An NCI-designated Comprehensive Cancer Center
By Christiana Crook | February 25, 2019
Christiana Crook | City of Hope Christiana Crook
FSR. If you’re a City of Hope graduate student, these three letters can have a lot of memories and emotions attached to them. If you’re a City of Hope faculty member, you may have some idea of what FSR is, but only a grad student can really tell you what it’s like to experience FSR.

So what is FSR?

FSR stands for “Fundamentals of Scientific Research.” It is the capstone course of the City of Hope Ph.D. core curriculum. According to Jeremy Stark, Ph.D., who coordinates the course with Tim O’Connor, Ph.D., the course has four major goals.
 
The first goal is for graduate students to be able to apply knowledge from undergraduate and earlier core courses to develop hypotheses and design experiments. These hypotheses and experiments are based upon reading scientific articles from a variety of disciplines.
 
The second goal is an offshoot of the first: critical evaluation of scientific literature. This critical evaluation shows students how to identify major components of a scientific paper, with an emphasis on significance and unanswered questions.
 
The third goal is to introduce students to the major research areas at City of Hope. City of Hope’s research laboratories can be grouped into seven major categories. Four of these categories are discussed each year in FSR. Topics within each category range from DNA repair and factors influencing cancer progression to bariatric surgery’s effects on the gut microbiome and noncoding RNA.
 
The fourth goal is that students will become adept at defending their ideas, both in writing and through discussion. The pursuit of these goals is realized through the structure of the course.
 
Students read papers focused on current scientific topics, write detailed critiques and design their own experiments, and discuss the papers and their responses with their classmates. The course culminates with a final written assignment and presentation in which students choose the paper they will read and discuss. This component of the course gives students a chance to let their interests be the focus of the assignment and acts as a bridge to the first qualifying exam, which first-year students undertake after completing FSR.
 
These goals help FSR function as a course that creates a strong foundation for graduate students to grow into researchers and scientists who actively and meaningfully contribute to their field, regardless of the environment in which their contributions are realized.
 
What many don’t realize is that for these goals to be achieved, an immense amount of work is required. For 10 weeks, City of Hope graduate students spend virtually all of their time working on FSR assignments. We enter into a cycle of reading articles, brainstorming, writing, reading some more, editing and trying to figure out if what we’ve written makes any sense at all. After an in-class discussion, the cycle restarts. Each cycle must be completed within three to four days, and this continues for 10 weeks.

Overwhelmed yet?

If so, you’re not alone. But take heart! Many students have survived the rigors of FSR, and if you’re a first‑year student, you will survive, too. In the rest of this article, I’ll share tips and advice I’ve gathered from my time as a frightened first‑year facing FSR. It’s my hope that if you’re a first‑year graduate student, these tips will provide some guidance to help you navigate the jungle of articles and papers that is FSR.
 
If you, like me, are a fellow veteran of FSR, it’s not my intention to trigger stressful memories. Yes, FSR was hard (to put it mildly). But we made it through and passed, and this accomplishment can serve as a reminder that we have done hard, (seemingly) impossible things before, and we can do them again (not that we want to repeat FSR, but you get my point).
 
For everyone else, I hope this article serves as a window into one period of the life of a grad student. FSR (like all much of graduate school) is not easy, but it is an experience whose memory and influence persist long after the final paper has been submitted.
 
Before we get to the tips, here’s a disclaimer: These are based on my experiences of FSR in 2018. They are not necessarily the experiences of all graduate students. If you are a first‑year, I recommend seeking out other perspectives like a good scientist to give yourself the best chance of acing the course (or at least making it through relatively unscathed).

Christy’s Top 10 Tips for Surviving FSR

1. Make a schedule

This is tip No. 1 because, in my opinion, making a schedule is one of the most critical things you can do to ensure your survival of FSR. I won’t sugarcoat it: FSR is a lot of work. Making a schedule helps you make sure that everything gets done (before the deadlines have passed).
 
For example, on the first day, I would read the assigned article(s) and start brainstorming ideas. On the second day, I would write, find and read (or in most cases, skim) more papers and start editing. On the third day, I would finish editing, read the paper through one last time, submit the assignment and prepare for the next morning’s discussion.

