27 and a PhD

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WordPress stats and even MORE search terms

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.


February 2010
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You just gotta love it … One of the nifty features of WordPress is that once you go to your dashboard (according to how you’ve set things up) you can check out how people have landed on your blog, how many and what search terms or pages were used to get to the blog. I usually get between 20-50 visits a day, especially after a new post is published. And the reason I’m glad people visit here (even if comments are sparse) is that I get this sense that the blog-o-sphere comes in SUPER handy when it’s time for your to consider going to grad school, get into grad school and scary things happen, or are almost out the door and have little to no counseling, or are afraid to ask “silly” questions (there’s no such thing as silly question … unless you’re just super clueless by nature).

I’ve 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 defenses, and students scrambling to get done and walk the walk, I decided to do the 3rd installment of the Search Term series. Periodically I gather search terms from those lovely WP stats and select the ones which either tickle me the most, or were similar enough to the worries I had last year as I was getting ready to defend. Or are worries I’ve heard before, and have given advice. I offer my honest opinion, and if I have no clue of what to answer I’ll say so. Without further ado … here we have the Feb 2010 installment of Search Terms.

  1. Do postdocs get relocation expense at iv – I presume this user wanted to know if you get relocation expenses covered at ? … Ivy League schools. My answer is I don’t know. From experience, some school do offer to cover some (and on occasion, all) of the expenses. At my previous school you do get ~3000 USDs to cover moving/relocation costs (back in 2004, may have changed since). I don’t know how exactly that’s done, but I think you cover the costs initially, then the school (upon getting proof, i.e. receipts) issues a check or payment). At my new school no, you cover your own costs, BUT I kept my receipts so I can deduct those costs accordingly in April.
  2. Can you start a phd at one school and f – The answer is yes .. you can start a PhD in one school and finish it in other … but that’s on special ocassions. I know of PI’s who had students start in their labs, only to be offered a job elsewhere and they packed up their stuff and left. I know two distinct cases. In my old department, a lab inhereted a lab tech and a student who finished her degree (with her PhD advisor visiting every month or so) … but the logistics of that can be sketchy. I know another girl whose PI left her, kinda stranded, and so she had to start from 0 on her 4th .. yes FOURTH year of her PhD because her previous boss abandoned the project altogether. It can be sucky, and I don’t know if there are mechanisms in place to help provide for the student and hold the PI accountable … because as far as I can tell, when you sign the papers (or contract) to join a lab and department, you kinda sign them to be under your boss’s wing, so it’s a binding relationship and if either party fails to deliver they should be hold accountable. Other PI’s wait til the students finish, or offer to relocate the entire group, or as many peole as they can/will. I don’t know how feasable (or common) it is to say … start a program in :low” ranking U in the South, then want to transfer to say … and Ivy League … I don’t know any cases like that.
  3. Do i pay taxes as a postdoc in canada – short answer … yes. As far as I know, most (if not all) provinces require postdocs to pay taxes (usually between 20-25% of take home salary, but I’ll have more details once I fill out the tax forms, etc). Some schools aparently provide courses to postdocs, which rank them in a category similar to students (grad students) and they pay less. I think it’s just stupid, especially for international postdocs which consume what the province produces, can’t have access to provincial health care until after 1 year after living in said province and have all sorts of different rules apply. But … whatever.
  4. I hate my postdoc – I think it’s a very normal feeling. I can definitely relate to it because although my boss is awesome and most of my coworkers are super cool, on ocassion I’ve caught myself being too critical of my new environment, comparing it to my past that it just feels overwhelming. The grad school stage of my life is gone, is done, is over. I’m in a new stage and I have to (still) fight the urge to believe that the past was better and that it all sucks now. I’m earning more money now, I’m with the BF, I’ve gotten countless chances to learn and improve my lab skills, and I like where I live. But the challenges are greater too, mainly because I can’t hide behind a computer, my boss can (and won’t) hold my hand to conduct experiments. I’m all grown up now. All that said, it’s possible that the way in which a PI or lab, or even university portrayed itself has changed, and it’s no longer the idillic place you thought it was … or simply things in your life have changed and the new environment is not conducent to having a stable state of mind which is so important to do quality research. A great thing about being a postdoc is how temporary this position is. Depending on the school you’re in, you might have a contract which is renewed on a yearly basis, and in a few more months you can sit down (remember, try your hardest to avoid burning bridges) and politely tell your boss or supervisor that you feel like it’s time to move on.
