27 and a PhD

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Monthly Archives: February 2010

Can a PI kick out a PhD graduate student – Search Terms, short answers

This is yet another awesome search term. I believe the answer is yes, a PI can indeed kick out a graduate student. For many reasons, but I’d say the main one is due to irresponsibility on the part of the student (or a very sick (mentally speaking) PI). I have yet to see this happen, but there are urban legends about this issue. Remember, when you join a lab you sign a contract with the university and/or department and/or PI. I can’t exactly recall who “owned” me while I was in grad school, but basically I was to become a member of my department and work under the wing of my former PI. One very, very important detail to remember is that when you decide to join a lab/group you’ll more than likely have a conversation with the PI regarding project(s) to take, lab policies and expectations (and vacation time, don’t forget that). One such thing to discuss is working hours (whether 9-5, or 6 or 7 or 10pm), how often to be in the lab or office (depending on your discipline) and even how often to meet with the PI to give progress reports. Because your relationship with your PI is contractual, if one of the parts fails to deliver, the other can feel free to sever ties with the failing part.

In my current lab there’s a student who has been there for  a number of years. That student hasn’t made significant progress (in their own words) on the thesis project and a few weeks ago started working like a maniac, as apparently the PI was fed up with not getting publishable results. The student said that there was a risk of getting kicked out of the lab, and thus why the sudden peak in performance and delivery of results. Whether it was a real possibility or just an “incentive” to get the student’s hands moving, it has worked. But also, this situation presents the very real consequences of one of the parts not delivering the way they were supposed to. So, yes, PI’s, if they reach a critical point, can kick a student (or lab tech, postdoc, or other lab members) out of a lab.

Tackling two questions – Search Terms – short answers

Since I get a good deal of interesting search terms when I check my blog stats, I’ve started seeing them as inquiries. I’ve also decided to start answering some of these in short form, instead of having a long, long post. Also, I’m going to try to answer some of these questions, inquiries, etc more often (my usual answering speed is about a week to 2 weeks in length). So today, I’m going to tackle two inquiries A) what to wear to your PhD defense and B) Can you be my your PhD thesis defense?

A) What to wear. From experience, wear something nice, but comfy. Chances are you’ll be standing for a long, long time, so better be safe than sorry. I decided to wear a dress (which was so very unusual for me). My defense was in the summer, so wearing a dress was a nice option. I wore 2-inch heeled sandals, which by the end of the day were killing my feet. Since more than likely you’ll have loved ones there (or really good friends), maybe you could get some flats and have them hold ’em for after the defense, or just plain and simple wear them to begin with (if you’re a girl). You don’t have to wear an evening gown, but something nice, comfortable and serious will help you look and feel the part. If you’re a guy, wear IRONED clothes, or if you don’t have time to go to the dry-cleaners, please go get something that doesn’t need ironing (I know with all the stress it is one more thing to take into account, but it’s one of the most important days of your life and you want to look and feel like a winner). Wear a tie if you’re so inclined (but not required) and wear comfy shoes. If you’re a girl, try to keep it simple, sober and elegant (not prom-ish, not too much bling or things that like straight out of jersey shore). Wear something that will make you feel comfy yet professional. Get a haircut or a trim and look clean and presentable, a little make up would enhance your look too. Trust me, it will help you feel better in your skin while getting drilled by thesis committee. After (or before if you have time, sanity and money) go get a little pampered, like a massage or facial.

B) Can you be in my PhD thesis defense? Well, I don’t know the intention behind this question. If it’s about whether I (Dr. 28 and a PhD) be in your thesis committee the (sad) answer is that no, I can’t be. Not because I don’t want to, but because I’m not a PI and as far as I know postdocs aren’t allowed in thesis committees. I can however help if I’m in your geographical area, so leave a message or send an email to stitchick at gmail dot com (change the at for @ and dot for . as I don’t want to encourage spammers). But on to the real answer. I think what the reader is asking is how can you ask a PI or prof to be in your committee. Simple, send and email or visit the lab. Usually 3-5 members are needed per thesis committee and there might be rules as to the affiliations of those PI’s (say, 75-to 90% of the have to be from your department while the rest can be from outside, or they might have specific roles within the department or program and you need to have a certain number of them there). PI’s are very busy people, they serve in many committees, are almost always mentoring others, etc, but if asked nicely and politely you’ll more than likely get a positive answer. Get input from your PI or labmates on who they prefer to have and why. In my case I almost copied a previous grad student’s committee when it was my time to assemble my thesis committee, as I knew they were familiar with the topic and were excited about it (I kind of wanted to keep some continuity). So be polite, be ready to get some no’s or maybe’s and remember to be thankful and acknowledge their help when they accept (and if the don’t be courteous too). This reminds me, I still want to mail some thank yous for my thesis committee and their help and input through the years.

