27 and a PhD

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Monthly Archives: September 2009

I failed my PhD qualifying exam … and I still obtained my degree

A big stepping stone while doing your PhD is the time when you change your status from being simply known as a grad student, to becoming a PhD trainee (or senior graduate student). To achieve that glorious state means that you have successfully gone through the qualifying exam(s) period, and essentially, your last examination will be your thesis defense. Quals, or comps (comprehensive exams) were the big thing. And I mean BIG … you hear stories about X or Y department, that have the worst reputation, or Prof. W, who’s an ass and could be in your examination committee, and finally those people, those students who nobody knows why, but they failed, were kicked out and never heard of again.

Well …. I’m sort of one of those. And not at the same time. I failed my qualifying exam, as the title clearly states. I had a second chance to take it, and passed it with flying colours, but it was not easy …. thus, here I share my story, and some of the things I learned from that process.

Some aspects of quals remain similar across different higher ed institutions. I’ve heard of people who need to read X amount of articles or books, then write long essays to answer questions on the topics they read. My guess is that this would be a more traditional approach to taking the quals. In my case the department in which I did the PhD did things differently. You had to find a topic, similar (but not identical) to something that was being done by your group, then write and defend a proposal in front of a committee. To me it was similar to presenting your thesis proposal, but you didn’t have the “freedom” or input in choosing the members of your exam committee and being helped by the boss was discouraged (but not totally frowned upon).

People, I tell you …. it was HARD. Now, one problem in my field (biochemistry and biophysics) is that not all the research starts from a traditional hypothesis. Yes, indeed we formulate hypotheses, once we have investigated/determined structures of the biological molecules we studied. But because my former department had mostly “traditional” labs, I had to follow the majority, and do a hypothesis-driven proposal.

The first complicating factor for me was choosing a topic. I went through probably 50 scientific papers before narrowing it down to 1 specific topic. Secondly, I could not have any input from my PhD mentor for topic selection, thus asking any kind of question (for instance, does this make for a sound project, or am I too ambitious?) was not allowed. Thirdly, you only had 1 month to write the proposal, and after handing it, you could be examined almost immediately. Lucky me …. I took the exam just days after handing the proposal. I was FREAKING out.

The way my qual worked out was that I stood in front of the examination committee for 2 hours, answering questions about any and all possible things that could be said about the topic. I killed the biological questions (after all, my college degree was in biological sciences, I should have been able to ace something), but when the hardcore questions came, those that were based on extrapolating knowledge, and concepts, that was the killer for me. I could not answer those well, and for it I failed.

It. Was. Though. I mean, I felt like the most stupid, idiotic, worthless piece of crap. EVER. I was devastated. I cried, I felt like I did not want to show my face around the professors from my department. I was a failure, and that’s all they would remember about me. Utter failure. Also, I felt like I was bringing shame to my group.

I thought failing this exam would define me for the rest of my life, but alas! Life does not have to be that dramatic.

I realized that there were things, knowledge I lacked. Specifically the parts of formulating a hypothesis and writing the proposal. See, during my first year of grad school all I did was try to get answers to lab related questions … basically from my sleeve (I always thought that the questions I got were from PI’s that had those same questions and wanted to get a clever answer which they had failed to come up for years … but this is just pure speculation of a bitter grad student). I came directly to grad school from an undergrad program. I had no counseling regarding the big change that involves going from spitting out memorized facts, to sitting down, ANALYZING a problem and attempt to give a sound answer in an orderly fashion just with scientific experiments.

I guess college is supposed to prepare you for that. And while you do lab work, you supposedly learn these tips, tricks and procedures. But I can honestly say that I went through my college experience without paying attention to that. All I was focused on was getting the highest grades possible, to get into a good medical or graduate program. It was never clear to me that the concepts and problems you learned in chemistry 101 would be useful some day, and could be applied to life in general. The only time I remember something like that happening was when I was taking Physics 2 and we had to solve a couple of problems using the soh-cah-toa method (good thing I remembered, I scored a 90+ in that one). Other than that, I felt like I was just memorizing facts, and nothing more.

I could go around blaming people for the things I didn’t learn in college, or how it seems like the system failed to prepare me for grad school. Ultimately, situations like failing your quals bring you back to the reality that you are in grad school, and like my PI from the PhD used to say, you’re here because you have the capacity to teach yourself, and then apply those concepts to help answer scientific questions.