  5. Do people fail qualifying exams PhD – yes, and they survive. Feel free to check this post.
  6. After phd top school depression – Totally normal, totally understandable. I think it stems from several places. First, for what appears to be a lifetime (yes, staying in school for 3-6 or even 7 years can seem like a lifetime, especially when everyone around you seems to have a real life) the only environment you’ve known is school, and the library, and your lab or office. It can be truly scary to think about how you won’t find refuge in the same place that served as your home base for the last few years. The comfort of a known environment can feel overwhelming at times … I got it too, only that it seemed to be short lived given that I started working less than a month after defending. Secondly, the job prospects, after all the years of education can seem like the worst thing to think about … so please, do your homewok as early as possible. Start networking as soon as you step into your school, don’t wait for conferences. Meet and greet speakers at school seminars, it can make for a whole different outcome once you’re done with the PhD. And thirdly, the realization that you’re not officially a student anymore seems a bit too serious and … in away … terminal. A PhD is a terminal degree … and thinking about it can give you the heebeejeebees … it’s normal, it goes away (although at different rates, for everyone).
  7. When will I find out if i got into PhD program – I mentioned in earlier posts how soon you could get an answer from the prospective school (check here), but from what I can remember, if all your materials are received in a timely manner you should start getting answers or invites to school around the end of January and throughout February. For me, a day like today 7 years ago marked the start of awesome changes for me. I was going to give my undergrad seminar (which I A’ced … thank you very much) and as soon as I got out I checked my email and boom! I had an invite from the school I ended up choosing to do my PhD. I had friends who got invites later on …. and I even had one who was going to Texas (she had answered and all) and at the last minute (literally, 2 weeks away from her undergrad graduation) got a call from an Ivy League in the Constitution State and off she went (I’m not familiar with the logistics of how she told the Texas school she wasn’t going anymore, but it all worked out in the end). So, late winter, early spring should be the times you hear back, but it might have changed in the last couple of years. For even more accurate info, check the school’s website for more details on this … many schools are very upfront about the times and dates by which you’ll be hearing from them.
  8. What is being a postdoc like – This is a really nice question. I would describe a being a postdoc as a really cool experience. You get to do research in whatever area you choose … and don’t get to worry about thesis meetings or anything like that. Most of the time PI’s will let you be super independent and take the driver’s seat for the project. The pay is slightly better than that of a grad student (if you’re in academia, in industry it might pay between 2-3 times what you would make in academia). You usually experience more freedom (in doing and in thinking), and now people can call you doctor (hehehe, I love being referred to as Dr. 28 and a PhD). Sometimes some benefits are better than those you had as a grad student (slightly better health insurance), but it depends on the politics of the institution. Being a postdoc is usually a temporary thing, meaning that if you hate the research, you can cut it shorter than when you were a grad student, and if you like it, you can renew your contract for a bit longer. I guess to me the most attractive part is that of being in a temporary position, and knowing that if I hated (which I don’t) my work I could move sooner rather than later is a total plus.
  9. Is it bad to do postdoc in the same lab – no it’s not bad … in my opinion, especially if it’s a short one (a few months long) while you wait for another offer to come, an interview, a significant other that’s finishing, or if you want to take your project one step further before you move away. I’ve heard people saying that it’s not good to do many degrees at the same place, as you risk not being exposed to other points of view and “recycling” knowledge (in a way). But a postdoc is not a degree conducing “job” so doing a short one (or even a long one) can work as a great stepping stone if you’re still undecided about what to do next.
