How to Thrive (and Survive) in Graduate School

Michelle Merrill, MS, CGC
Michelle Merrill, MS, CGC

Michelle is the Co-Director for the Genetic Counseling Training Program at Case Western Reserve University. Michelle earned her master’s degree in genetic counseling in 2002, and worked at MetroHealth Medical Center in Cleveland for 10 years, where she founded their Hereditary Cancer Clinic. In 2012, Michelle came to University Hospitals in Cleveland where she continued counseling patients and families at risk for hereditary cancer, and was awarded the Linda Vinney endowed chair in Cancer Genetic counseling. Michelle became Director of Clinical Training in the Genetic Counseling Training Program in 2018 before becoming the Co-Director of the program in 2020

It’s my favorite time of year – new genetic counseling graduate students are arriving on campus all over the United States and Canada with that unique blend of nerves and excitement. As a newer program director, I can attest I also have that same nervous excitement when a new class arrives! To ease the transition, I was asked to share my best tips for surviving graduate school. It’s a loaded question, of sorts, as we know that the next 21 months will be both challenging and rewarding. My best advice is to have fun and enjoy the journey. That advice isn’t very specific, though, so I’ve collected my top 6 tips for surviving and thriving as a genetic counseling graduate student.

It’s Not Just About Grades

There’s a lot more to graduate school than pure academics, and it’s so much different than undergraduate work. Our focus is much less on an exam score or course grade, and more on retaining and applying the skills and knowledge learned. It’s a process, and it’s not always linear. In fact, exams may be more of a check in for the faculty – how well did I teach that concept? Do I need to revisit that? Do I need to consider teaching that skill or concept in a different way? Here’s a secret – your future employer will NEVER look at your graduate school transcript. I’m not saying your grades don’t matter at all, but they matter differently than undergrad. Embrace that.

Life-Long Learning

Develop strategies for life-long learning while in graduate school. You will have many lectures with a lot of factual information given in a short amount of time. I’d encourage you to take this information a step further – start asking the “how” and “why” questions. Once you understand the how and why, you’ll retain the information better. This practice will also serve you well in your career, as genetic knowledge is constantly evolving.

Become a Well-Rounded Human

Use graduate school to develop your work-life balance skills. The next 21 months is essentially job-training. You are learning the skills needed to be a genetic counselor. I’d advise you to treat your graduate training as an 8-5 job, with weekends and evenings for you. Using your time in school to develop these time management skills will serve you well in the workforce. Develop outside interests. Do fun things. Explore your new city.  Become a well-rounded human. It will make you a better genetic counselor.

Permission to Struggle

Learn to be comfortable with feedback, both positive and constructive. This is a learning experience, and everything will not be perfect the first time, or even the second time. We expect that!  Set realistic expectations for yourself and the training process. Give yourself “permission” to struggle. These struggles lead to learning, and it is nearly impossible to get through training without a few bumps in the road.

You Are Not Alone

It’s okay not to be okay. It’s NOT okay to struggle alone.  Speak up. Reach out. Your program directors and faculty are here for you, and can help guide and mentor you. Sometimes we are good at recognizing when a student is struggling. Other times, we are not. Once we know you need help, we do have tools at our disposal. For example, we CAN be flexible, and we CAN change deadlines. The purpose of graduate school is to train you to be a terrific genetic counselor. That path is different for every student, and we want you to reach out when you need help.

Create Community

Lean on and learn from your classmates. They are going through exactly what you are going through. Everyone comes to graduate school with different experiences, strengths, and weaknesses. Learn from each other. Resist the temptation to compare yourself to your classmates. Your learning journey will be different and that is okay. You belong here and you are qualified to be here.

I hope that our newest future genetic counseling colleagues embrace graduate school with the same optimism and excitement that was displayed during interviews. We are excited, and cannot wait to get to work!

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