27 and a PhD

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Some things to do now that you have offers for grad school

Welcome to my blog!

Hello there, awesome reader. My name is Dr. 27. I'm older than that now, but I'm staying faithful to the origins of the blog.

This blog started 2 months before completing my PhD in a pretty southern university back in 2009. It was a way to practice my writing and take a break from all things thesis. My PhD is in a branch of structural biology where I studied some rather impressive stuff.

After completing the degree, I packed my life of 6 years in 3 days and moved to Canada to do a postdoc in a completely different field. Two years later, and after attending a lot of seminars, workshops and doing some much-needed soul-searching, I ended up getting out and looking for an alternative path to academia and industry.

The blog chronicles my mishaps, ideas, musings and tips on entering, staying and finishing grad school. It also talks about some (or a lot) of personal stuff. For a while, the blog became a place to talk about the frustrations of not knowing what to do after PhD. I wanted to explore alternatives to the traditional paths of research (academia, industry and goverment) whilst going back to my field of training (if at all possible). Eventually a job materialized. Follow my quest as I navigate the waters of being a staff scientist at a core facility.

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In the previous post I mentioned some aspects to consider once you’ve gotten a couple of interviews lined up for grad school. Today I’ll mention some of the things you may want to consider once the letters (or emails) of acceptance start coming.

Back when I was ~3 months away from my college graduation I got a few surprises. First, an Ivy League school was interested in me. I applied to a few others since my then BF was working at one of them, and I had 2 “safety schools” to which I applied thinking that it would be a piece of cake to get into them. A few months before that I had a very informal interview with a foreigner (a Scottish dude or something) that simply sat me there and talked down to me like I was a piece of crap. He was less than impressed about my grades in analytical courses and swiftly said that those Ivy League schools were not interested in people like me, and that the 2 safety schools would be my best bets. Since I was in a dire situation (according to him) he could consider giving me a chance at his school.

I remember getting out of the interview and sitting on the floor of the building next door and crying like a complete idiot. Here I was, facing the truth about my incompetence. Here was this European guy saying that I was worth nothing (in fancy words) and that if I felt inclined (and kissed his white ass) he could consider getting me a spot in freezing cold upstate NY. I was shocked. How could this be. He berated the 2 schools I applied to, and said that that was all I could aspire to.

Needless to say, throughout the whole application process his words were in my heart and on my mind. I couldn’t turn off his voice, mocking me for even thinking I was grad school material. Some of those words came to my mind at very special times during my graduate career (here) and (here).

He was right, I did get accepted at my safety schools and ended up choosing the top one of the two. Turns out that this safety school is ranked among the top 20 most prestigious US schools and the program I ended up getting my degree in has been ranked #1 for a very long time (his school is ranked a LOT lower than mine …. a LOT). After such an emotional roller coaster, I sat down, replied to both schools, and said I was going to the high ranking one.

My apologies for the detour, we now go back to our scheduled programming.

When it was time to decide where would my time and brains be spent, I considered some of the following:

