27 and a PhD

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Monthly Archives: May 2009

Oh rats .. no fellowship for me

So, yesterday, while reading my boss’s new draft of a (hopefully) soon to be submitted paper, I was struck by some pain deep in my heart and a huge bitch-slap to my ego. A few weeks ago, I had submitted a fellowship application to my (hopefully, because I’m still writing my thesis, after 5 or 6 months, I’ve lost count at this point) soon to be new university/job/lab.

I was very excited and I thought I had good chances to get it since my soon-to-be new boss mentioned that he had worked on the selection committee for that fellowship and not that many people apparently apply for it and supposedly most of the ones that apply do not qualify for one reason or the other. I was confident my chances were good. But I did not count on the fact that we’re in the middle of a friggin’ recession.

Yeah, I felt like poor Charlie Brown on Christmas when I got a very impersonal email yesterday from some obscure lady, at whatever-the-name-of-the-office-for-fellowship-thingies, saying that they were sorry but a lot of people had applied for that fellowship and I was NOT selected to continue moving forward in the process.

I wanted to slap her because although it was said in a neutral manner, I could still feel that they could care less (and also it was not address to me personally, it just said, hi, we’re sorry to, blah, blah, blah). I’m sure she doesn’t even have a stinkin’ master’s on something. And here she is being all casual, when she’s addressing a 90% PhD (I usually dislike to say I will have a PhD soon … but in situations like these I feel like letting it all out). I’m sure this process is similar elsewhere and my feelings are very common. But it still stings you when you don’t get to be at least considered for it. Whatever.

Things like these are the ones that bring back memories of sad times when I’ve felt like a failure while in grad school. When I didn’t do well in an exam or report. When my boss handed back a document all in red and I just felt like quitting. When I failed my qual. All those things come to mind.

After a while I started feeling better (meaning, I dumped all the drama on my loving boyfriend which takes his qual in less than 24 hours).

I think that there’s a reason for everything. Maybe, since I have not warmed up to the idea of starting my own lab (ever since I started doing research, back when I was in college, I knew I didn’t want to be a PI and beg for money and resources and worry about funding, but that’s for another post), this is a way of saying, well f*ck, you know you do not want to become a PI anyways. The prestige of not getting something like that fellowship is what really stings me, but deep in my heart I know that I don’t want to be a PI in the near future and that this way I don’t have to bullsh*t people into believing that that’s what I want to do. Or maybe it’s karma and I’m paying my dues for not praying as hard as I should, for not caring to finish this thesis and getting out into the world sooner rather than later, for feeling like a lazy ass because I’ve worked hard all my life, and f*ck, I’m still in school or for hating the corporation that’s becoming the church I used to love (I’m a rebellious christian … maybe this is God’s way of saying, pray my girl and things will happen … well Daddy God … I’m friggin’ tired of praying and waiting and hoping).

I dunno. I’ll try to eventually look for other fellowships to provide aditional funding for my postdoc … or maybe not. For now, I know my future boss’s grant is covering my soon to be salary. Most importantly, I’ll be spending my days and nights with the guy I love … and that is priceless and a better prize than any stinkin’ fellowhip.

Bailouts by my parents … surviving in grad school

When I started grad school back in 2003 I remember telling my parents that they could now start using their funds to help my younger sister out now that she was in college and I had a stipend that would pay for my living expenses. But boy was I wrong-o!

First, I didn’t have a car in the new city and this city is apparently anti-walking. I was paying a ginormous amount of $ for rent (929$ and I lived right across the street from school, so my parents felt safe). Since this was a new place, and it was the first time I’d live away from my parents house, they offered to cover 1/3 of the rent or each would give me 150$ for food and other expenses. I would live in that apartment for 6 months then check any other apartment complexes in the area once I knew my away around. This was in July. By November I knew a bit of my way around the city. One Sunday a friend took me for a ride and I was hooked on gas from that day on, therefore I found myself car hunting. She’d gotten a great deal on a new car and if I remained in grad school for at least 5 years I would pay it off them. It never occurred to me to pay it off before the fall of 2008 (when the car would be paid off), it seemed so far away. I bought the car, and with a new car I moved to a different apartment complex at the end of the first 6 months. I was excited not to be paying >900$. I would be paying ~690$ for a year, while paying myself for the car, insurance, groceries, etc. About 5 or 6 months after I moved there I had a talk with my parents so they would stop helping me and they could focus on paying their own debts and saving some money. The would send money on occasion and I’d be more than thrilled.

I was in an accident later that year and received a compensation for the damages and the whole ordeal. Nothing fantastic, but I thought “man, this is great, I don’t have to live like a grad student anymore, I can buy some True Religion jeans, lots of expensive shoes.” I’d gone through some hardships in both school and life, therefore I sought the “comfort” of that compensation as my away out of poor/working class and a welcome to a life of luxuries. I “deserved” it, right? I started spending money like CRAZY and eventually started getting into debt because the money ran out.

