Name One Thing with Dr. Alana Rister | Advice on work habits and first-generation graduate students

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Name One Thing: Advice for graduate students from those who’ve been there.

Welcome to Name One Thing, the interview series where I ask academics, researchers, postdocs, and other professionals what they wished they’d known in graduate school. Today’s guest is Dr. Alana Rister, a chemist, data scientist, and academic coach, who has sage words for maintaining healthy work habits, being a first-generation graduate student, and the mindset shift it takes to succeed in graduate school.

Photo of Alana Rister, Chemist, Coach, and first-generation graduate student

Name: Alana Rister (she/her)
Degree: Ph.D. in Chemistry
Current role: Senior Research Analyst (Data Scientist), Education Technology
Find her at:

1) Name one thing you wish someone had told you when you were a graduate student.

Slow down. It is easy to lose yourself as a graduate student, especially with the pressures of research, coursework, and teaching. You do not have to complete everything today. If you can enjoy the experience, the time it takes is not as much of a concern. In Undergrad, there is a finite amount of work that needs to or could be accomplished. Therefore, you can plow full steam ahead to accomplish it all and then, rest when it’s done if you so choose. However, in graduate school, once you dive into research, there is an infinite amount of work and you will never accomplish it all. It isn’t worth letting your mental and physical health deteriorate to accomplish as much research as possible. Instead of defining your days and weeks by your task list, pick a set number of days and hours that you work. Then, make your task list fit within those days. It is okay to let things go unfinished depending on the consequences. Prioritize tasks with larger consequences first. Then, circle around to the lower-priority tasks later.

2) You are a first-generation graduate student and were the first person in your family to earn higher than an associate’s degree. Name one thing you wish faculty would do to better support first-generation students.

The biggest disadvantage that I see a lot of first-generation students in academia specifically have is not knowing the language of academia. We can easily mess up a Ph.D. candidate vs. a Ph.D. student. We don’t know what ABD stands for. Yet, I regularly saw professors condescend or ridicule first-generation students for not knowing what these words mean or other etiquette in academia. If you run a research lab, create a “Get Started Guide” for your students. I would include some language and acronyms that are used regularly, expectations that you have for them as a member of the lab, and typical procedures for your lab. Because you are always around the lingo and typical procedures, you may think less of someone who doesn’t act or talk like you expect but have compassion and question whether they would have even known to act differently.

3) In addition to being a chemist, you are the CEO of a coaching business that provides mentorship to science graduate students. Name one thing that, in your experience, most graduate students are underprepared for.

The biggest thing I think graduate students are underprepared for is being a colleague in their research space. This may seem counterintuitive, but in Undergrad, you are entirely focused on proving what you know. Many graduate students take that same mentality into research and it unfortunately overcomplicates the process and leads to worse performance. As a colleague and researcher, it isn’t about what you know, but instead about what you can find out. It is perfectly fine to say that you don’t know things. The results of feeling like they still have to prove what they know cause students to spend too much time reading articles instead of performing new research, writing long, disjointed research articles trying to show everything they know about the topic, and presenting overly complicated presentations. Instead, learn how to let your research always be guided by a story. Once you learn that being a scientist is all about exploration and storytelling, you will develop the ability to present yourself as a colleague, because they are just your co-explorers!

Thank you, Alana, for your wisdom on placing healthy limits on work, sharing your experiences as a first-generation graduate student, and the mindset needed to succeed in graduate school!

Wishing You All the Best in Your Academic Success.
Dr. Cristie Glasheen, Your Graduate Student Success Coach.

Interview Disclaimer

We aim to share diverse perspectives and experiences. The views, opinions, and experiences shared by our guests in this interview series are solely their own. Their participation is not an endorsement of our services, products, or views, nor does it imply an endorsement of their services, products, or views by us.