SERIES: Transition to Grad School Like a Pro
Breanna Shi is a Ph.D. student in machine learning and higher education, minoring in bioinformatics. During her time at Tech, Shi has received funding from numerous fellowships, including GAANN Biology Fellowship, STEM Diversity Ph.D. Fellowship, Grad RISE Fellowship, and GEM Ph.D. Engineering and Science Fellowship. Her experience includes instructor, head teaching assistant, and a guest lecturer. She expects to graduate Spring 2026.
We followed up with Shi to get her tips for new graduate students.
You do not have to sacrifice your entire personhood. “A lot of students coming into a Ph.D. think that they will not have time for anything outside of work,” said Shi. “While the transition to your Ph.D. can be very time-consuming, this is certainly not the case for the entire five years that you will be completing your studies. I have known Ph.D. researchers who are simultaneously the following things: mothers, volleyball players, dancers, and band members. You will make sacrifices in your Ph.D., but you will not need to sacrifice your entire personhood.”
Make efforts toward your thesis every day. “Don’t stress over not knowing the answer on day one, but reading articles or learning about a technical skill every day will add up to a Ph.D. over time,” said Shi.
Practice self-empathy. “You can often feel yourself moving two steps forward, one step backward, and a lack of external affirmation can make you lose motivation,” said Shi. “When this happens, take a break. Remember a thesis is not made or destroyed in one day. You can take a mental break and start tackling that problem in a little while when you feel more mentally equipped. Remember that breaks are not a waste of your time. They are a necessary part of tackling the problems your face in your Ph.D.”
Stop comparing yourself to other Ph.D. students. “It is extremely detrimental to your progress and your collaborations to think of anyone as a competitor,” said Shi. “Consider every interaction with others an opportunity to learn. One day, you will look back and realize how much wiser you are for it. These fellow researchers are your friends and mentors. You will have a much easier time the sooner you realize this.”
Know where to go for support BEFORE you need it. “During my Ph.D., I have taken note of professors and researchers who show passion for mentoring students,” said Shi. “When I need advice, I think of who might have faced a similar experience in their career and reach out for help. find that most professors and peers are more than willing to share their understanding with those coming up behind them.”
Shi also notes that there are demographic-specific resources on campus that bring a different sense of community than peers and mentors in your program.
“Personally, I have spent a lot of time at the LGBT+ Resource Center, Women’s Center, and the Center for Engineering Education and Diversity,” said Shi. “These are places where you can feel safe to speak on your struggles in your Ph.D. that intersect with your identities and feel understood.”
Value criticisms but respect your own opinions. “Earning a Ph.D. is a balance between pushing yourself out onto the frontier of science while respecting the guidance and assistance of those who have already proven themselves as researchers,” said Shi. “That being said, you have to trust yourself. You should not give up on something if one person in the room says it’s a bad idea, but if everyone does, then it is most likely a bad idea.”
Learn how to process rejection. “Life is full of rejection, and it’s not a reflection of your personhood,” said Shi. “I tend to think of each opportunity I apply for as a wish, so when I am successful, I am very lucky. If I am rejected, well there is always something new to wish for. This is what I tell my mentee, ‘It is not your job to reject yourself. Someone else is paid to determine that, but if you don’t put yourself out there, you are already rejected, so you have nothing to lose.’”