  10. I would prefer my boss to be a female – I started grad school thinking the same way. It actually paid off, especially when the PMDD hit me hard. It can be a tricky situation in some cases. Like I have this friend in my lab whose previous boss was not nice, and was actually jealous of her (definitely NOT good). Also you might think that it might work in your favour, especially because you think she’ll understand better if say .. you decide to get married or have kids. But some (not all of course) female PI’s don’t have kids, or are not married so this might present a really uncomfortable scenario, especially if she decided to forgo of kids and can’t relate to having a kid sick, or in need of special care. I’d say be careful, and prior to committing to a lab for 4-6 years, talk to your potential boss. It’s only fair game. Ask if there’s a lab policy or procedure you need to know to say, still get paid while taking time off for labour, delivery, and maternity (or paternity) leave. Ask potential co-workers (if they have kids) how it went for them. Again, it’s fair game.
  11. Can I call myself doctor after the thesis – I’ve said it before, but if you missed it … YES!!!! Absolutely.
  12. Just failed my courses in grad school – this one is a tough cookie, because although most people will say that the grades on your grad school classes are not that important (and nobody will really remember .. it’s true), you still need to pass your classes in order to continue en route to completing your PhD. Check out the rules or guidelines on what you need grade-wise to stay in school (if this is what you intend to do). You might be put on probation (I’ve met people who been on probation, then have done super well after that) so that you can show improvement and more than likely you’ll stay. At me previous school you would go into probation if you’d gotten a B- or C. You’d have to either repeat the class, or take a similar one and get a B+ or more.
  13. How do I take my postdoc work with me -This one is a really great one. First off, discuss it with your boss (or potential one). Even though science is collaborative and (in the case of having funding from places like the NIH or CIHR) is supposed to be shared, some people are very protective about their topic(s) of study. So if you’d like to continue in said area, talk to your boss. You don’t want to make enemies, especially with the people who’ve accommodated you in their lab, their space. Be gracious and acknowledge that. If you like a particular project, try looking at it from another angle, or even establishing a long term collaboration with the boss so you still get the independence you want, and get to keep a part of the project you like. But above all .. talk about it.
  14. Quitting PhD with fellowship – This I’ve seen first hand. I had this friend who after her first year in a fellowship had to quit due to really serious family problems. She was funded by a training grant, so what the directors did was that they looked for a 2nd or 3rd year student who could use that funding for the remainder of the grant. Like I said before, talk about it prior to doing it because you don’t want to sever ties with a PI or institution too drastically. This will serve as a heads-up to the people in the program and will give you time to see if money needs to be reimbursed (not sure how common this is, though it could be an urban myth of grad school).
  15. What to do the summer before starting grad school – I’ve written a few posts of thing I did prior to starting 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 undergrad and as soon as I was free from school I got all my documents in order (transcripts, diploma), because sometimes some schools requiere you to give proof of this and that. I packed up my stuff from my undergrad lab, made sure I returned keys, lab notebooks, etc and said my thank yous. I traveled a bit that summer. I visited family, touristic places around my hometown, ate a lot of the good foods I wouldn’t eat while I was away (you know, places like certain fast foods or your fave ice cream shop might be exclusive to your neck of the woods). I had as much fun as I could. I contacted the coordinator of my program to get more info about the course(s) I’d be taking and early on I shipped what I tought would be needed at the beginning of school and placed orders for furniture and books. My landlord had permission to let movers, furniture people and mailmen get the stuff into my place so the first night I spent there I did some unpacking, assembling stuff. How I divided my summer was by first organizing all things grad school related, and once everything I could do before moving was taken care I just had fun. I went out with friends, visited my then-BF, said my goodbyes, went to the beach as much as possible … I just had fun, and you should too.
  16. Losing faith in God while doing PhD – this I’d say is a very common thing to ask and to happen. I’m a scientist, and though I have my issues with who runs the church and faith I profess I still believe that there’s a God, a supreme being, that is love and perfection. I can say that because I’ve seen his works, seen how prayers have helped me to get through thick and thin, and also because in the subject that I studied, I could see his perfection manifested. Now, I also had times (in college, grad school, and even now, as a post-grad) where my faith was and is shaky, where my beliefs are rocked, and life doesn’t make too much sense, and my faith in that supreme being is low. I’d say, don’t sweat it, we all go through different spiritual paths, and experiences and it’s important that you figure how things will work best, on your own, not letting external factors affect your degree of faith. If you have any particular questions, or want to know more about my journey of faith (something which I will not cover here), feel free to leave a comment and we can chat or write about it.