  1. Location, location, location. Needless to say, if you have family that lives a continent away, or just down the street it can make a huge difference. Whether you are close to them and want to have an easy time visiting whenever you want/can or whether you’re OK visiting them once during the summer, at Thanksgiving and during the winter season, this is a very important factor to take into account when selecting and accepting an offer for grad school. You have to think about all the possible factors that may become (or already are) important to you, like significant others, how close of far they are, the ease of traveling, visiting, etc. If you are starting a family or have a family that is moving with you, you need to consider access to day care, schools, education, entertainment, insurance, etc. I had this friend who had a baby a few months before she started grad school and the determining factor between my school and the school she ended up choosing was having a good health insurance coverage for herself, her baby and her hubby.
  2. Stipend. If you are in the sciences, (or math or engineering), the odd are that there is money available to pay for your tuition and a stipend to get you through your education. I don’t know how it was for students in the humanities and social sciences at my old school, but as far as I understand, it’s not to common for schools to offer a stipend in those disciplines, or at least it’s not that common compared to the “hard” sciences. My BF did have a small stipend when he started grad school in the States, but his parents stepped in sometimes to help cover whatever the stipend did not (and he is the very definition of frugality). So, you need to learn how to create and stick to a budget (if you don’t know how already). And trust me, the first few months will be crazy as you set up your living quarters and get to now your new environment. It’s not the same for a school in the middle of nowhere to offer you 25K to go than for a school in NYC to offer you the same amount. Remember, the lifestyle at both places is different.
  3. Rankings. I didn’t care much for them, but for some people being in a super fancy-schmancy school with a prestigious name is a necessity, thus this is another aspect to take into account.
  4. Research topics. If you know that out of the 8 schools you applied to, 5 accepted you and two have the best facilities, faculty and resources, this helps narrow down where to go. So take your time, do your research on places where your topic(s) of interest is(are) and send in emails. If you don’t and you like X faculty member who is retiring and is not accepting trainees anymore, you could be in a very sticky situation. Save yourself some (future) grief.
  5. Teaching/research load. At my school it was not common to teach, but some schools (especially public universities) tend to have a teaching load on top of your research load. I was cool with the part of not teaching (though I did some on the side, plus I tutored for a little while). If you have aspirations towards becoming a research kinda faculty person, then you might want to avoid going to a school that requires you to teach 2 courses or something similar every semester.
  6. Transportation. I mentioned earlier that if you are into preserving the environment, a school to which there are no bike/walking trails may not be a good match for you. So, again, do your research, look at internet guides of prospective cities. Of course university sites paint a cute and comfy picture, but the truth is that if you don’t have access to buying a car immediately, and the prospects of carpooling are tiny, it may not be a good idea to choose the fancy school in downtown nowhere where transportation sucks and it takes you 1hr to commute from your apartment to your place of work.
  7. Living quarters. This is a biggie. It all depends on how you feel about living alone, or sharing your space with others. I chose to live alone ALL the time. It was tempting, at times, to go live with a good friend. I’m sure we would have survived living with each other, but I know how anal I am. I know how particular I am, about picking things up, cleaning styles, time to study, to shop, etc,. While it would have saved me a pretty penny, I preferred to save a life and live alone. If you are used to sharing quarters, like dorms, etc, then it might be tempting to rent a room in a house, a basement, and share the expenses with others.
  8. Taxes. Sadly, stipends are taxable. I saw sadly because the money that is taken out is will not end up in a pension plan or helping projects, or somehow ending back on your pockets or benefiting your community (this last part is debatable for some, but compared to Canada, having money taken out of your meager pay as a grad student sucks). So, plan accordingly. Consult tax tables, talk to students, but please, do not ever think that somehow you are exempted from filing them. The most terrible thing that could happen is that finally, after many years of sacrifices and studying, the IRS comes back biting your arse to get back the money that they should have gotten from you in the first place. Find out if you have to file both state and federal taxes. Some parts of the country may not have state taxes, but some in others you have to file both State and Federal taxes. So do your homework. Find out the average of what amount of money goes where. Sometimes some schools might not take ANY taxes out of your paycheck, so save accordingly. I talk from experience. Paying 1800$ in taxes on a sad, cold, April night is not cool.
  9. Post grad school life. Yeah, you’re not even there yet and you have to think about what you will do after you get out? Yup. If you’re like me, chances are you chose grad school as a security thing. You are a bit undecisive, but staying in school for a little longer sounds cool. I had this friend who, as she was about to defend looked at me straight in the eye and said that she regretted staying in grad school past her qualifying exam. To me it was tough. I thought that here she was, a great woman, a perfect scientist, an amazing wife and mom, and she thought that because of all the education she got, she would not be eligible to get mid level jobs that required nothing much above a bachelor’s. As I approached the finishing line I realized that I was still (and still am) undecided about what to do with the degree, as far as job related things go …. you would think that after spending 6 years + in a higher ed institution I would have a clearer idea of where to go. But it’s not like that for me. Some days I think of how cool it might be to establish my own lab, then I think of other things, like contracting people, the writing grants part, etc, and it freaks me out. I feel more comfortable working under somebody else’s direction, and I like teaching. So a job a liberal arts school, or a smaller teaching college is very appealing. But these things were not clear to me at the beginning of my career in grad school. I found out about job conseling and job resources later in my grad school life, so don’t be completely discouraged if you have no clue of whether or not you want or will end up in academia. There’s government, pharma, public service, and many other options. As long as you are clear about that, and seek places to look for help and guidance, go where your heart and mind lead you.

So … these are just a few of the aspects (in no particular order). There are many other things to consider. As they appear in my head I’ll add them here. If you have suggestions or questions, please feel free to add or comments. Remember, my email is stitchick at gmail dot com.

Thanks for reading! And best of luck. Up next what to expect in during your first day, week, month, year and subsequent years.

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1 Comment

  1. […] in grad school. Some of the more serious things to do are contained here (check out items 3-6), and here. I can tell you what I did and didn’t do the summer before. I had my graduation from […]

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