27 and a PhD

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Monthly Archives: March 2010

Q & A from search terms

Looking for something to write about, besides work, I enlist the help of the trusty WordPress search terms to answer more questions about grad school. These are just my opinions, so they don’t need to be regarded as the official word of the grad school lords, but some of these answers have been passed on to me, and others are just part of my experiences while getting the PhD. Here we go.

  1. Is the PhD qualifying exam hard ? – per usual, whenever I get a question about quals I direct readers to my entry on how my own qual went on. Check it out here. The qual exam basically serves to test the knowledge acquired over the 1st year or two of grad school. Depending on your school’s or department policies it may be super comprehensive, or just about your own topic of research. Mine was comprehensive in the sense that I got asked questions about biology, basic biochem, biophysics, along with more targeted questions about the research I was proposing. It can be hard in the sense that there might be tons of material to read in what appears to be very, very little time. My advice would be to familiarize yourself with the policies and procedures about quals, and start doing background research on the topic (or possible topics), especially if you know you have certain deficiencies. Consult books, reputable websites, review articles, or maybe even one or two of your profs who might be a great source of info. The more prepared you are, the more bases you’ve got covered the better you’ll do.
  2. PhD first year achieve little – I think that this is very common during your first and maybe even 2nd year. There are interdisciplinary programs which might require you to take classes for longer than if you had entered directly through a department. Therefore it is very normal to feel like very little was accomplished during the start of your grad career. My best advice is that as long as you’re learning, whether is hands on or not, you’re still learning. Learning and training with the basics is very important so that when it’s time to do your research at full speed. Also, if a considerable amount of time has passed and you feel like things aren’t going anywhere meet with your committee, talk to your boss, and be ready to change directions. Two things are very important, a) to not compare yourself with every single person from your class, and b) to know when it’s time to move along if the project looks like it’s not going anywhere.
  3. Things to get PhD grad – I’m thinking that this refers to what to get to a recent PhD graduate. In my case I was moving almost 800 miles away from where I did my degree, thus I knew I had tons of things to sell, donate or throw out, so I was most thankful for not getting furniture, or heavy things. I was very happy to get money, which was scarce at the time as I had to pay for the moving equipment, gas, lodging along the way, a worker’s visa and the 1st and last month’s rent (apparently) this is very normal in Canada, while where I lived before you only had to give a tiny amount for deposit and the 1st months rent. Jewelery is also a nice things to get a PhD grad. I don’t see anything wrong or not polite with asking the grad what he or she really wants. A nice vacation is also a great gift, but unless you have limitless resources it will be hard to get this one. A tie or a piece of clothing or accessory for the defense is also a nice happy and thoughtful way of gifting the grad.
  4. How much does it cost to move to grad school – I don’t have exact numbers, but you end up paying a few thousand dollars, in general, especially if you’re moving across the country (like I did). You have to consider that you’ll probably need to visit a time or two to look for a place to live. Then there are the expenses associated with driving (your car or a moving vehicle), your deposit, lodging along the way if you’re moving across the country or several hours away, gas, food, and furnishing your place. You may also need to purchase renter’s and car insurance if you already don’t have the latter one, and the initial costs of setting things up, moving or acquiring the furniture. All these are some of the things to consider (electricity, phone, cable, internet, water, etc are also part of this equation), so, as you can see it can go from a few hundred bucks to thousands in a matter or a few blinks. What I did was that I packed up stuff I would need (books, clothing, some small furnishings) and sent those ahead via the USPS, then packed my everyday clothes, shoes and other essentials and traveled by plane. I did do a visit prior to moving to find an apartment (expenses included transport, lodging, food, taxi and a bit of sight-seeing after the apartment was  scored, as well as deposit). I had been saving for the last 6 months of my undergrad. I saved about 3K and ended up putting some things on the credit card, so this gives you a general idea. Some schools might offer a tiny stipend for moving, while most schools I know of don’t, so keep this in mind. Also, keep in mind that it may take up to an entire month for you to start receiving your stipend money, so factor that into the equation.
  5. How do I manage my PhD stipend? – this is SUPER important. Especially if you’re carrying debt from undergrad or master’s degree. I’ve written a few posts about how I did NOT managed my money wisely while I was in grad school. To try to avoid my mistakes please read here and here. Know that you’ll more than likely be paying for rent, so factor that into the equation, along with insurance costs for the apartment and transportation if you will be driving to school. Factor in also parking and recreation activities (universities are crazy about charging grad students for rec fees associated with using (or NOT) the gym, so take this into account), health insurance is usually included in your package, but may not include a dental and vision care. Any expenses associated with medicines you take (for say high blood pressure or diabetes). Money for food is also something to take into account. And you may be paying for credit cards, so keep that in mind. The general areas where my grad student stipend went were as follows: a) rent (about 20-30% of my take home pay), b) car and apartment insurance, c) cell, power and cable+internet costs, d) minimum payment to 4 credit cards (at the time), e) monthly payment for my car (about 10-15% of my take home pay), f) food and grooming (shampoo, soap, undies), g) tithing, h) if there was something left, entertainment. So, this gives you an idea of the areas the money had to be distributed in. I finished paying my car a few months before my defense, and some of the money was funneled into paying off one of the credit cards. My last apartment was also the cheapest place where I lived, and my car insurance premium went down. I also started cooking more at home to save some cash and I stopped tithing.