  17. Why are postdocs paid so badly – honestly I don’t have a scientific explanation, other than we as postdocs are supposedly on our way to become full time, big kahuna bosses some day, so you have to slowly and painfully climb the academic ladder until you’re at the tippy top and are making obscene amounts of moohla (money). I’ve heard, though I’ve never been in one or heard who’s in one, that there are committees that periodically (this is subjective, of course) evaluate the cost of living in particular areas, thus using the knowledge to calculate how much a postdoc (or grad student, or prof) can make to “live comfortably.” I’m sure that if they read my post on postdoc living expenses they would disagree, though I’m the only one responsible for this as I, myself, moi, got into debt in the first place. Those are just pure speculations, but there might be some truth to it.
  18. Following boyfriend for postdoc – only do it is a) there’s a real job prospect for you, b) you’re not just madly in love but also have an education or mean to back you up if things fail, c) are ready for big commitments, and d) have thoroughly considered it with a really leveled head and aren’t do it for the fear of being dumped. I almost did this at the beginning of grad school, and I’m SO glad I didn’t.
  19. Ok, so as a PhD I need to look serious – sure, but never lose your curiosity and ingenuity and love for discovery. Having a PhD doesn’t automatically mean that you need to become this a$$hole who has no sense of humour. I’m very funny, very out there, very myself, and I try to carry myself properly according to the person and situation I’m in, but don’t make yourself look like a suck-up jsut because you have the degree.
  20. How to congratulate on finishing PhD – Easy, just say congratulations, or depending on how close you are to the newly minted PhD, give a card and/or hug, or drop a line if you can’t attend the defense. It works wonders when you see the outpour of encouragement, appreciation and care. It works wonders.
  21. Should you leave your boyfriend because – this one didn’t have an end to the search term, but basically, if you feel like it’s the right thing to do, if you’ve thought it thru and are ready to maybe experience some major drama (if it comes as an unexpected thing for the other party). Think through it carefully, with a leveled head. Only do it if you cannot stand being apart and can’t make it work, if the person is not willing to compromise, or if you feel it won’t work (or you can’t be sure it can work), in other words, if you’ve done your research and feel it’s an informed, thought-out situation. I was a dumpee, and it sucked cause I never saw it coming, so above all, be honest and considerate given the circumstances.
  22. Lost having my PhD – yes, indeed, you feel lost, and it may not go away so easily. It it easy to feel lost and there are a myriad of reasons for why this happens. In my case it was/is because I’m completely removed from my field of study, and I’ve found that although my labmates are great, and they take the time to explain things to me, it’s still hard to understand or get used to your new topic of study. You might feel like you have no direction or it’s hard to see where you’re going now that everything is done and presented and you’re moving into a new direction. My advice is to hang in there, stay put and give it your best shot, knowing that for many reasons newly minted PhD’s get that sense of being lost.
  23. How do you feel when you get your PhD – I felt relief. Feel free to check my post on this topic.
  24. Wished I never did my PhD – wow, this one hit me hard as just yesterday the BF and I had a talk about this. He’s finishing his PhD, very excited about the prospects of doing research in something he loves for as long as he can. I, on the other hand, am worried sick about the prospect of a stable job. It’s not that I don’t want to find one, it’s just that I don’t know what to do. See, I’m now doing a postdoc, partly because I wanted the experience, but also because I wanted to re-learn hard core biochemistry and some mol bio. My PhD was done in a very specific subject, which I aviod discussing because it would be easy to use a search engine and find out who I am. I’m passionate about that field, but I specifically loved the little bench work I had to do. What I’m doing now could be done by a lab tech and I could just form complexes and use biophysics to explore said complex. Instead, I’m stuck purifying tons of protein and then I do something stupid, or different from what other people do in the lab with said protein and I lose a ton of it. I’m trying to be more careful, backtrack and check and recheck everything, but my heart is not in doing biochem and mol bio. I’m a data processing machine. So I discussed all this things with the BF and I also mentioned which parts if academia do not seat well with me. I don’t like industry as I think that’s just selling your soul to the devil. But I loved what I was doing before, and I enjoy some of