Fast-forward a few years and now I’m living off credit cards at the end of the month since I’m sending my minimum payments to the 3 cards I have, one of them I took out to try to clear off the debt of the highest interest one. I’m trying to make some progress on my payments, but I still owe 20k. And my parents don’t know about it. I’m too scared to tell them because I’ve always been “labeled” as the responsible one (I have a sister), the money-smart one. And my daddy sends me some money on occasion (50$ here, 20 there). I do some babysitting which helps me to get my groceries and gas covered. I’ve never been late in any payments (Thank God!!), but I would love to get rid of this debt for good in an instant.

Sometimes I think of crashing my car or something so I can get some extra money (but to think of the body pain and possible life long consequences it’s enough to say no). I got myself into this hole. I “financed” my way into the “american dream” and now I must pay for it. I thought I’d be coming into and leaving grad school debt free as I receive a monthly stipend and because I was so young (barely 22) I never thought of the consequences, of the future. It should have clicked in my head sooner than it did. My mom has 1 credit card, she barely uses it and pays it off completely every month. My dad has lived on loans for years. He’s never been late on a payment in more than 30 years of credit history, but again, he’s living off of loans to make home improvements and pay some debts. In my mind he still lives in and thinks like he’s 20, he doesn’t think of what’s coming tomorrow and though he’s up to date on all his debts and has life insurance, if he or my mom were to get sick and lose their income my sis and I would care for them and it would be up to us to cover and “bail them out” so they can live in their house, have food on their table … you get the idea.

It’s a shitty situation. I’m getting into a new job (as a postdoc) pretty soon and I’m hoping that I can funnel at least 1/3 to 1/2 of my income into paying that debt. I don’t want to tell my boyfriend how deep in debt I am, since I’m so ashamed. Since we don’t have plans to marry in the immediate future I don’t see why can’t I try to kick those 20k in debt out of my life and start saving for the wedding of my dreams, all while keeping it under the covers. It’s complicated, but what I want to say or stress is … learn to live like a poor college kid while in grad school, go to places where free lunch is served, learn to cook and brown bag as much as possible, STAY AWAY FROM CREDIT. You would think that I’m excited for my new job, but I cannot wrap my mind around the fact that I may not have a steady income for at least 1 month if not more. My bf can cover rent expenses, but how am I going to pay a minimum of ~500$ I’m funneling for my debt if I don’t have an income? It sucks. I should be concentrating on decorating, packing boxes and heading off into an amazing and bright future and all I can think off is, “sh*t, I don’t have enough money to move AND live for ~ a month, maybe more, while settling into my new and “exciting” life”.

And I don’t want to ask my parents for help, since that would be admitting that all my compensation money is finito and that I have not planned (which is true) for this moment, for this rainy day. And trust me friend, IT SUCKS!!!

Making figures and scared like sh*t

So the good news is that … well, there are a couple of good things to tell.

  1. My first author paper got accepted .. whoa!
  2. I’m just a chapter away from finishing the bulk of the thesis (but then the touch ups, meetings with grad school people for formatting, etc, need to happen).
  3. My PI (principal investigator, boss, mentor, you name it, the big kahuna of the lab) liked the figures I spent 2 weeks working on, yeeepeee, just some minor corrections and additions need to be incorporated.
  4. I don’t have swine flu!

Let me explain each point.

  1. The paper – a requirement in this school (and as far as I know, all other PhD granting institutions) is that in order to defend your thesis work you *must* have a first author paper. This paper chronicles the experiments and results of some original piece of work you’ve done towards completing your thesis and you *must* appear as the first name in the list of authors. I’ve been blessed enough to collaborate in other papers and be named an author, but those publications had two problems (a)- I was not a first author and (b)- they were completely unrelated to my thesis, thus my thesis committee did not like the fact that though I’m a published author, I did not have a first author publication. This is very important as in order to defend I need to have that paper accepted or published. After many trials, drafts, doing and re-doing last week, while recovering from #4, my PI called me to tell me that the paper we’d submitted had been accepted. I was in disbelief as I have been in this lab for almost 5 years and I had seen the struggles of other people to publish. The trials and tribulations they’d experienced made me feel cautious and skeptical of the whole thing. And it was very humbling that after just 3 days of having received our revisions for the paper, tackling them and submitting it, last Monday at noon we had a positive! Truly a miracle.
  2. I’m working on my aim 2 chapter. My thesis work consists of 2 aims (and some side projects though those don’t get to be included in a formal chapter, they’ll appear as appendices) and I am writing the chapter dealing with my second aim which has been finito (in terms of experiments) for a while now, but since I was dealing with department seminars, illness, I had put off writing it. The truth is that I’m scared of finishing it because it means that a whole new set of hurdles will unfold. Setting up meetings, setting up or scheduling my defense, having my family over (which is not terribly stressful, but still, it adds up in the end). I’m scared of this. It also means that it’s final and that I won’t have any money until I pack up my things and start working ASAP in my new lab, gulp!
  3. This one is cool because my boss went on to a European vacation and she asked me to get the figures for that chapter ready. I was scared of showing her the figures, not because I doubt my figure-making talents, but because at this point I don’t feel like doing many revisions and I would love *not* to spend most of my day doing figures, typing angles in programs to display and orient my data, etc. In the end the product is beautiful, but it gets exhausting!
  4. I went on a mini-vacation or stay-cation last week since I got sick. I attribute it to the lack of rest due to all the stress and of course, since we share quarters with a hospital, germs are to be expected everywhere, everyday. I was scared as I thought that because of the symptoms I was presenting it was the H1N1 flu. I thought I was dying. But some well deserved rest, lots of soups and veggies and anti-viral and anti-mucus medicines helped me get rid of it. I was scared that things would be even more delayed thanks to the cold/whatever I had. But my mom said, “honey, you’ve worked your tail off, you need to stay home, forget about the lab, and the stuff that needs to be done and rest, drink plenty of fluids, rent some movies and the hell with the world.” This was very reassuring as my mom is a bit OCD about perfect attendance and not missing lab or classes. My poor daddy was scared because he hates it when I get sick and apparently my mom was a bit tragic in her account of how I was feeling (strange because it’s usually the other way around). But all I have now, almost 2 weeks later, is a bit of a cough and lots of energy for ending this thesis.