2. Figure out how you best work/learn 

If you don’t yet know what you need to work productively, I am pretty sure that you will figure it out by the time FSR is over. You can’t afford to be easily distracted and work at a snail’s pace. To be focused and knock the assignments out, know what will set you up for success. If you need to be in complete isolation, great. Find some earplugs and a desk in the library. Need to talk through ideas? Find a classmate or two who also needs to talk and stake out a coffee shop. Everyone has a different learning style, and while you all need to complete the same assignment, there’s no rule that says you have to do the work a certain way. (Aside from cheating. Don’t cheat.)

3. Find a study space where you can focus 

Similar to the tip above, your study space will be unique to you. Many of my classmates could be found at desks in the library. Some went to coffee shops, while others stayed at home. As for me, I staked out my “office” in the grad school classroom. Figure out what you need, and find a space that works. If possible, try to find a space that you can reliably use every day. No one wants to spend time finding a place to work when that time could be spent working on the current assignment.

4. Don’t be afraid to ask for help 

No one expects you to go through FSR on your own. That’s one reason why there are TAs for the course. If you have a question and can’t figure out how to move forward, ask a classmate and/or a TA. The TAs aren’t allowed to directly give you answers, but can give helpful hints. It’s likely that if you are confused about something, at least one other person is confused, too. As far as I can tell, there is no downside to asking for help.

5. Save your work 

This is extremely important, so I’ll break it down into three tips. First, save multiple versions of your work. This is something that I learned early on in FSR. If you have multiple drafts of your paper, you won’t spiral into despair when (not if) your computer crashes and you lose your last three hours of work. I recommend having at least two versions of each assignment; one for each day of work. If you save the first day’s file with “draft” in the title, this helps differentiate versions. With this system, when changes on a file are lost, it will be a pain but not the end of the world. It’s much easier to go back and edit an older version of your paper than to restart the paper from scratch.
 
Second, save your work someplace where it is remotely accessible — e.g., not just on your desktop. If you run into technical difficulties but have all of your work saved on the cloud, it will be less of a pain to get to your files.
 
Third (and most important): Save early, save often, save time. Please don’t forget to save your work as you go. As we’re all aware, Microsoft isn’t a miracle worker when it comes to retrieving what you’ve written.

6. Have a person you can vent to 

FSR is hard. If you try to go it alone, it’s even harder. Don’t isolate yourself from the rest of the world during this time in your life. Yes, your classmates are there, but they are all going through the same thing as you and have a lot of bias. If possible, find a person to support you who is not in FSR. Having someone who will listen to your rants about FSR, papers, professors and writing gives your brain less to think about so you can remain focused.

7. Take daily breaks 

Daily breaks are essential for FSR survival. They don’t have to be long, but you need to take them. Every day, I would walk back to student housing to eat lunch. It wasn’t a long break — probably 45 minutes — but it made sure that I got some exercise and ate lunch every day. Breaks — even short ones — help to clear your mind, keep you focused and give you the energy you need to make it through the rest of the day.

8. Prepare for the in‑class discussions 

You may have just spent 48 hours immersed in a topic, but without preparation, those key points are likely to fly out of your head when it’s your turn to talk in class. This has happened to me and many of my classmates. While preparing for discussion doesn’t guarantee that you will never forget what you were going to say, it reduces the frequency of these occurrences. I found that taking 15 to 20 minutes the night before to write out the key points of my paper helped me to summarize my answers and gave me a short outline to review the next morning before class.

9. Ask questions during the in‑class discussions

This is an easy way to make sure you are speaking up and participating. As a bonus, it helps you pay attention; if you are going to ask a question, you have to know what the person was talking about in the first place. Asking questions shows the person that you were listening to what they had to say, and can spark some interesting conversations.

10. Enjoy the scheduled breaks 

The pre‑FSR break, RSO and Memorial Day weekend are magical times. For a few days, you don’t have to read papers or type madly on your computer. Enjoy these breaks! Don’t run yourself into the ground. You need your energy to make it through this course, and the breaks are there to make sure you get recharged enough to continue. Don’t forget everything you’ve been doing. But take these times to remember that life does go on outside of FSR, and that in a few weeks, you will be able to once again fully rejoin the human race.
 
So, what do I want you to take away from this?
 
If you’re a first‑year student, I want you to know that you will survive FSR. You will learn a lot — and I mean a LOT. FSR is hard — it’s the hardest class I’ve ever taken in my life. But I made it, and you are going to make it, too.
 
If you’re not an FSR veteran and have no plans to embark on this journey, I hope this gives you an idea of the hard work that Ph.D. students put into their education. It isn’t easy, but FSR is one of the components of the training (along with blood, sweat, tears and a hefty dose of science) that eventually produces a Ph.D. scientist.