what I’m doing now … yet I can’t being myself to become a PI (and possibly face failure since I hate writing grants, and such). So you see, now that I have my PhD it will be hard to find a job that combines what I like to do, know how to do well and is in the right geographical area. It’s hard. Then I realize there are many transferable skills, and I can still be involved in science, just not the pure (or purist) side of it. I hope to update more on this, or even dedicate a post or two about finding a different job once I figure out what I really, really like and see myself doing for the rest of my life. I also need to be thankful in the fact that I have a job in the middle of a recession, a job that pays decently, and overall a job that let’s me be close to the one I love and trust and want to be with. So for now, I need to learn a new lab, a new crew, a new topic, a new school and new techniques. It’s taking me time, partly because I’m a in a different culture and partly because it’s hard for me to switch gears and do something that’s totally different, and in a totally new scale compared to what I was doing before (it’s like going from doing whole cell experiments to focusing in on one tiny protein or peptide of a very obscure pathway … that’s the best I can come up with).
  25. Scared of defending thesis – totally normal feeling. If you want, feel free to read about my thesis defense and the aftermath. I’ve mentioned this before, but even though your PI, your labmates, your family, your significant other, in other words, everyone keeps reminding you of two things (a) you’re the expert, and b) everything will be fine), nerves can get the best of you and totally make you feel like you can’t do this, but you can, it’s true. In my previous school, PI’s give an intro about the student, their experience as a PI of the soon-to-be-PhD and usually tell a funny story. Since a friend told me ages ago that in order to get off some of the adrenaline I could(should) make a joke, you know, open with some funny comment or story, that has been my saver, so even for my thesis I started with something funny, along the lines of “once the talk is finished you will all sign up to do this kind of research”, they all laughed and I felt a sense of relief. Don’t let the nerves get the best of you. Read your proposal, read any summary letters you’ve made for the committee (if your school requires this of you, if not, it’s a good practice), read review of two and if necessary check out any equations or important formulas of your field, and/or project and you should do good. I stopped practicing my talk at around 3pm the day before my defense, but printed out the slides and went over them to check for any last minutes details (and that I had saved the right version of the talk). I also stopped by the conference room where the defense was to happen, and checked that my slides worked, and any animations or special effects worked on that computer. Doing all that reassured me that at least the technical side of the defense was right on track. Remember to breathe, enunciate, and pause if you you talk way too  fast like me. Check with your audience that they hear you fine, and all your gadgets (pointer, microphone, etc) work. And then, go on an talk. It’s your moment to shine.
  26. What to do if i hate grad school? – I may have covered this one before, but just in case. I think that unless you’re getting your PhD at the same institution you did your master’s or undergrad, there’s not a sure-fire way to say that you’ll love the school you chose. One clever thing I did was going on summer internships, where I had the chance to work on my own little project, while participating of pretty much everything my lab participated in. I went to departmental seminars, good-bye parties, practice talks, journal clubs, etc. I was a member of each lab for that summer, so in a way I got to see what  transpired in the lab, who talked against who, what dramas where there, etc. I also got to see how people in the lab interacted, so if I was interested in applying to that particular school, and rotate in that particular lab, I had done it (sort of).  This is to say that there are ways of getting to know potential schools. But, there are cases, like mine in which I didn’t particularly liked the school I attended. The first month I was there I hated it. I hated the faculty, the place, the city, the state, everything. At the time I was in a relationship, and in a way I wanted to show the guy I was a big girl, capable of living thru whatever I decided. And I stuck with it. And it paid off, I got 5 papers published, and one is in revision. On the other hand, I know people (friends) that have left programs for different reasons, from not clicking with the school, their PI or the research interests, to getting married and not having a care in the world for completing the degree. And some of them have gotten master’s degrees, or moved on to other disciplines. So, there are options. I’d say, before you do anything abrupt, make lists of likes and dislikes. Do you hate the school for reasons similar to mine? Has something personal or difficult happened and you feel lost? Explore that and maybe even talk to a counselor that can help put things into perspective. Whatever you choose, do it for you, not for anyone else.