At this point, my boyfriend, who’d taken at least a gazillion classes related to methodology sat me down, helped me organize my tasks and checked that my hypothesis seemed sound (now, I must tell you, the BF does not work in the “hardcore” sciences, yet his knowledge of methodology was superb and he provided support and tools that were much needed at the time). Equipped with readings the BF provided and lots of patience I reformulated my hypothesis, re-wrote the proposal and a month after failing my qual the 1st time, I took it again (with the same committee) and passed with flying colours.

It was my moment of glory. I don’t think I’ve ever been happier. I don’t think I was this happy, not even when my committee approved my thesis and granted me degree after the defense.

The exam committee met with me, and said they were super proud and that it was beyond clear to them that I had taken the time, studied and put in the effort to make things clear, for me and for them, and for that I was worthy of passing.

All in all, I would not have it any other way. Whenever I tell this story I say it proudly, because my efforts (and a very patient and competent boyfriend) got me through the process. It is not the end of the world. And after all this, doing the research to complete the PhD seemed like a piece of cake. I can honestly say that I can probably teach myself many things, and that even if I didn’t learn some things in grad school or college, I can always look for a good book, sit down, teach myself and practice.

So there you have it. Do not feel discouraged. It is not the end of the world, and better times are ahead. Trust me … I am now a doctor 🙂

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Postdoc salary … a very non-scientific comparison

My apologies for not writing sooner. I’ve been swamped with tasks in the lab, still getting organized, and now the BF and I are addicted to a really funny show called “Little Mosque on the Prairie.” Anyways, so while all that was happening I was logging in to check the blog, but not to write.

I noticed that some of the most common phrases typed by users (that ultimately land in the blog) are as follow: “postdoc salary”, ” 28 and a phd”, “post-doc salary”, “postdoc salary USA 2009.” As I mention in the title, this is a very unscientific comparison between my salary as a postdoc, and the one I had as a grad student. Bear in mind that I will not go into details such as comparing salaries between disciplines, geographic areas, etc. I just want to give you a clue as to where I am situated, which is probably more or less in the middle. Also, my PhD is in Biophysics, one of the fields I am currently working in.

Just yesterday I found the letter of acceptance to the graduate program I attended. I started there in the summer of 2003, and my starting compensation was 20,500 USD. My salary increased over the next 6 years to ~25K, gross amount, without taking too much money out for taxes and school fees. I went to a decent-sized school in the Bible Belt, which for undergrad education ranks pretty high and the pay seemed fair enough to live in that city. My gross monthly income was over 2,200 USD by the end of my years there, and usually between 130-150$ were taken out in taxes. My fixed expenses while in grad school were:

  1. Rent -660-690$ (especially during my last year) for a 2BR apartment located ~ 15-20 mins away from school. It’s pretty expensive staying close to campus, but if you want to save gas and don’t mind walking or biking, it’s no biggie, and you probably end up even in terms of overall expenses between rent and transport.
  2. Car – I bought a new car when I started. I was afraid I’d end up with a lemon, especially since I didn’t have my parents to help me look for a car. I had it a 2% interest with a well known brand and I paid ~290 USD/month.
  3. Internet and cell. By the end of my career I had given up cable, so it was ~ 100 counting both. I got a small discount from the cell phone company through school.
  4. Credit cards. ~600-700$ between the 3 of them … and they’re not paid off due to my laziness and irresponsibility.
  5. Gas – ~60-100$. I filled up once a week and tried to do the maintenance work at the appropriate times.
  6. Car and apartment insurance. Ended up costing ~110$.

That left me with a couple of hundred bucks to eat, dress, take care is misc. things and do groceries. I almost always eneded up short of cash. Again, due to my irresponsibility. Compared to what I remember were the salaries of some college classmates who’d gone to get their PhDs in California, Michigan, Texas or Jersey, I was being paid slightly more (except for Cali) and the quality of living was not bad.

Now as a postdoc I’m paid 37,000 CADs, split into 3100 CADs per month. In USDs that amount translates into roughly 25-28k, depending on how the loony is doing. As when I was in grad school, taxes are not taken out of my salary, therefore I *must* set aside close to 800 CADs per month, so when tax season comes, I won’t be even more choked up in debt.

My salary is roughly divided like this:

  1. 500$ for rent (I live with the BF thus we contribute the same amount, live in an apartment that’s gorgeous, spaceous and is very quiet).
  2. Credit cards – same as before, and because I’m trying to knock off some of that debt, I’m trying the debt snowball method.
  3. Cell and internet – a little over 100$, but I don’t have the exact numbers for the internet yet.
  4. Car insurance – (super expensive) ~230$ … OUCH!
  5. There are probably one or two more things I’m forgetting, but like I said earlier, this is a very rough estimate, meant to give you a general idea of how money is split.

