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Things nobody tells you before starting 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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I may sound like a broken record. Always complaining about grad school this, job that. Maybe I’m in a funk. Who knows. But basically that last entry about the overproduction of PhDs has given me some food for blog. Especially now that I’m done with all this thesis business and doing a postdoc.

When I started grad school I saw it as a way to have time to think about what I really wanted to do with my future. I was 21, very insecure, thinking I’d marry off some rich guy and not worry about the future, and I’d forget all about school. Mmmm, the part about finding the rich husband was only partially true ;-). But I saw it as a time to explore options. After all, there was that pesky thing called qualifying exam, so if half way through the grad school adventures I found myself liking something else I’d jump the grad school ship and move on. Or so I thought. So much for devoting time for soul-search. I like to finish what I start, so leaving grad school half-way without finishing what got me there in the 1st place was not going to be that easy.

But with all the hustle of grad school I never really sat down to think “hey, the field might be saturated and this may be all the publishing you’ll get done, you’ll have to think of something else to devote your life to if you want to be a breadwinner someday.” I was also very clear in what I liked and didn’t and I truly felt like I’d found my niche. I was happy in my little lab corner, doing cool biology and not caring about a thing. Until that glorious day in 2009 when the defense happened.

Before that, though, I did apply and get a postdoc position. I was very clear in that I wanted to do a brief project, something to keep my parts well oiled and moving and then I’d choose something more permanent. Something I’d devote my life to. Thing is I’m not sure if it’s science anymore. I’m going through some really rough patches now, and my heart is not in science anymore. But that’s another story. I feel like I haven’t had a quiet moment to figure out what I want. Not just what I’m good at, but what I really feel passionate about, something that does not feel like a chore to wake up to every morning. I haven’t had a break since I started college. Not a single summer free. But that’s also another story.

What you came here for is to get some clues on what things profs, grad school personnel and recruiting seminars won’t tell you. This is not meant as a way to discourage you, but more as food for thought as you consider applying to grad school or even during the first year of two of school. This is meant as advice, take it or leave it. But this is so you won’t say that nobody told you before you embarked in this adventure. Here he go:

  1. You may leave grad school with debt, even if you’re fully funded. This one sucks, as my story perfectly shows. But basically, even though there’s grant money, if you’re carrying debt from before, or you have no clue as to how to manage your money you can and will get stuck with some pesky debt. Be very aware that good financial planning will be helpful. And don’t think you’ll make easy money once you’re out. This is not med school or law school, and for reasons you’ll see below, you might be out of work for the forseeable future.
  2. Though many hands are needed to push the field forward, you’re a grad student and there are many like you standing in line, so, as hard is it might be to read (hear or swallow) you are expendable, you are replaceable. In my old lab I thought my boss desperately needed the grad student that was there before me. The day after her defense she picked up her things, no tear from the boss and off she went. Like magic, my boss’s attention immediately shifted to me. I could not believe it. This girl was the next in command when the boss was at conferences or sick. This is not to say that a boss will not get sad and won’t miss you, but just like you’ll do after the defense, they had to move on too and they have grants and plans set that have to keep going immediately after you’re gone. Don’t take it personal, but do know that when you’re gone, life will continue and the lab will move on, and you will be replaced.
  3. Regarding #2, hands are needed indeed, but as you graduate and progress, the job prospects shrink. Think about it, you are becoming a highly specialized individual. And you have or will acquire a certain set of skills. But as I’ve seen first hand, if you do not possess that certain set of skills (whether programming in Java or HTML, doing patch-clamp, crystallizing proteins or designing primers) plus something extra you might not be the strongest contender for your desired position. Think about this, your PhD lab has a competitor or two, who has a grad student and/or postdoc that has a similar preparation technique-wise and publication-wise. When you head out of your PhD you might be competing with those same grad students and/or postdoc plus a whole other set of people with similar qualifications, more experience and maybe that extra special attribute that pushes him or her ahead of you. Now you need to look for a similar position elsewhere, or you might try looking into a different direction/angle/lab. This means possibly more competition, which might leave you high and dry for a while until you find your niche. Maybe (hopefully) you’ll be lucky enough to network and use those connections to land you a job in something nice, though different. That’s great, but if you had your eyes set on a certain person, lab, technique or topic and you can’t land that position it will be hard. People overcome this hurdle, but it’s definitely tough, especially immediately after having the “high” of your life with the defense.
  4. Speaking about #3, do not always trust what profs say regarding the many openings for people like you in academia. Some profs (mine included) were really pumped up about getting you ready to become their next carbon-copy. But the thruth is that you have to do a postdoc or two, and go through the lengthy process of interviewing and all that entails. Not only that, but if you add to that mix a partner and/or kids, it can be a tough pill to swallow. Also, those hoards of professors who are always retiring … that’s a lie. How do I know? It never happened in the 5.5 years I was doing my PhD, nor has it happened in the 10+ years since I started my college education. Yes, you do get a prof or two to retire while you’re doing your degree, but it really never becomes this wave of massive retirements. So what’s left to do? Become an eternal postdoc? Become a research associate or temp prof filling for when the tenured profs can’t keep up with the class load? It’s incredibly competitive, so be observant of profs’ words and watch out for the magical waves of retirements. It should be taken as a sign of caution and a door to plan for alternate ways to either stay in science doing something else or change directions before it’s too late. I’m not saying don’t go for a professorial position, but do keep in mind that it will be even more competitive than the race for that dream postdoc or similar position.
  5. Somedays you will get to the lab at the crack of dawn, only to get out long after the sun has set. Many people told me about this, but I thought “hey, that’s no biggie, and I’m sure it will be only temporary.” The only part I was right was about the temporary part. There was a time when so many people in my old lab were doing SO many things, and all very similar that we had to start booking instruments at “insane” hours like 4am. Seriously. There was a time when a labmate and I went on a data collection binge and worked for a month from 8am till midnight in shifts. Seriously. So be aware that sometimes you will have to make a sacrifice and get to school super early and leave super late. This is a normal part of grad school, especially in the sciences and if you’re TA’ing or proctoring an exam that’s scheduled to start at 7pm and lasts for at least 2 hours.
  6. Sometimes, and at some schools, the medical coverage will be a nightmare. I’ve always wondered why grad students usually get dumped into the hands of student health (for undergrads) when there are plenty of residents (MDs) who would benefit from treating (or using grad students as guinea pigs)grad students. Also, this could potentially save some money to the school if they did not have to outsource the health insurance plan to some corporate office and people in New England or Kentucky. Just sayin’.
  7. Your friendships will change, and sometimes you won’t see friends for long periods of time. This is normal and you will acquire new friendships. It shouldn’t surprise you if once you’ve got your degree some people never talk to you again. Also, you’ll probably need to explain to more than one person that there’s another kind of doctor besides MD’s and that NO, you are not licensed to dispense any medications (though you’ll probably know more about them than all of the MD’s in your school combined).
  8. It’s perfectly OK to seek counselling and/or psychological help to learn tools to keep some of your sanity. Though there were years in which I was fine, when this happened, I immeditely found a counsellor who helped me learn things about me and about life that made the whole process bearable. For some people it may seem wrong, but it’s perfectly fine. And you’d be surprised how many faculty members also seek psych counselling.
  9. Vacation time …. well, you may need to negotiate that. While we all love to take a break from science every now and then, this one will be like an act of David Copperfield, you’ve earned it, so make good use of it. If you’re like me you’ll ocassionally check on your stuff via a virtual internet client, vacay time away from the lab helps you to re-focus, recharge and regenerate. Especially if you’ve hit a bump and can’t seem to get over it.
  10. Science is supposed to be about collaboration and sharing with your peers and the public at large … but in this dog-eat-dog world you’ll see a lot of competition, especially to get your results published faster. You’ll be in a constant race against the clock. Get used to it. Also, your PI may have competitors (i.e. enemies) and he/she may not want you to share stuff even if it’s in good faith, so shhh, keep it a secret.

For now, these are some of the things I can remember or experienced. Feel free to add your own. This isn’t meant to be a list to scare you, but to really get you to think whether you want in or prefer to stay away.

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