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Getting Started in a Lab

If you are a new graduate student in the sciences, you will rotate through several labs during your first year at the University of Washington. Your challenge is to find the right lab for you — one that best matches your intellectual interests and that helps prepare you for your career.

How to get started in a lab

  • Sample a range of lab environments and cultures. Find a lab that will help you develop as a researcher.

Find out what the ground rules and expectations are.

  • How many hours are you expected to be in the lab? (Remember that research is not a 9 to 5 job; you should look forward to hanging out in the lab—but also make sure you know specific expectations for your time).
  • What’s the definition of “progress” in lab work? What’s the definition of progress in graduate work in your discipline?

Look for opportunities that will benefit your career.

  • Will you have an opportunity to publish?
  • Will you get credit—as an author, co-author—for the work you do in the lab? Will your intellectual work really be your own? Seek a lab that gives ownership of your ideas to you.
  • Will you have a chance to push beyond the boundaries of particular grants?
  • Will you be able to collaborate with other labs?

Be smart.

  • The best lab is not necessarily the one that pays the most.
  • Success is not always about being comfortable— so look for a lab where you will be pushed a bit.

How to evaluate labs

Both established and new labs have great merit.

  • In an established lab, find out: What’s the lab’s track record? Where have people ended up working after their lab experience?
  • Recognize that some younger faculty—who do not have well established labs and therefore do not have the same track record as established labs—often bring the newest ideas to the discipline and are often willing to spend time with graduate students. Such labs might be a better place to try new things.
  • Where do people in the lab publish? In top-tier journals?
  • Ask other students about the labs.
  • Trust your instincts.

Be clear about your own expectations for mentorship in a lab.

  • How often would you like to meet with faculty mentors? (Make sure that the time you request is for the most pressing matters; don’t waste time on minor details that you can find out elsewhere).
  • Can you get on the mentor’s calendar? (Ask other graduate students in the lab about the nature and extent of mentorship).

Make good use of your lab work: Publish early and publish often.

  • Publications are the currency of success.
  • Publications are a guaranteed path to a relatively carefree thesis preparation.

How to succeed in a lab

  • Participation is the key to any successful lab. A successful lab draws on a variety of skills, so contribute.
  • Recognize that a good lab is one with mutual mentorship; that means you need to contribute, too. As a first-year student, you may well have expertise that others in the lab don’t have. Be a good citizen; contribute the work. Recognize that you have the potential to be a valuable contributor from the very first day you walk in the door.
  • Learn from others and support others in the lab. Recognize the expertise of all of your lab colleagues (faculty, visiting scientists, postdocs, graduate students, undergraduates, and even high school students).
  • During your first year, complete at least one research paper.

by Tom Daniel, professor, Biology

‘Be stubborn…keep trying,’ advises Mindy Cohoon on applying for fellowships

“I applied and applied and applied, and the third time I applied, I got it.”

Graduate student Mindy Cohoon, speaking of her process applying for the Simpson Center’s Digital Humanities Fellowship

Between her undergraduate and graduate years, Near and Middle Eastern Studies Ph.D. student Mindy Cohoon has received 23 fellowships, grants and scholarships.  She credits her success to three factors: careful attention to the mission of the fellowship, getting feedback on her essays and applying to at least 10 fellowships per year.

Cohoon’s experience demonstrates an important truth about applying for fellowships: being rejected is a necessary component of success.  Accept that you will sometimes be rejected and that it might be due to factors beyond your control.  If you apply broadly and consistently for fellowships, then you will be rejected by some funders. Rejection does not mean that you are a weak applicant or that your research is unimportant. Funders are usually trying to select awardees from a pool of excellent applicants, so being rejected could mean that you missed being awarded by a hair’s breadth.  