As you can see, because some of these expenses are shared between the BF and I, I end up with more money in my pocket, or roughly 1/3 of my salary if left in the end. I also pay for parking at school (30$/mo.) and health insurance (90$/mo.).

At my old school, depending on what your level of experience was, the staring salary of a postdoc was ~36k USD. In CADs that’s a lot more than what I am currently being paid, but the cost of living is lower here, and I did not qualify for any fellowships that might have complemented my salary or even bumped it a little bit.

I don’t know if other universities have a policy of showing the base levels for salaries, but my guess is that if they are government funded, more that likely you can check the site(s) of those agencies and see if what you’re being offered is fair and up to standards.

Good luck and I hope this might help you to situate and compare the cost of living and salaries of your current or future postdoc position.

———-Have a great weekend!

Unloading the truth … and feeling old

In previous posts I had mentioned that the BF didn’t know about my debts, how I got into debt, how I want to get out, how much, etc. Today the BF seemed a bit cold …. honestly, he felt a bit cold at times during the last couple of days. A few years back, while I was dating a college BF I remember getting that cold feeling along my spine, and bracing for a hundred thousand tears, and for an imminent breakup. I tell you, it was NOT fun. Feeling alone, breaking up with someone who’s been your best friend, your life, your everything for a few years hurts. And I am scared of feeling and being that hurt again … of not coming back from that kind of depression. That’s why, when the BF said we needed to talk I braced myself for the worst. And in a way, the best possible thing happened.

When I started writing here, a few months back, I vowed to be very honest about debt, finishing the PhD, etc. I’ve said how much I owe (23K), and how scared I am/was of people I know and love finding out about it. I didn’t want the BF to read the blog, especially those entries. But I realized that I needed to come clean. That if we were/are to have a future together we must come clean, unload our baggage and enlist each other’s help to overcome hardships.

Well, today was the day. I don’t know the exact details of how the BF got the idea, but I had been hinting about things and ways in which he could find out the name of this blog and such. And he did. I was so scared of letting him down, of showing him how irresponsible I’ve been. Of alienating him and going down a path without a way back.

We sat down, he started talking, he asked me about it …. and if felt almost as relieving as when you get the absolution of your sins by a priest (hey y’all, I’m a catholic, so this is the best example I could come up with). We talked about how and when it started, how it spiraled down and what I can do now to avoid making it worse. My worst fear was of a breakup, not only because we’ve been together for a long time, or for my fear of disappointing him, but because I had been and have been irresponsible, and in a way, I felt like I was cheating. He could not hide the sadness, but he offered his help in any way he could. Together we are coming up with ways to funnel money into the debt, and still living a decent life together. The best is yet to come, and the start of it seems good.

On a different side of life, today the undergrads started. I cannot help but wonder if I looked that young and fresh when I started college. I look at myself in the mirror now and feel kinda old and run down (it could very well be PMS-related). But anyhow, the kids just look like that, kids. I feel like I’m from a completely different world.

Seeing those undergrads walking around, some of them scared of the new environment, some of them over-confident, made me go back 10 years in time, to 1999 when I was an undergrad. I felt so scared, but in a way I also felt powerful. I remember cramming down for projects, exams, labs, etc. It was so very fun. Sometimes I feel pain in my heart, an ache for the times by gone. But I’m glad for all of it. FOR ALL, yes, even those undesirable professors (may they rest in peace), even the bad dates, the crazy hairdo’s, and the silly projects. They all helped me in my way to get a PhD. Here I am today, 10 years after first stepping in my school. Here I am, a victor, not a victim, still wanting to learn, to grow, to experience.

I got my paycheck …. spending money Part II

On my previous entry I went on and on about getting paid, and how my postdoctoral stipend would be split between debts and must-pays now that I’ve moved.

I think I mentioned that I finally opened a bank account in Canada. It ONLY took me like 3-4 weeks. It’s the very first thing it says you should do in the new postdoc arrival manual/document you get but I kept postponing it, always saying I had no time. Anyways, so that was done, and like I said before, I would need to split the money into 3 big areas 1) old debts I dragged on while in grad school (an unnecesary thing, since I was being paid relatively well, but I went over some of the isues that helped my overspending), 2) new debts and responsibilities (like rent and car insurance, to mention just a few), and 3) save some of the stipend to cover next years’ tax filing season, since a good portion is NOT taken out of my monthly stipend, I *must* try and save some money so I won’t be caught by surprise by the thousands of $ I need to pay Canada Revenue (I know this because a) my BF has to go through this and he’s been here for a while, and b) another postdoc in my lab asks me questions about how/if I’ve set things up .. I kind of think of him as a big brother).

