Grad school is a huge undertaking. Just think about committing several years, the better part of a decade, to concentrating on a specific field and delving deeper and deeper into it. People say that you will learn whether or not you like research, whether or not you are willing to commit your career to it. People say that you will learn about yourself, how you handle pressure and deadlines and failure and the constant grind of working in a lab. Depending on who you talk to, you may get a positive or negative view of graduate school. There are popular comics about the trials of grad school life:
These comics probably have a grain of truth, and they can also be pretty funny. As a new biology graduate student, most of my knowledge comes from other biology graduate students. But beyond all of that, there is one thing that I've already discovered, a piece of advice that is essential to keep in mind when in graduate school, especially in the beginning but throughout:
Keep an open mind.
Many new grad students, myself included, focused on something specific in undergrad or as a research technician to show graduate schools that they have a particular topic of interest, that they are not just flailing all over the very large field of biology, jumping from project to project.
Focus is good; however, grad schools expect that your interests may change, so you can too! It's okay to change! It's scary to dive into something that you have no experience in, but that's not a good enough reason to discount areas that previously seemed uninteresting or too complicated. It can be confusing when you realize that you aren't as interested in that one thing you loved before. Like, what has happened to me? Do I even like this science anymore? Cue the panic attacks and stressful running-hand-through-your-hair, ahhhh-I-don't-know-what-to-think moments.
It's terrifying, bewildering, frustrating, stressful. But think about this: Open your mind to subjects that you don't have any previous coursework or training in, and you might realize that something you have no experience in sounds really cool. Choosing to get your PhD means that you like biology, so at least give every aspect of the field a chance.
I can already hear other students thinking I'm just idealistic and naive. Well, I don't care. Maybe they're right, but given how interdisciplinary science has become, new scientists have to use every available tool in their arsenal to keep pushing the borders of knowledge. I know that I want to find a project that makes me get out of bed in the morning, that makes me excited and passionate and curious, that makes me eager to explain it to other people. Keeping an open mind is helping me to find that. Maybe it will just reaffirm what I knew I didn't like before, but that's okay. Especially in rotations, I can just try things! Learn new systems, different techniques! Who knows when I'll have that kind of freedom again? Probably never to the same extent.
People are often surprised to find out that I'm keeping a very open mind, instead of using my past experience as a jumping point. It's almost as though they think it's odd that I find other areas of biology pretty interesting. If you already know what you want to do, great! But that doesn't mean that you should close your mind to everything else there is to offer just because you already know the type of science you want to do. You could be a very narrow-minded, tunnel-visioned scientist in that case - not a good thing in this day and age.
So take advantage of this time as a new grad student, learn new things, try things that scare you, that boggle your mind. There's so much cool science out there, so do some exploring before you have to make your final choice.