Among the awards Mindy has recently received are:

The Maurice and Lois Schwartz Fellowship (due Jan 15) and the Roshan Institute Fellowship for Excellence in Persian Studies (due April 04) from the UW Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations

The Social Science Research Council (SSRC) Social Data Research and Dissertation Fellowship

Foreign Language & Area Studies (FLAS) Fellowships (due Jan 31)

Cohoon described her strategies for applying for fellowships and her research on Iranian and Iranian American women gamers to the Graduate School. Read the story here.

Staying Motivated

Graduate school can be one of the most challenging experiences of your life. Not only are you working on multiple projects, putting in lab hours, or completing research, you may also be juggling additional roles as parents or caregivers, employees, leaders, or community volunteers. With everything you have to do, it’s no wonder that it can be difficult at times to stay motivated and on track. Below are just a few strategies to help you cultivate—and recuperate—motivation while you are in grad school.

Focus on what you can change. Losing motivation in graduate school can be a result of feeling like you have no control over your life. While it’s true that you can’t change things like a professor’s feedback on your assignments or internship and funding application deadlines, you do have agency over how you spend your time during the week. 1) Prioritize only the most important tasks you need to do throughout the day. 2) Break down large projects into smaller, manageable tasks. 3) Block out times of the day (or night) that you are most alert; use these 15 or 30 min. to free write, in order to chip away at a final paper draft. 4) Finally, work where you work best. Is this at your desk at home, in the library, or at a café with a study peer or two?

Recognize that you are not a failure. You are in graduate school because you are brilliant, intelligent, and have much to offer to your discipline or profession. At the same time, one of the biggest hurdles you can face in graduate school is the fear of failure. For some folks, this can be emotionally and psychologically taxing and reduces motivation. But there’s hope. You can acknowledge that failure is a result, not who you are as a person. Practice reframing failures as learning moments. As our colleague Gino Aisenberg (Associate Dean of Equity, Inclusion, and Diversity in The Graduate School) asserts, “You wouldn’t yell at a toddler for stumbling as they learn how to walk. So be gentle with yourself, while you learn, make mistakes, and grow in graduate school.” Read this article for additional tips on learning from failure.

Make time for you. Other times, lack of motivation can result from not getting your needs met as a whole person—because believe it or not—you are not just a graduate student. Also, it’s neither realistic nor healthy to be “constantly productive.” It’s important to invest time for wellness, hobbies, and connection. These may include a weekly chat with a friend or loved one, watching your favorite movie, making a nice meal for yourself, seeing your therapist, or individual time for self-reflection (e.g. journaling or practicing self-kindness and compassion). We do our best work, when we dedicate time in our lives to relax, recharge, and participate in non-work activities that engage our interests and bring us enjoyment.

See the bigger picture. Part of the challenge of completing a graduate degree is that incentives and rewards are delayed. This is why it’s especially important to stay focused on all the reasons you entered graduate school in the first place. Maybe you’re wanting to land that dream job in industry, interested in providing more financial stability for your family after completing your degree, or passionate about influencing policy that promotes social equity. All of these are valid reasons to stay motivated while working towards your degree. If you need to, jot down all the positive reasons why you are in graduate school. Revisit this list as a reminder of your bigger purpose, whenever you’re lacking motivation. 

We hope these strategies resonate with you, and feel free to share with us your tips for staying motivated!


Core Programs—Office of Graduate Student Affairs

UW Graduate School

Setting Goals & Rewarding Yourself

Welcome back! We hope you made space in your schedule during the break to rest, have fun and celebrate milestones. Now that spring quarter is in full motion, we encourage you to schedule your time wisely to help you be and feel successful. And remember, time spent on self-care will lead to a more productive graduate student experience.

Goal setting. No matter where you’re at in your grad school trajectory, it’s always good to set (and revisit) your goals in order to continue making progress. What larger goals would you like to complete this quarter? Is it a realistic number of goals? Which ones must be completed this quarter versus ones that have flexible deadlines? What manageable, smaller tasks need to be completed to achieve your larger goals? Do you have a support system to hold you accountable and advocate for your progress (e.g. faculty advisors or mentors, peers, community members, loved ones)? In thinking about getting mentor support, be mindful that no single mentor can fulfill all of your needs. It’s best to build a supportive mentor network.