Do all schools require a qualifying exam? Search Terms, short answers

It’s the first time I’ve gotten this term used to get to my blog, but it’s one that is very, very important. As far as I know, all schools have a qualifying exam of some sort. Some have it in one sweep, others have it in “waves”, so there’s a part 1 which might involve answering questions (written) or presenting a topic and “defending” it in front of an examinating committee, and part 2 can be more focused, although it really depends on the school and which order they do things (they might invert things from what I stated before). If in doubt, always check the department’s website which will more than likely have a list of steps each grad student must complete before being able to work solely on the thesis without any further exams.

My school only had one. You can read more about it here. My BF’s school (where I’m currently a postdoc) has 2 for his discipline, a general one, and a comprehensive one. His department is not the same as mine, nor are our disciplines of study (duh!). In my new department the qual is taken no later than your second year and it’s only one part, related to your field of study (or based upon your proposed thesis research).

Thesis prayer – Search Term short answer

Another frequent term I’ve been getting lately is “say a thesis prayer before PhD defense.”

I’ve mentioned before that I was born and raised in the catholic faith, though I’m going through a rough patch right now where I don’t like organized religion too much.

Seeing that Lent started this past week and the amount of times I’ve gotten this search term used to get to my blog I feel like maybe a higher calling is being made and I must answer.

Feel free to check this post on how my PhD defense DAY was … yeah, it felt like a day although it was all said and done in 6-7 hours (the defense was 1.5 hrs, the lecture was 1hr long, then the celebration took place so it was a day long process).

So, as a catholic I believe in saints, and Mary, and in asking the Saints and Mary for intervention in cases where my faith or strength doesn’t seem enough. For my thesis I remember making 2 prayers, a personal one (just a conversation with God, giving him thanks for letting me reach that point where the defense was imminent and for all the good and not so good that had transpired through the years). I also did a prayer which was given to me the day before I almost lost my life. I was given a prayer that I’ve carried with me ever since, and it talks about not dying in battle, not being defeated by enemies, etc. It’s a prayer to St Joseph. And because for me the the thesis felt like a battle, like I could fail, I made that prayer.

I don’t think there’s a formulaic prayer which will automatically make you pass the thesis. What I do believe in is asking for protection, guidance and direction, and after all is said and done, no matter the outcome, just give thanks for having reached a new stage in your personal and professional life.

Whatever you path to God, or whoever you call your Supreme Being, try to be thankful for reaching the post-thesis stage. And stay focused and breathe, enjoy every second, as it will be over sooner thank you think.

Story and song meme

I was tagged by the awesome MomRomp. She’s my new fave blogger and she was tagged in a meme about the story of your fave song, the one that no matter where you are will have you pause, transport back in time and take you to a happy place, if only for 3 or 4 minutes … awww bliss.

Since here at 27 and a PhD (more like, 28 in the process of 29 BUT with a PhD) it’s not all about serious stuff like grad school, jobs, postdoc’ing, etc, we’re going to be chill, casual, and talk a little about a song that transports me to my happy place, even in the most awful days.

The song is “Breathless” by an Irish group called The Corrs. Back when I was in college (late 90’s early 2000’s) I was watching the news, when all of a sudden a very melodic voice comes up and a really catchy song is playing. I look, and it’s a foursome of lovely irish gals and a guy. Turns out they’re siblings and they’re promoting their new album.

A few days after I caught myself humming the little bit of the tune I could remember, and since I wasn’t internet savvy at the time (I’m not much still, but I try to do my best), it didn’t occur to me to look them up on the web. Gladly, grad-school induced Alzheimer’s hadn’t set in yet, so I went to a generic record shop a few days after and got 2 CD’s from the group, the current one (In Blue) and a previous one. I was SO taken by their music, their lyrics, their power to influence my emotions and change my mood.

I was hooked. The song, Breathless is lovely, and is about falling in love and leaving the other person breathless by flirting and catching their attention. Is such a happy, lovely song. I was converted instantly.

Years later I fell in love and had my heart broken to that tune. And I thought I’d hate it forever. I couldn’t listen to it for a while. But as time passed I fell in love with it again, and again, and again. And now, every time I hear it I’m immediately transported to my happy place, of college years, of being carefree and not thinking about tomorrow, just today, now. My current BF loves it to, and although he’s not a fan of the group, he likes to listen to the song with me because he knows how happy it makes me, he hums the music and watches me make a bit of a fool when I think I can sing, hehe.

What’s your story and song ?

