I have been in the lab for about 1.5 years and a graduate student for 2.5 years. Seems like a long time for me (maybe not so much for some grad students), and even though I am where I am now... it hasn't always been the easiest path. In fact it has been quite the opposite.
There were moments where I thought I was going to fail out of grad school. Classes were so hard. In undergrad I was used to putting in a total of 5 hours (max) a week for all my classes. Coming to UNM, Larry (the other grad student) and I realized we needed to do far more. For our first couple of semesters (Fall 06 - Spring 07) we needed to work at least 20-30 hours a week on homework. We were taking half as many classes and putting in 5 times the effort.
We even saw a decrease in our GPA. We went from being 4.0 students to getting B-'s (2.66 roughly) in ALL of our classes. Passing at UNM is a 3.0 for graduate students. Needless to say, I felt very defeated and I didn't believe that I belonged at UNM. I was recruited by Koch with the aid of Larry to join his new startup lab. This was the first turning point of my career.
That summer (2007) Larry and I did a lot of work in the lab, and had a really good time doing it all. My confidence was returned. Thanks to our awesome PI. He had so much faith and confidence in our abilities that I believed that I could survive grad school and attain my Ph. D.
The end of my first summer in the lab came the prelim exams. I had just returned from a trip to Hawaii, and Larry and I began studying at least 10 hours a day for a week for these tests. After all that work I had failed both exams I took (there are a total of four with each being in a different branch of Physics) and Larry had passed both (we studied for two). I was again feeling down. The upcoming semester brought more hardships through classes which we did slightly better in (now achieving B's and B+'s). But I still wasn't getting above the level required for staying at UNM.
Winter 08 brought my next try at the prelims. I had to pass 2 exams in order to stay here. Larry and I took the tests we hadn't taken over the summer. Larry passed them both and I felt like I did horrible. I even took a third test to improve my chances. That test I didn't study for though. Surprisingly I managed to pass one of the exams I studied for and the one I didn't. I was here to stay for at least another semester and the summer.
Spring 08 helped me by a mile. This time we did well in our classes and met the requirements (although barely). The summer came and research continued. It was full of productivity and ingenuity and all those other appropriate words that describe a lab kicking ass (sorry for the vulgarity). I had to derail myself though because I had to pass two more prelim exams.
Koch and I set up a competition to help me study. He would run 1 mile for every hour I studied. I managed to rack up a lot of hours (each week was on the order of 30 hours) and he managed to get in good shape. The prelims came. Those tests can really knock the wind out of your sails. I went in feeling really confident and left thinking that I was on the verge of a dropout. When all was said and done though, I had passed both exams and I was set to stay in grad school. My stresses (for the time being) were over!
Now I am here contributing to several places (this blog and openwetware.org to name a few) and more importantly a firm member of the KochLab.
If I can offer one piece of advice to any aspiring Grad Student it will be: Do what you can in undergrad to make sure you understand everything. Grad School will be a pain in the ass and very difficult, but once you are past the obstacles you are free to embark on the career path of your choosing. Enjoy it while it lasts because not everything is fun and games!