Motivation. Part of the challenge of completing a graduate degree is that incentives and rewards are delayed. This makes it especially important to stay focused on all the reasons you entered graduate school in the first place. Maybe you’re wanting to land that dream job in industry, interested in providing more financial stability for your family after graduation, passionate about creating policies that promote social justice in society or excited about being a researcher beyond the UW. All of these are valid reasons to stay motivated while working towards your degree.

Reward yourself. Related to the previous point on motivation, it’s important to develop strategies and systems that celebrate the range of your achievements in graduate school—no matter how small or big the milestone. Finished reading all of your assigned articles for the day; stream an hour or two of your favorite TV show. Completed one hour of productive writing; make plans to catch up with a friend or family member whom you haven’t talked to in a while. Completed cover letter drafts for job applications; order take out! Rewarding yourself can also include going for a run, making plans for a day hike or going camping for the weekend with peers. Your reward system is individual, so do what feels best for you.

We hope you find these tips useful, and have a great upcoming weekend!


Core Programs—Office of Graduate Student Affairs
UW Graduate School

Being Intentional and Productive This Summer

Summer is the perfect time to make room for activities and experiences that will help you be—and feel–prepared for the coming academic year! The pace can feel slower during this time of the year, and there’s a little more wiggle room to be intentional about visualizing and achieving your intellectual, professional, and interpersonal goals. Maybe you’re starting from scratch (or already have some initial goals) and just need a plan of action. Maybe you need some structured time and support to work on a writing project? Or maybe you’re interested in career development activities?

No matter where you’re at, below are some initial strategies that can help you create intentional space for productivity this summer!

Summer is the perfect time to make room for activities and experiences that will help you be—and feel–prepared for the coming academic year! The pace can feel slower during this time of the year, and there’s a little more wiggle room to be intentional about visualizing and achieving your intellectual, professional, and interpersonal goals. Maybe you’re starting from scratch (or already have some initial goals) and just need a plan of action. Maybe you need some structured time and support to work on a writing project? Or maybe you’re interested in career development activities?

No matter where you’re at, below are some initial strategies that can help you create intentional space for productivity this summer!

Create a plan to meet your goals. As graduate students—and as whole people with complex lives—we know that completing your graduate degree is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to meeting your goals. And we know it takes time to reflect on the skills you already possess—and the academic, professional, and interpersonal competencies you’d like to develop in the future.  Creating an Individual Development Plan (IDP) can help you map out realistic, achievable goals for your time in graduate school and beyond. Use your IDP as a roadmap for meeting with mentors and advisors. What’s great about an IDP is that you can adapt and revise as you see fit!

Make progress on your writing. Whether you are working on a thesis, dissertation, or an article for publication, set achievable and concrete writing goals for yourself this summer.  In past Core Programs newsletters, we encouraged you to start out by setting aside 15 min. blocks of time to write each day. Then try working your way up to 30 min. chunks of time. You’ll eventually see that you’re making progress.  Reach out to peers (they can be peers outside of your graduate program too) to schedule skype and/or in-person writing support group meetings.You can receive and share constructive feedback on writing projects and hold each other accountable to getting tasks done. Finally, here are great tips on how to move past feeling stuck in a writing rut from Dr. Kerry Anne Rockquemore, President of the National Center for Faculty Development & Diversity.