Which PhD is needed in the market the most – Search terms, short answers

This is a really interesting, and not easy question to answer. Not easy because it’s hard to predict, in my opinion. It depends somewhat on what and where you see yourself at the end of your grad school run. And it also depends on what’s “hot” out there in terms of science. I’m gonna go out on a limb here and just mention some cases I’ve seen happen through the years.

In a way science might be a bit like fashion, it has its seasons where certain things are super hot. Ten, probably 15 years ago PCR and yeast genetics were “da bomb.” Don’t get me wrong, because these techniques and organisms are important and are  still  key in today’s science. But 10-15 years ago it seemed as if everything people wanted to do was work on yeast and/or do PCR, that was their thesis and their life. Before that was DNA,  before that hemoglobin … you see a pattern here. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong studying problems and solving them using yeast or PCR, but today it seems as if pharmacology, bioinformatics, neuroscience and some cell bio are the “it kids” in terms of topics and techniques tto do or know, thus today if you had your PhD in those topics you’d probably stand a better chance of finding a job and a project you like within your geographical area. I think (from what I’ve seen at job postings which I’ve been monitoring closely for the last year) that universities are actively recruiting in those areas. Now, will those areas will still be hot in 4-7 years, by the time you’ll be done if you were to start your PhD today? There’s no way to predict what will happen, but from experience, even though my topic and technique are highly valued and super interesting (and a rare gem in my opinion), they’re not in demand in the geographical areas where I’m interested in pursuing a long term career. So, this just serves to say that you need to consider your options carefully. Go to a lab where you not only enjoy the topic, and research, but also where you’ll be equipped with transferable skills in case you’re stuck in a situation like mine, or explore your geographical options and see what’s needed more and how you can train in those areas so that you (hopefully) stand a better chance of getting your desired job. I partly blame my choice of lab and topic for why I didn’t keep up with some of the “hot” techniques used in say … 75% of labs, and why I’m doing a postdoc where I’m doing it and in what I’m doing it. I want to get in contact with my cell bio and biochem side, so that my lack of knowledge will not impede my future success.

As always, leave a comment or send an email if you have any questions or want to talk about your experience and want some insight.

Search 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 because my opinion on things is usually quite long, but because I tend to let the search terms accumulate and the entries end up looking huge, so to avoid that, and possibly shorten the length between entries I’ll just write small entries based on different search terms. Let’s hope this is helpful.

The first entry in the series is: Did you enjoy doing your PhD ?

Yes and no. For various reasons. I’ll just list some of each side and discuss a bit.

On the why I didn’t enjoy doing my PhD. Well, damn, it was a little bit too long. When I started my PhD the average time to get the degree was ~5 1/2 years. For some it took more, for some less. So, back home, before I even started my degree I used to tell my friends they’d see me back in the local working force in exactly 5.5 years. Yeah, no, it didn’t happen quite like that. It took me almost exactly 6 years to get out. Partly because I was scared of what would come next, partly because although my projects worked beautifully, it still took me all that darn time to complete it, and also because I lost some valuable time getting ready for my qual, then falling flat on my face. It was partly my fault, partly my previous boss’s fault. On the other hand, I think that things happen when they’re supposed to, not a second sooner, so the defense and finishing up happened when they needed to happen. Second, insurance at my old school sucked! so being at the mercy of whatever was left of my stipend with little money and money to pay up on other things didn’t leave much wiggle room for getting sick AND affording treatment … major sucky situation. I also wished I could have taken time off to pursue things that interested me, but then again, you basically belong to the school and they pony up all the money, so you better behave and do as told. I was also in a town (and region) that was very conservative. I had to swallow up my pride a few times while letting my liberal thought go away into oblivion, so it was hard to stand comments and people who told you flat in your face what they thought of life, women’s issues, liberals, government, war, etc.

On the good side, I got a top notch education. I went to a Big Name U in which I was doing research close to “science stars” and famous people. I met a t least a half dozen Nobel Laureates and attended some beautiful talks and workshops. Quality of life was good overall, and had I known how to better manage my moolah, I could have done better money and time wise. I was close to other states with interesting places to visit, so when the BF was visiting, or even living there we packed up our things and headed off to a lovely weekend elsewhere. Food and entertainment were top notch also. Above all, my research project and work ethics were awesome. And I miss the place, my old university. I miss heading out of my known place, my niche, and having a clear cut plan of what to do. Because postdoc’ing in a temporary thing (at least how I see it today), it’s hard to make plans in the long run. I know I’d love to go back home, but right now the stupid job market is in the trash, and what appears to be most needed are neuroscientists and cell biologists, none of which I am (or like to do).

Feel free to check some of my entries about grad school and my experience here and here. And as always, if there’s a question, just leave a comment and I’ll reply soon.