Saturday, August 29, 2015

"What's It Like To Get A Ph.D. In Science?"

Saw this article online in Slate the other day and boy, did it hit home for me.  The dude knows of what he writes.  Just a few comments:

"It will be lonely, and you are on your own without a net."

So true.  The first year is generally spent in classes taken by everyone in your program, but once you get to the qualifying exams and pick a lab to work in, you are indeed on your own.  You are on track to becoming the world's foremost expert in whatever your tiny, ridiculously narrow field of specialty is, which means A) that nobody else is doing exactly what you're doing, and B) that nobody else cares about what you're doing nearly as much as you do.  It's up to you to figure things out and push through whatever difficulties you're having, including having to proactively go find the people and materials you need to help you get through the rough patch.  And you really do have NO idea how long you'll be there, either...when I was in grad school, I believe the national average from start to finish in a Biology Ph.D. was seven and a half years.  That's a long damned time.

"Choosing your institution is your least important choice."
"Choose your adviser and committee carefully."

These two go hand in hand: the most important decision I made in my entire grad career was the choice of my adviser.  (I looked at eight or ten grad schools before making my decision, and I could have gotten an excellent degree at any one of them despite their different tiers.)  The article suggests that the adviser's reputation and professional connections are key, and they are.  However, I'd argue that open-mindedness and flexibility are almost as important.  My adviser was clearsighted enough to realize that not every Ph.D. candidate belongs in a lab somewhere, and he willingly allowed me to do an internship in patent law while still in grad school even though it meant leaving his lab for ten weeks.  Not many of his peers would have done that.      

"Do not date your adviser or any department faculty member!... Dating other grad students in your department is fine, sort of.  Better yet, keep your personal and professional lives separate."

Luckily for me, I was still dating a college boyfriend for the first six months of so of grad school: quite long enough for me to observe what happens when you date a scientific colleague.  When it crashes and burns, there's no escaping the fallout for anyone in the vicinity since it's a small, insular community.  Having learned that lesson NOT the hard way, thankfully, when my college relationship ended I decided to date a guy from the school across the street instead.  Three and a half years later, I was profoundly grateful for that decision because it meant we weren't working anywhere near each other when we broke up in a spectacularly ugly and painful manner.    

"You will hit the wall."

You're trying to get ready for qualifying exams (the crucible of grad school, usually taking place at the beginning of your second year.)  Something's not working out and you are beyond stressed.  That's the point at which I started grinding my teeth in my sleep.  To this day, I wear a mouthguard at night.  You're in lab, and your experiments aren't working for no reason you can figure out.  You've tried everything you can think of, and either the experiments aren't working at all, they aren't reproducible or their results make no sense.  You look at your lab friends, and their work is cooking along just fine (although for sure as hell they hit a wall at some point too.)   Maybe they are publishing a paper or getting ready to write their dissertation, while you see no light in the tunnel at all.  You look at your college friends and most of them have jobs and families and lives...they aren't at lab at 9:30 on a Sunday night setting up the same damned experiment for the fifth damned time and living in a crappy student apartment.  You start wondering why the hell you weren't a business major in college like your freshman roommate who partied every night while you were trying to get ready for that terrible 8AM Inorganic Chemistry class taught by the sadist from Malta.  It takes a certain kind of person to dig in and keep going at that point.  I've been accused with a lot of justice of being the stubbornest damned person you ever saw, but I was not about to give up.  Even when the attorney I worked for while interning at the law firm offered me a job there if I'd quit school.  (I was four years in and *not* leaving without a Ph.D. at that point, although the other intern did.)  Several of my friends left school with master's degrees, and one with no degree at all.  No shame in how you choose to deal with the wall, but nobody escapes it.    

"Stand up for yourself."

I'd been working in the lab for four years or so and the end was in sight.  My adviser liked me and we'd always gotten along well.  I'd published some solid papers, my research was progressing nicely, and I was thinking that I was almost ready to start writing my dissertation.  I mentioned that to him, and all hell broke loose.  He told me that my work wasn't good enough to write up and that I had a lot more to do before I could even think about graduating.  Not trusting myself to respond at that point, I went home and fumed.  Then I started thinking about some interpersonal encounters of his I'd observed over the years and realized that the best way to deal with him was head-on.  We were both early birds, so I walked into his office the next morning when the lab was quiet, looked him in the eye and told him that he'd really upset me with his comments the day before and that if he had issues with my work, four years in was not the time to tell me about it.  To his credit, he apologized, and I graduated less than six months later.  

"It will change you."

When you're an undergrad, all science professors introduce themselves as "Dr. So-and-so."  Your first day of grad school, out of the blue, they start introducing themselves to you informally.  "I'm Bill, nice to meet you."  You're a junior member of the club, to be sure, but you're now in the club.  My adviser is almost exactly the same age as my dad.  Having been raised by parents who were big on having their kids respect adults, I could NOT bring myself to call him by his first name when I started working in his lab, but he gave me grief (not in a mean way, just jokingly) when I didn't.  My solution at the time was to just walk into his office and look at him when I wanted to talk to him so I didn't need to use his name at all!  Eventually, however, I grew in confidence.  I accepted that I was in fact a peer, albeit a less experienced one.   Under his guidance, I grew professionally to the point where only two years later, I was able to capably address an entire ballroom full of distinguished scientists.   Later, when I started work at another university's technology transfer office, I was accepted as a full colleague by the scientists with whom I was working, including many much older than myself.  Facing the kind of struggles any student scientist faces and then managing to overcome them gave me much more faith in myself than I'd had previously.

Would I do it again, knowing what I know now?  That's the $64K question.  It's a tough way to get a degree, with an uncertain future at the end of it (way too many graduates and not enough available jobs.)  I came out of it well because I was able to switch career tracks, but not everyone does.  You have to want it really badly to get through, that's for sure.

Now, go write your dissertation.

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