Get involved in professional development activities. There are many ways to brush up on your professional development this summer. 1) Update your CV or resume with skills and professional experiences you have gained from 2016-2017. 2) Identify conferences you’d like to present your work at for the coming year, and mark those proposal and registration deadlines on your calendar. 3) Set up informational interviews to network with professionals currently working in fields or companies you’re interested in working for. 4) Volunteer in your local community to gain skills and to give back. 4) Contact your UW career center at Bothell, Tacoma, or Seattle for guidance with your internship or job search. 5) Check out just a few of our Core Programs newsletter links below on professional development:

Research funding opportunities. Whether you are seeking travel funds to participate in an academic or professional conference or grants to fund your research, start by learning about the breadth of possible funding opportunities available to you. Because application deadlines and eligibility requirements vary widely—and can sneak up on you when you’re busy during the academic year—it’s always a good idea to plan in advance.

Funding Information Resources

We hope you find these strategies useful, and please let us know of tips that worked for you!


Core Programs Team

Slowing Down, Being Present

As the spring quarter begins, we know that many of you will be experiencing anxiety over fulfilling requirements for your very first —or final — year in your grad program, planning your career trajectory beyond the UW, or managing your time to balance work, family, and graduate school. As the weeks go by, the work will seem to just pile up. This is real.

The good thing is, you can approach being a graduate student from a totally different perspective — by being intentional and mindful. We invite you to take a deep breath (really, a full breath in and out), create some space for yourself to slow down, and check out some possible strategies for being mindful that you can consider incorporating into your schedule.

Resist busyness. There’s an unspoken culture in graduate school that perpetuates the idea that over-productivity is a good thing: that performing and talking about how busy we are is key to being successful in a graduate program. Stanford Career Coach Dr. Chris Golde offers a different perspective and states, “Graduate students report more than can be done.” She recommends slowing down “to make peace with [our] limitations,” and says “there will always be those around you — students and faculty — who accomplish far more than you do. Hold yourself to a standard of what is realistic for you.”

Set achievable goals. It can be tempting during this time of the year to be overly ambitious about your goals, and setting an unrealistic standard for yourself can actually lead to you not achieving what’s most important to you — whether you are in career planning mode, completing your capstone, thesis or dissertation, or working on or off campus. Again, we invite you to slow down. We know that when we were in graduate school, goal setting wasn’t something that we suddenly knew how to do. Take some time to map out and visualize your goals. And finally, we encourage you to reward yourself for each task you complete towards your end goals.

Be mindful. Mindfulness can simply be defined as taking time to observe your thoughts, feelings, and bodily sensations from moment to moment, without judgment. Why would this be beneficial to practice while you are in graduate school? Research has shown that over time, mindfulness can help us be more compassionate to ourselves and people in our communities, help us be less reactive and more calm in the face of conflict, and help us increase our focus to what truly matters in our lives.

We hope these strategies are helpful to you as you as you navigate the new quarter!

Your mental health and well-being matter to us,

Core Programs Team

5 tips to boost your productivity

All of us struggle with motivation at different times, and winter can be particularly challenging. That said, it can also be a good time to hunker down and get some work done. Whether you plan to stay in academia or not, you will need written products coming out of your postdoc years to demonstrate what you have accomplished. Perhaps you are also finishing up publications from your doctoral research or laying the groundwork for a new research direction. Recently, the National Center for Faculty Diversity and Development (NCFDD)’s “Monday Motivator” featured 5 tips for productivity.