I decided that since I have to figure a way to pay my debts and get used to the system up here in Canada, I would only take a small portion of August’s pay and move it to savings, while leaving a good portion to cover the remaining debts and unfinished business after the move. Next month I should start adding the ~25% of my paycheck that will more than likely go into the taxes for next year. I have some experience on this, since when I was in the States I was funded by a training grant and nothing was taken out of my paycheck. After learning how to file the 1040, I estimated that ~1800 bucks should have been taken out through the whole period I was covered. Since I though I was super rich (due to a small settlement) and I was invincible (due to my own stupidity) I had to dip into my settlement money to cover those ~2K during tax season. IT HURT PEOPLE.

I have a super dutiful and responsible BF (at least with money … hell, with pretty much everything), I’m going to let him check out my chequing and savings accounts to monitor the progress while saving money for next year’s tax season. I won’t grant him direct access (by means of username and password) to my account, but I will ask him to ask me to show him my account every week so he can keep an eye on how’s my spending and saving going. I hope that next year, in April I’ll be pleasantly surprised when I don’t have to use a credit card to cover my tax payment. And from what I’ve heard, I may even see some of it back!! But I’d rather be conservative on this issue and just not expect anything from the government.

I got my paycheck yesterday, and in just a few hours, 1000$ …. yes people, one thousand dollars, had disappeared. You might ask how. Well, I asked to money orders to cover the minimum payment of 2 CC’s. I’ll cover the other one by using the little money that’s left on my US bank account. The money orders were ~7$ each … a bit on the expensive side (but then again, Canada seems super expensive to a newly minted PhD who used to shop at Walmart for groceries and just about everything). The exchange rate was a bit brutal (not too bad), but for a money order in USD of ~150$, I ended up paying ~180 CADs … yes people, that is 30 extra bucks for being irresponsible while using credit cards. I tell you, when I get out of these debts, I will have a plastectomy and for sure that will be the very best day of my life (a decent close enough time is my thesis defense). The rest of the money went to savings, paying the BF for covering the remainder of the rent at the new place (~200$).

All this brings me to a buzz article I just read on Yahoo! http://buzz.yahoo.com/buzzlog/92967?fp=1. It’s about this British young woman who squandered the money coming from winning the lottery. She says she now has only 32K out of more than 1 million dollars. She spent the money on frivolous things like a boob-job and drugs, parties and designer clothes. It all brings back some really painful memories of the times I spent at the mall, avoiding getting ready for the qualifying exam while getting new (and rather uncomfortable) Nine West boots. I think back of the great chance I had of getting rid of debt and I didn’t do it. I should be left with >1500$ a month after taxes and rent and the usual spending, I should be saving to have the wedding of my dreams (if that ever happens), but more importantly, I should be saving to enjoy the fruits of my labour, to save for retirement now that I’m still young, to make sure than 30-40 years for now I have access to a decent quality of life, and I don’t end up like some of the old people who used to greet me at my local Walmart while in the States … they had to work to basically eat and get some sort of health coverage. I should also be able to buy what I want, cash, without incurring in debt. I should be able to plan for a good vacay that lets me focus on relaxing and learning, and taking pics, not worrying about what happens if I don’t get a good review next year and my contract is not renewed.

Please people, learn and apply that knowledge while you’re still young. I just turned 28 two months ago, yet I feel like I’m drowning in debt … all because of my irresponsibility.

On a final note, I’ve started doing experiments. I work in a lab that does research associated with a very serious neurological disorder (a topic I avoided like a plague while in grad school) …. thankfully I don’t need to work directly with neurons or rats, mice or anything that nasty, and I’ll be doing a lot of biochemistry (the main reason I took the job) and a different kind of structural biology (the second reason I chose the lab/job). I’ll update later on how my biochemical and microbiological skills are coming along, but for now, I’m pretty happy and satisfied with what I’m doing.

I must go now to get some shut eye for tomorrow’s experiments. I’ll update more later this month on how the spending is going and whether all my money orders made it safely and timely to the other side of the border.

Nighty-night.