Now I must go back to work, but I just wanted to vent, let my feelings and fears out for the interwebz to see, in hopes that others might read and share their wisdom. Must go now, ta-ta!

How did this all begin?


You might be asking … why would this chick write about grad school? What is so “important” about her journey? Why would this be useful?

Well, I’ll never really know if what I write will touch a life or will “illuminate” someone into going or avoiding grad school. Through this intense journey I’ve experienced many things, heartbreaks, breakthroughs, emotional roller coasters, adaptation, thinking outside the box … all in the span of ~6 years.

I relocated to a medium-sized school in the Bible Belt to attend well-known school and get a PhD. Why you might ask? Because of a boy. That will be my first answer. Then I’d proceed to say that also because I was an extremely curious child who was always getting in trouble because I was experimenting and every since I touched a microscope for the first time in middle school I thought about how cool it was to do science.

I started in grad school in the fall of 2003 after completing my Bachelor’s of Science in a relatively “big” school. I loved science but I also dreamed of becoming a surgeon one day and since doing a bachelor’s in biology seemed better and more fulfilling than a bachelor’s in pre-med I opted for a degree in biology, the science of life. I finished that degree with relatively good grades. I was in love and had decided to start grad school since by the end of my college years, doing open-heart surgery seemed like a scary thing to me. I thought I was taking the easy road, and since I was dating a guy that was planning to do the same I did not want to be left out and I enrolled to grad school.

I never thought that my degree would take so many years (6 and counting) or so many tears of both joy and frustration to get to where I’m at. I am ~1 month away from defending my thesis in a discipline I love and attending a school in the North to start a post-doc and to be in the same town, and time-zone as where my current boyfriend is.

I’m scared of what awaits me after being in the same place, surrounded by the same people, labmates and boss for several years, and venturing into a new country, a new culture and a completely different way of doing science .. basically risk it all because of love … and because of fulfillment. But at the same time I wonder if this is the right decision in my life. If it wouldn’t be easier to stick to what I know how to do (pretty well I might say) and stay within my comfort zone.

I’ve always been scared of challenges. I have a great ability to wreak havoc in my head as I beat myself up because I fear I will fail … only to succeed. I’m thrilled that I will leave the Bible Belt once and for all that has served as a prison for my thoughts and beliefs (I’m a christian, but I am also a liberal and I dislike the way conservatives run things around here). Grad school in my institution has served as a prison also, since some people are very uptight and want you to work, work and work, but I guess that’s the way that paves the american dream, eh?

Mostly I want to write my thoughts, ideas and advice so that if there’s another seemingly lost soul out there I can help in a little way to bring some peace and encouragement in this path we’ve chosen … or has chosen us. I sometimes pride myself on being a good advice-giver, mostly because the weirdest things happen to me, but also because I love relating to other people, I love bitchin’ about what is wrong with grad school, or with a boss (or PI or mentor, whichever way you call him/her) or funding agency. I want people to connect with what I’m saying, but also to yell at the world when they are mad or sad about something. And mostly, I want you to know that you are NOT alone … and that all this shall pass too one day. Look at me, I’m about to embark in a new beginning and though I’m scared like crazy, I’m happy I’m doing it. I never thought I’d be done someday … and that someday is so close I can touch it, I can feel it. This is what I’ve been busting my ass and brains off for the last few years.

Go ahead and read and share, and bitch and moan. That’s why we’re here for.

Yup …

That’s right. I’m still 27 (I’ll turn 28 in a month and a half) and I’ll be getting my PhD in the sciences pretty soon. I’m a female, doing a PhD in a “hard” science who will be moving soon to start a postdoc in a discipline completely different to what I was trained in.

I’ll explain later on why I decided to start this blog and why I want to chronicle what’s going on with my new “job”, my relocation and all the trials and tribulations of this process. Wish me luck!