Sick again and good news

For whatever reason I am sick again. I don’t remember if I wrote here about the last time I was sick. I had a bit of a fever for 2 days, then it was all coughing and sneezing. That was almost 2 months ago. I am now with what appears to be a cold ….. I’m sneezing, my voice is almost gone and I’m all congested. So, my apologies for not writing as often as I should.

A few days ago I ran one of the columns that was giving me trouble and I am happy to report it is now working well, and my protein is looking awesome. Let’s see if I can now start forming the complexes I need.

The rest of the good news is that a) my daddy’s contract came through and he’s keeping his job (he loves what he does) and b) my contract also came through a few weeks ago. In part that’s also why I wasn’t writing, as I didn’t want to look lazy by updating the blog while in the lab (where the muse usually hits me).

I have yet to buy my ticket to go to graduation, but I asked the boss if I could go and he gave me a look of why not?! So, I have now all the proper channels working for me to attend graduation.

Hope you’re having a great weekend. I hope to start writing more often ASAP.

150 mM NaCl and the PMDD acting up

I know I’ve been absent from the blogging scene for a little while. So many things have happened in the last 3 weeks it’s been crazy. And anytime I get a chance to log in, approve comments and catch up on little things I end up dreading writing a post about current events.

Part of the reason I’ve been out of the loop is due to a recent discovery. Since January I’ve been trying to purify this protein which is one of the main building blocks of my postdoctoral research. Said protein was made as a fusion protein and I was given a protocol to follow which is similar to others used by the group. My lab is very successful at expression protein (same as many others) and the tools to grow, purify and obtain mg amounts of protein are pretty standardized.

Enter moi. I was a bit …. mmm, spoiled while in grad school. As I didn’t have to do much biochem to obtain my samples of interest (sometimes people would send their so our facilities could analyze them), I forgot all about purifying, growing and all those other details which make biochem a necessary discipline of the trade. Thus, I “warned” my new boss of my biochemical incapacity and he agreed I’d have a few months to try and purify things on my own and do it proficiently.

As I mentioned in paragraph #1 my lab is very successful at purifying proteins so I felt I had little to fear. Now, I’m a very careful person, but if someone else has designed (and tried on a very small-scale) a purification protocol, based on experience I’ll follow it to a tee and usually it works.

Enter March 2010. All of my biochem frustrations and fears and you name it came crawling and chasing me as column, after column, after column, all I got was my desired protein PLUS the cut tag. The friggin’ thing would not, could not come off.

Earlier this week I had a fall out with Dear Boyfriend in which I told him all I thought … about me, and how incapable I was feeling. BUT earlier that day I decided to try adding 150 mM salt to my buffer and see how it went the next day.

Ba da min! Ba da boom! IT WORKED! I texted Dear Boyfriend to communicate the happy news (he had seen how frustrated and mad I was, yet remained as encouraging as always). I sent the protein for more analyses and it’s not degraded (yee pee) and now I think I have it all worked out.

On the scientific side things are looking promising.

On the personal, or mental state side things aren’t as bright. PMDD is acting up … and badly. My mood has been in the trash for almost a week, even though my lab stuff is working. I’ve been snapping at the boyfriend and any little provocation and I feel like an ogre.

SO, between troubleshooting and buying the PMDD med and having it take effect my blogging capacity is little to none existent. I’m feeling miserable dear blogging world, and for that reason I’ve been neglecting it. Please don’t take it personal, it’s all me and my head.

Soon I hope to be back in full speed and have lab and life things under control. Till then, dear interwebz don’t think I’m depriving you of my talent. It’s a temporary thing which I hope to solve or at least gain some control on very soon.

To quit or not to quit … that is the question

Sorry for the hiatus. It’s been SO crazy lately. I almost walked into my boss’s office last week as I was having one of those weeks where not only the PMDD was acting up, but also my protein and equipment were driving me crazy ( I was very close to calling it quits).  But this entry is not about me. I’m staying with my job (and crossing my fingers that it will get renewed pronto) but some peeps around me (or the blogosphere) might be venturing into the unknown, and quitting or forgetting about getting their contracts renewed. .

