diverse student audiences as part of successful professional careers.

Want To Know More About Academic Careers?

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Setting Goals – The Individual Development Plan

The importance of setting goals and mapping out steps to reach them cannot be overemphasized. By clearly articulating how your graduate school activities will help you meet your goals, you can:

  • Keep your graduate studies on target
  • Stay motivated during challenging times
  • Impress colleagues and potential employers
  • Set the stage for a successful career

The process of setting goals will be fluid, reflecting your experiences and changes in interests.

Many graduate programs are starting to use Individual Development Plans (IDPs) to help guide students through their graduate studies.  Preparing and updating such a document is particularly beneficial when you have input from your adviser and other colleagues and mentors.  It is an ongoing process consisting of four steps: 

  • Conducting a self-assessment – consider your goals, scholarly competency, professional development competencies, competencies for job search process, collaboration and leadership
  • Writing an IDP – share with your adviser and revise
  • Implementing the plan – set up regular review process with your adviser and graduate committee
  • Surveying potential career paths – review with your adviser and other colleagues and mentors

IDPs will help map out the steps for pursuing the experiences, developing the skills, and building the networks needed to achieve your goals.   IDPs should constantly evolve as they are reviewed, updated, and revised.

Why Individual Development Plans?

  • IDPs have long been recognized as valuable management tools in government and the private sector.
  • In July 2013 the National Institutes of Health released NOT-OD-13-093 encouraging institutions to require all graduate students and post-docs to prepare IDPs.
  • In studies over more than 10 years it has been demonstrated that such plans lead to better time and resource management and more effective interaction with the research adviser and other mentors.

Resources for Developing Your IDP

Serving as a Graduate Research Assistant

If you are pursuing a research degree, at some point in your studies you are likely to serve as a graduate research assistant (GRA).  The availability of such positions depends on the availability of funds to support your research project.

Being able to focus on research will help you fulfill the expectations of:

  • Deepening your knowledge
  • Developing advanced skills
  • Being increasingly self-directed

It will also help you obtain research results more quickly, advancing the project, and positioning it for future support.

Your research project and the ways in which it will help you fulfill the above expectations will be framed in conversations with your adviser. An IDP can help structure these conversations.

Choosing an Adviser

In some institutions the selection of an adviser is directly linked to the admissions process. In the majority you will be matched with an adviser by the end of the first semester. The process of selecting an adviser could be very structured or quite informal. Some programs have rotation systems by which you can work in the laboratories of several faculty members prior to joining a particular research group. Others may require you to interview several faculty members. Even if it is not required, consider several potential advisers, as some may not be able to take you on as a new graduate student. Most programs require new students to indicate their top several choices and the faculty concur on assignments as they are able to support new students.

Before meeting with potential advisers, review their websites, read a few of their publications, and talk with their graduate students and postdoctoral scholars.  This may answer many of your questions, allowing you to focus the in-person discussions on key topics.

Interviews with potential advisers should be two-way. You will learn about a variety of projects, work environments and approaches to advising. Faculty members who may serve as advisers and mentors will learn about you, your background, and your goals.

Get More Insight

Learn what questions you should ask yourself when you're choosing your mentor

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Questions to consider as you identify potential advisers that reflect your goals and graduate program


  • Do you find the projects interesting and challenging?
  • How will the project prepare you for your career?
  • How often are research results published?

Work Environment

  • What is the size of the group and how many are graduate students? Is this likely to change?
  • How do members of the group interact with each other? Do they have formal roles? Do the intellectual climate, vitality, and spirit of cooperation suit your needs?
  • What is the condition of the laboratories? Will you be working in safe facilities? Will you have access to the instrumentation and equipment you need?
  • What level and type of financial support can you anticipate?

Professional Development

  • How accessible will your adviser be? Via what modes of communication?
  • What level of direction will you need? If you anticipate hands-on advising at the start, how will that change over your graduate work? How will your adviser facilitate independent thinking?
  • What opportunities will you have to present and publish? Patent? Develop skills?
  • What opportunities might you have to collaborate with groups within or outside the program?
  • What about the possibility of an industrial internship or collaboration?
  • How would your adviser feel about you taking non-science courses, as for example, entrepreneurship or intellectual property?
  • Where are most of the graduates employed? What experiences, connections, and skills helped them to launch their careers?

Want to Enhance the Relationship with Your Adviser?

Building a strong relationship with your adviser can be one of the most important and rewarding experiences of your graduate studies. You will start out as a new student, but by investing time and effort you can help your adviser:

  • Provide opportunities that will advance your science
  • Make introductions and prepare letters of recommendation that will advance your career
  • Become a lifelong colleague

Throughout your graduate studies you will want to clarify expectations regarding:

  • The nature and frequency of communications
  • Approach to tracking progress to degree
  • Group responsibilities

These and other expectations will change as you progress and your project advances.

Get to know your adviser as a person. Knowing your adviser’s motivations, experiences, and other responsibilities will help you to know when and how to reach out with questions, information, and suggestions.

Building a Network

The importance of networking cannot be overstated. It provides the connections and information to help you build your scientific reputation and launch your career.

You began building your network during your undergraduate studies.  Keep in touch with other students and faculty, as well as any alumni you may have met.

As you pursue your graduate degree, continue building your network.  Look for a wide range of people who will share the professional insights and provide the support you need to pursue your degree and start your career.

The importance of networking cannot be overstated. It provides the connections and information to help you build your scientific reputation and launch your career.


Opportunities to network at conferences and meetings can occur while attending sessions, riding shuttle buses, or even waiting in lines. Simply introducing yourself can be all it takes to start a conversation.

Networking is not just about identifying job opportunities.  Your interactions with other chemical scientists and students should help you to:  

  • Find mentors and champions
  • Gain general information about possible career sectors
  • Build your professional reputation

The network you build as a graduate student will play an increasingly important role in your future professional pursuits. 

Going to a Meeting?

  • Review the program
  • Look up additional information about presenters and other attendees who you would like to meet
  • Ask presenters questions
  • Talk with other meeting attendees
  • Exchange business cards
  • Follow up after the meeting, sending a message or invitation to LinkedIn
  • Stop by the Graduate and Postdoctoral Scholars Reception

Networking Online

  • Personalize invitations to join networks such as LinkedIn, reminding the recipient of where you met and topics of conversation
  • Tap into alumni networks and other groups of interest
  • Remember that the web is a place that potential employers are likely to look for information about you
  • A Chemist’s Guide to Social Media
ACS Committee on Professional Training