  1. Create a plan. How? Dr. Rockquemore writes: “It’s a simple process: 1) list your writing and wellness goals for the remainder of this calendar year, 2) map out all the steps that are needed to complete your goals, and 3) figure out when that work will get done.” While it may not be in your skill set yet, it is truly simple once you start. During your next work week, put “Planning” in your calendar for a 1-2 hour block and work through it. This is your work. This is a great time to revisit your Individualized Development Plan (IDP).
  2. Write every day. We also know that your own writing is the task that will consistently get put aside for other demands (e.g. lab meeting, responding to your advisor, looking up one more article, sifting through Facebook, etc.). Research shows that if you dedicate just 30 minutes a day to writing (really writing), you will make consistent progress toward a writing goal and complete a product faster than if you hope for a half-day or protected Saturday that never does emerge.
  3. Join a group of daily committed writers. You are not alone. We all have to write and produce. Just like a regular exercise or spiritual practice, if you are connected with others who are also committed, it helps you sustain the practice. You can meet face-to-face for your blocks of writing time or just stay connected online and check-in, which gets to the next point:
  4. Commit to regular accountability. Tell someone your goals and plans, and schedule a check-in meeting (virtually or in-person) to see how it is going. In the short-term, this can be yourself. Apps such as Grid Diary can help you self-assess at the end of the day what 3 things you accomplished, and set personal goals for how tomorrow can be better.
  5. Find dedicated mentors. All of this takes hard work, and sifting through the noise that comes at you on a daily basis. Find mentors—you should have a full team—who genuinely are invested in your success (see blog posts on mentoring). They can help hold you accountable, prioritize what needs to happen, strategize where products need to go, and troubleshoot when things fall through the cracks (which they will).

If you are interested in signing up for a weekly email with these Monday Motivator tips from NCFDD, or checking out other writing resources on their website, you can login with the UW membership.

Quick Tips for Fitting in Career Planning

Welcome back to all graduate students at Bothell, Seattle, and Tacoma campuses! We at Core Programs hope you created intentional space for yourself to relax and enjoy the holiday break. The start of a new calendar year is often a time to look ahead and set intentions that help you do well personally, academically and in your work life (current and future).

It can feel like a lot, but we know from experience that doing a little at a time can make a big project more manageable. Below are a few strategies you can incorporate into your weekly routine, so that intentional career planning becomes part of your graduate student experience.

Engage in self-exploration.  Across the UW, grad programs provide students with varying degrees (and breadth) of career guidance. Regardless of your discipline, career planning is an important life-long skill to learn and hone throughout your graduate school journey and beyond. To start get you started, consider doing assessments of your skills, interests, values, and strengths. These assessments can help you identify sectors, jobs and work environments that are a good match for you.

Break down each task. We see—and hear you—that you are busy fulfilling requirements for your degree, working a part-time or full-time job, and/or taking care of loved ones. Yet it’s also still true that only you can invest time in your career development before you graduate. Consider carving out 15 minutes in your schedule once a week to (1) make a list of careers you’re interested and the skills they require, (2) search and make note of professionals on LinkedIn who work in those careers, then soon after, (3) explore company or organization websites to get a feel for what they offer, and (4) set up a 30-min. informational interview with one of the individuals on your list, and so many more leads once you get started.

Utilize a range of resources that fits your availability.  Schedule an appointment with a career counselor at your UW campus for in-person guidance on developing concrete strategies for your career exploration. Come talk to any of us at Core Programs (Skype appointments available too). If it’s difficult for you to schedule an in-person appointment, get acquainted with free online career planning tools such as ImaginePhD or myIDP—each with their own assessments as well. Attend a graduate student career development event offered by a career center at Bothell or Seattle—and be on the lookout for upcoming events sponsored or co-organized by Core Programs!

Getting stuck—or did you discover an awesome career exploration tool? Let us know! And happy launch into 2018!


Core Programs Team

Working with mentors to support your career goals!

We all have different mentors in our life. These people have our best interest in mind and are able to guide and support our professional and personal development. In your personal life, look for advisors who are compassionate, enthusiastic, generous, honest, insightful, selfless and wise. In your professional life, it is imperative to find mentors who are collaborative, intellectual, knowledgeable, accessible, and visionary. In both, it is important to have mentors who will challenge and support you in doing your best work and being your best self. For additional desirable mentor traits, see Cho et al. (2011) in which mentor nomination letters were analyzed for traits among those who supported the careers of junior faculty. And remember, look for multiple mentors — a single person cannot provide all of the support and encouragement you need! See Graduate School Mentor Memos on Building Your Mentoring Team and What a Good Mentor Does.

