27 and a PhD

Home » Grad school » Search topics – a semi organized Q and A

Search topics – a semi organized Q and A

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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I’ve been “collecting” some of the topics or search terms that people use to get to this blog. I’ve compiled a list of the ones I think are a) the more interesting, b) the more common or c) both. Read on! If you have questions, feel free to comment and leave your take on things:

  1. Things to consider in a grad school– you can check my take on this here
  2. Tax on postdoc salary in the US – it depends, but usually little to no taxes are taken out of you paycheck .. which sucks! So plan accordingly, you can check the IRS’s site and the 1040 tables of salaries to get an idea of how much money you should be saving out for tax season. I really never got why a) stipends are taxable (stupid Reagan) or b) why taxes are not taken out. Yes, I get it, you are not technically an employee, but you still need to fill out a W2 form, etc, so why no designate a category for grad students and postdocs and take out the appropriate amounts to you plan accordingly with what should really be left off from your paycheck (after taxes). Or not take taxes from us at all .. after all, it’s not like we can qualify for food stamps (though we should!).
  3. How you feel after finishing a PhD ? – exhausted … At least that’s how I felt. I dunno about others, but I as so eager for the defense to be over, and for questions, and corrections and all things PhD-related to be over so I could finally breathe normally and not worry about having an unfinished thesis, or the wait, which truly was what was killing me. I desperately wanted to sleep until mid-day, ha! You also feel a bit emotional. I didn’t cry. I was too tired, or just ready to move on. But had I had the strength I would have done it. Finally, you feel like partying, celebrating, telling the whole world to suck it because you are a newly minted PhD.
  4. How hard is doing your PhD – It’s a long process, for some it is like a continuation of your master’s. It’s difficult because you spend so much time in what I can only describe as a hole, where the end does not seem near (or at least near enough), where you feel isolated (and sometimes you are because your family and closest friends can be MILES apart), from the personal point of view, yes, it’s hard. It may be hard from the professional point of view if you don’t get along with your lab members, or your PI, or if your thesis committee is not good or appears to be unsupportive. It depends, but besides the debt (if you are not funded, or partially funded), other aspects that can make doing a PhD harder than usual are related to relationships with coworkers, or family, or significant other … or that your program, department, or school suck and it’s hard to wake up every morning and face these people or situations. The topic you choose can make things difficult, say, if you have WAY too many competitors, or if your PI dies (which has happened, I saw it at least twice in my old school), or if you envision getting out in a certain amount of years and those years pass and the prospect of finishing does not seem to get close. I think each of us face a different array of situations that make doing a PhD hard.
  5. What things do i need for an interview – I’m guessing this is referring to the PhD interview … my take can be found here.
  6. Getting out of debt while in grad school -this may partially relate to question #2, but it also depends on whether you incurred in debt previous to enrolling in grad school. I was lucky (or blessed enough) not to incur in debt while doing my B.S. (bachelor’s degree in science) due to external funding and good grades. If you carry 100K in debt and enroll in grad school, you may want to start funneling some money to cover those costs. I don’t know how US federal loans for undergrads work, but sometimes costs are (or can be) deferred until you have finished school altogether. Thus, you may feel like some of the pressure is off. The getting out of debt part is important because it depends on how the debt came to be. If you’re a girl and dream of getting a Cinderella wedding (with horses and a carriage, 2k people in attendance, etc and you get a loan to pay for that dream wedding, then you really have to analyze things with a cold head, and see if what you want is a pompous ceremony, or you want an actual marriage, or if you don’t mind adding more money to the pile that’s already there). If what you want is an actual marriage, and you are also carrying 100k in debt from undergrad, I’d say, postpone the ceremony, wait and save, and try to pay for the dream day out of pocket (possibly with adjustments to the dream). If you’re a guy and HAVE to have all those cool gadgets for your Wii, or you change flat TV’s more often than you change the oil on your car … then you might be going in a downward spiral too. I’ve seen so many people avoid debt and have a lovely marriage, or a kick ass TV that they got the old way, by saving and maybe getting a new one but not THE latest one (after all, who has THAT much time to be in front of th TV for long periods of time when tons of data are waiting to be collected and analyzed), while managing to survive in grad school with a small stipend. It all comes down to priorities. I’d say try to find a debt counselor (if you’re not sure on how to attack that stubborn debt), and start paying it off ASAP. If you can put off the paying the debt for a few more years, try then to get a high-yield savings account and start funneling money towards that account, so when you get out and bills start piling up you can buffer out the situation .. especially when we are coming out of a recession so s-l-o-w-l-y. In my case I got in debt because I wanted to live the high life while spending more than I was earning while in grad school with the “aid” of credit cards …. I’ve learned my lesson. I’m prioritizing and trying to pay off that debt …., but it’s REALLY hard … temptation to spend is always there, so it all depends on you. It depends on what your long term goals and what it’s available to you and how soon you want to live debt free and enjoy the fruits of your labour.