I can’t go into too many details as things are yet to come full circle, but a few months ago I met this lovely postdoc who turns out is just going to be around for a few months while her hubs is looking for a permanent position anywhere they’ll have him (and her). New postdoc is very nice, friendly, from a similar geographical (grad school) area and …. she’s in trouble. Not because of something she did, but because of the group she joined. New postdoc friend appears to be very happy and responsible, BUT her boss is being less than firendly. Mean boss is driving new postdoc friend crazy. So after much talk back and forth and some talks with new and old department chairs she might be leaving her job soon. I feel for her, for very many reasons. As a female, educated in the US, prolific author and new to the department many aspects unite us (except that my boss is “da bomb” and hers is … well, less than nice). Not only is mean boss nasty (and bad mouths the entire lab against the other) but also mean boss is very stingy, to the point where people go into other labs to beg (BEG) for reagents and pippetors (peeps, it is bad).

And this whole situation has got me thinking. About when to call it quits, when you get fired or when you’re simply done and need to move to a different pasture. I can’t say that I’m the happiest I’ve ever been (as a new postdoc in a completely unrelated field as that of my thesis I find this changing and adapting a little bit more than challenging), but I’m trying to learn and process and do things faster and keep myself moving and being productive (others might not see it that way, or so I’ve heard).

I’ve been in this position for almost a year (well, a little less, but who’s keeping the score?). And I’ve heard some of the best and worst advice about staying or quitting in the last few weeks (yes, problems with mean friend’s boss have stretched out for almost a month!). It’s gotten me thinking about what to do and how to refer to this period of time in which you’re transitioning and how to explain it (or not) to future emplyers. Postdoc friend has been at her current position for a little over 2.5 months. Technically she doesn’t need to justify or refer to this time, she might simply say it was something on the side (but I don’t know what’s worse, lying about a previous job or saying you quit because you’re previous boss was/is a nagging bitch). Anyways, the point is that I think my friend has endured enough. If I were her I’d be gone by now. It appears as if she’s tried every single trick and tip to negotiate a better attitude from her boss and she’s yet to see any changes (for the best).

I wish her well, and I certainly hope that she moves on to a bigger and better future, but it’s truly gut-wrenching when you see young, talented, driven people treated the way she is without the department taking a stronger stand and (possibly) getting some counseling so that mean boss can fix her was. Just so you know, if new postdoc friend goes, she’s going to be the 4th or 5th postodoc to leave said group, and overall the 6th or 7th person to get the hell out.


Grad student/Postdoc relates search terms part 1

I know, I have not posted in a while. I’ve been so busy with work and life and sometimes I find it hard to sit down for a few minutes and write a little. As usual, a search terms entry is about to unfold. I’m not happy with how slow this is going, so this one is going to be a long one, but not as long as previous ones.

Today, the following are the search terms of the day:

  1. Grad student depression inadequacy – I think I’ve discussed something similar before, but just to reiterate .. this is a very normal feeling, especially when you compare yourself against your classmates, or even labmates. I can tell you I still feel inadequate, almost 8 months after my defense, I still feel inadequate. Don’t let these feelings get the best of you. Talk to your counsellor, or a psychologist who can maybe help in showing you strategies to cope. You’re not alone, and it will get better as you learn more, become more independent and get a good hold of your project. But above all, don’t be discouraged, it’s normal.
  2. I’m tired of being a postdoc – well, hello there. You are not alone either. I think that by nature postdoc’ing is a tiring position. You’ve gotten out of school without having a few months to breathe and take it all in because bills had to be paid. Or maybe you thought that job interview at Big Name University (or even community college X) was nailed and you’d become a prof soon, just to realize the stupid institution decided to freeze all hirings and you had to renew your contract as a postdoc for yet some unknown amount of time. I feel you, you’re not alone. Add to that the fact that the pay may not be astronomically different from that of the rest of the grad minions in your lab and you may want to sit a cry a little. I feel you. I’m trying not to focus on that and give thanks for having a job. The other day my BF and I were talking about how much I complain … I and do so a LOT! And it wears me down (and him), so I’m trying (but not being über successful) and being content, happy and thankful for what I had. I was given a chance that given the skills I don’t have is a long shot. And the lab is big, which in my opinion is not the ultimate best environment to work in, but nonetheless is something I need to adapt and learn to live with given my current situation. So yeah, it can be tiring. But I’ve mentioned in countless occasions that postdoc’ing is a temporary thing, and that while one is in it there are many skills to be learned and expanded, so that when the next chance to do something awesome comes, you’ll be ready to do it. So hang in there, there are many of us feeling the same.
  3. Can you leave your postdoc after a year? I believe so, but don’t quote me. The way postdocs work at my current institution is that you get a contract for a year, and upon good reviews it gets renewed. So after a year you could stay or go. At my previous school you usually got a contract for about 2 years, or if you had a fellowship you would more than likely stay for the length of the fellowship. I think it’s easier to leave a postdoc within a year if you’re not tied down by a lengthy contract and/or fellowship, but if things aren’t just working out, or if family or academic situations come up, you can leave without further trouble. As always, keep the lines of communication open and keep your current boss posted if you think that your career is going to go through a major shift that involves quitting or leaving your position.
  4. (more…)