Once you identify your champions, build a thoughtful relationship to ensure that it is productive and continues to prioritize your long-term goals. In Mapping a Mentoring Roadmap and Developing a Supportive Network for Strategic Career Advancement, Montgomery (2017) outlines the steps necessary to support a productive mentor-mentee relationship. In addition, in Making the most of mentors: A guide for mentees, Zerzan et al. (2009) provide a very clear checklist to consider as you identify mentors and build your relationships. Briefly:

  1. Self Reflection: Before setting up a meeting with your mentor, figure out what you need in a mentor. What unique skills and experiences do they have that will benefit your career or personal goals? Do you need a team of mentors (hint: the answer is yes!)?
  2. Getting Started: Set an agenda with your interests in mind. How often should you formally meet? Be sure to set goals and follow-up with an emailed list of action items so that expectations are clear to both you an your mentor. For additional tips, see Managing Up.
  3. Maintenance: Be sure to sustain regular contact with your mentor. If you’ve agreed to future milestones, be sure to meet them or discuss more realistic goals if necessary.
  4. Moving Ahead: Your life will evolve. At some point, you will be less reliant on your current mentors and will need to identify more relevant advisors. Be open with you mentor, re-evaluate your relationship, and gracefully transition to your next phase. However, be sure to maintain a positive relationship, as your mentor already invested a great deal of effort in you. They will want to see you continue to be successful and you may find yourself relying on them in the future.

Above all else, keep all lines of communication open. You may have a great plan for your personal and professional development. However, if you and your mentor don’t communicate, then you won’t be working towards the same finish line.



  • Cho, C. S. (2011). Defining the ideal qualities of mentorship: A qualitative analysis of the characteristics of outstanding mentors. The American Journal of Medicine, 124 (5), 453–458.
  • Montgomery, B. L. (2017). Mapping a mentoring roadmap and developing a supportive network for strategic career advancement. SAGE Open. 1–13.
  • Zerzan, J. T. (2009). Making the most of mentors: a guide for mentees. Academic Medicine, 84 (1), 140–144.

Exploration and Action: Keys to identifying your next steps

We often talk with postdocs about steps you can take to plan for your future. Before jumping into goal setting, investing time in assessment, reflection, and exploration can help assure your goals are aiming you in the right direction. We have promoted a few self-assessment tools in the past (myIDP and Doug’s Guides). A new tool from the Graduate Career Consortium (ImaginePhD) has enhanced capabilities and expanded “job families” that help you match your skills, values, and interests with a wider set of options.

Take time to invest in your future: Roughly five to 25 percent of your time (one to 10 hours) should be focused on your future. Whether you spend that time in self-assessment, sector exploration, informational interviews, grant writing, writing YOUR publications, or on your independent research, it is critical to your future success that you take a few hours each week to build and plan your career. This goes for brand new postdocs as well as those of you in your fifth year — it is never too late or too early to start.

Assess where you are: Set short term (three-month) and long term (three-year) goals. The new ImaginePhD website has a very helpful planning tool called “My Plan”. They have listed numerous potential goals for career, skills, funding, and personal development directions. You can drag and drop to give yourself actions to take each week,  month or year. It can be modified and updated. The best goals are SMART: specific, measurable, action-oriented, realistic, and time-sensitive. This means you have to revisit them regularly — ideally with a conversation partner, who can be a peer, your faculty advisor or a member of your mentoring team.

Make a plan: The tools mentioned above can help you take stock of where you are now, and this includes not only your skill sets and experiences, but also the nature of the work you enjoy and work environments where you find yourself thriving. Choose one or all of the tools to help you think about where you are — it can change from day to day — and then use this feedback to help you make an informed plan. You should consider additional skills or experiences you should gain during your postdoc and which sectors or kinds of roles you should be exploring for your next career phase.

While designed for people from humanities and social science backgrounds, the improved interface, expanded options, and tailored planning that is available through ImaginePhD makes it worthwhile for postdocs from all disciplines. Give it a try and then give us feedback. Let us know if it is working for you.