  7. Does having a long PhD examination end up in failure? I don’t know about this. I had a LONG qualifying examination period, but my thesis defense and the true defense (behind closed doors) flew by. I guess it all depends on the examination committee, and/or how things usually flow in the department. I’d say that you can get an idea from upper level grad students (either in your group or in your department) about what to expect, or better yet, ask your PI (boss or mentor)) if he/she is serving in examination committees what is usual and what to expect. My PhD boss was always there for me to ask questions (no matter how silly they were) and she told me what transpired at the meeting. She also related how previous students’ examinations had been so I was clued in as to what to expect during any meetings I had with my thesis committee. I’m inclined to favour the notion that the length of time is not necessarily a bad thing, and that they may just be curious. But it all boils down to how each committee is and what is usual for them.
  8. Starting a family during your PhD – This is a great query term. Personally, I’m against starting a family in the middle of the PhD … my answer is along the line of what I stated on search term #4. I was in a relationship at the beginning of my grad school career. I swore that I’d be married and life would be good (and maybe I’d leave grad school if I became preggo just because I wanted to be a good mother, and a good wife). Things changed along the way, we broke up and ex BF started his own family later on. I realized that part of the reason he did this (and he even admitted this to his mom) was that he did not want to be alone. I get it, grad school is a long and arduous time … but you shouldn’t seek refuge in a starting family (in my opinion) to “avoid” dealing with grad school. I’m also against starting a family while in grad school because I know I cannot handle a gazillion things at one time. I had a hard enough time managing a boyfriend/girlfriend relationship as it was and planning a wedding or planning a pregnancy (yup, if you know you want to get pregnant and your quals or defense are coming up you’d better time things so that all the dates won’t conflict) were not things I wanted to add to the already HUGE pile of worries I carried with me everyday to my lab. I say this too because one of my labmates got pregnant the year before she defended. My former boss, in a very condescending tone asked, her is she and her hubby had planned the baby. She got a lot of heat from her family for not staying at home and enjoying her pregnancy, and once her baby was born she faced some heat once again because she was “neglecting” her kid while finishing her degree. I’m a liberal, that’s no secret, so to me, leaving the baby at home with a nanny or sitter was no biggie, a necessary “perk” of capitalism. She had to do what any working woman has to do if her “job” does not provide for on-site baby care. I thought that the criticisms were crap and that she was being unjustly and unfairly targeted for being a woman and for wanting to have a career AND daring to finish what she had started. For those reasons I avoided getting married and pregnant, because as we all know the moment you get married both family and “friends” start minding your business asking you when will the babies come (so stupid!). On the flip side, my friend who I mentioned a few lines ago manages to have a lovely family and though she’s left science since, she cherishes the time she spent and her education. I’ve met tons of couples who make it work, who made it work while I was in grad school. I’d say that if you have your priorities straight and you know what you can handle, go for it. On the other hand, if you get too stressed about EVERYTHING, and/or have a hard time juggling various responsibilities that can ultimately affect your performance at school, the you may want to postpone starting a family until things are more settled and a secure financial future is within reach. Whatever you decide, remember it’s your life and ultimately you should make the decisions, not based on what I or your parents or boss says .. but on what feels right for you.

As other topics make their appearance I’ll add them and add my POV or take on things. Good luck and happy research!

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4 Comments

  1. […] done other Q and A sessions, or search term posts before. You can access them here, and here. And since we’re in February, which I suspect will start a new season of theses […]

  2. […] terms -short answers I’ve done three entries on search terms used by WordPress readers to get to this blog. Usually these entries are VERY long, not only […]

  3. N says:

    Agree with most of your thoughts here. I’m currently in a master’s . prgram and a PhD sounds really exciting to me. But , reading all these blogs and talking to current students makes me feel like stayig away. I’m married and in grad school, so you can imagine how hard life already is. Moreover, my husband and I are planning on startig our family. Sigh,loads of work out there. Not sure if I will enter a PhD program sometime soon. Although, I am sure it is worth is at the end of it.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Hi N! Thanks for visiting. Indeed, it is not easy, but if it’s a dream of yours, it can be done. Sometimes all we need to find is a good, understanding mentor (could be a PI, a friend, fellow class- or labmate) and things can indeed happen. Wishing you all the best in your future endeavours.

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