  1. momromp says:

    Great post. I hope all Ph.D.s out there are reading your blog. Very helpful stuff. The calculation of living expenses is total bunk. When I was in med school, rent was estimated at $400/month. (This was in the early 2000s and sure, I was in the midwest, but you couldn’t find a decent, safe apartment for more than about $550/month.) Ridiculous. Love your blog. Hope you keep writing!

  2. 28 and a PhD says:

    Oh! I’m so happy you liked this post. It’s a little too long for my taste, I guess I could have broken it into parts, but it didn’t occur to me until now, ha! Yeah, how schools estimate the cost of living totally defies logic. Unless you’re on a mac & cheese diet (morning, noon, and night), and live in the worst part of town with 7 roomies, and steal a bus pass from an old person, there’s no way on Earth that you can truly live on the stipend, without incurring in some sort of debt. And I’m not talking “oh I’m poor because I’m spending 3/4 of my stipend on the lastest gucci bag.” I mean, I’m glad that there’s a stipend, but realistically, one goes through so much school-induced drama, that it’s just not worth it sometimes. Oh well, enough ranting for today, haha! I’m glad you like reading my entries. Have a great weekend!

  3. leigh says:

    you get some serious search terms!

    i always thought i should have gotten hazard pay as a graduate student for the high stress conditions. my grad mentor insisted a grad student stipend was about right due to the fact that we spent ~3 years screwing up before we were really trained enough to generate the good data to put in the thesis.

    perspective. 😛

  4. 28 and a PhD says:

    I know! It’s amazing the kind of questions and terms people use. And you cannot imagine how many times some of these terms we repeated. I’m known to give long answers, so that’s why these search entries are so long.

    Dude, the hazard pay would have been amazing. With all the stress and ramen noodles we’ve consumed the damage to our hearts and brains (and everywhere in between) might not be corrected. And also, what tickles me is that you cannot get a temp job (at least not be honest about it) to supplement the stipend, because you’re supposed to devote every waking hour to lab work.

    Thanks for visiting!!!!

  5. Alexandra says:

    Hi there!
    I’m so glad I found your blog a while back (through TNR, I think). I’m doing a PhD myself, in genetics. I’m pretty much going through all the troubles/feelings you are talking about here on 27 and a PhD.
    So thanks for writing about all this, it’s really helpful knowing that other people out there know what you’re feeling and that you are one comment away from finding someone to talk to 🙂
    Good luck with your new project!

  6. 28 and a PhD says:

    Oh thanks for visiting Alexandra!!!! I’m glad you found my blog! Yeah, doing a PhD is … quite an adventure. Whoa, genetics, you are one smart girl. I thought genetics were complicated during intro when I was an undergrad, but in grad school, and at the molecular level is a whole different story. If you have questions about the process or anything, and can’t find it here, feel free to drop a line at stitchick at gmail dot com anytime. Thanks again for visiting and best of luck with your research.

  7. […] 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, […]

  8. […] mentioned before that I was born and raised in the catholic faith, though I’m going through a rough patch […]

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