27 and a PhD

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Monthly Archives: November 2010

Should schools or departments require profs to deposit their old exams in a database/bank?

Back when I was in college, and in even high school, one of the main questions my classmates and I had days before an exam was what kind of material would be covered/tested. Our questions would range from “is it a multiple choice/fill in the bubble type thing”, to “do we need to memorize how to derive the quadratic equation or will we be given the stupid equation in case we forget?”. But something I only experienced in college (and later in grad school) was the amount of people asking what the content of the exam would be. I would immediately roll my eyes thinking, “you gotta be kidding me! are you stupid or what? have you been missing class?” I mean, for me, whether it was a mid-term and a final, or 3-4 exams spread all over a few weeks, I always though/knew that everything a prof discussed in class was fair game when it came time to take an exam. I didn’t question or gave input to a prof on how he/she should to the test. That was(is) their business and my business was to prepare as best as I could to answer the darn thing.

We had a student help centre in college that would have copies of some of the old exams, something particularly useful for the first exam one takes with a prof, you know, to get used to the style and see what types of questions  are asked and gauge the level of difficulty of the exams. I used old exams to gauge the level of difficulty or detail a particular prof would test or want to see in the answer. And it was not the end of the world if the exam was not posted. Sure, it would be somewhat inconvenient not to know how deep a prof would want an exam or question to be answered, but at the end of the day I always knew that anything and everything was fair game and that I needed to know my stuff backwards and forwards if I wanted to ace the exam regardless of whether there was a study guide and old exams available or not. (more…)

Doesn’t matter how far you go, you’re still an ugly duckling

As I write this entry many thoughts come to my head, many memories too. When I was little, besides getting into trouble with my sis, dismembering my Barbies, and wanting guns and cool science equipment for Xmas, I also liked reading and colouring. I just remembered this because one of my favourite books was The Ugly Duckling. I remember going to a Walgreens with my fave aunt when I was 4 or 5, and getting a few story books from Disney. They had the classic stories, and more than anything, I loved the drawings. I would spend hours on end looking at the drawings, imagining that I was capable of drawing Cinderella’s beautiful dress, and the prince’s perfectly nordic nose. Or how when I grew up I’d draw the wind waves coming from the 3 Little Pigs big bad wolf’s mouth. Overall, my favourite one was The Ugly Duckling … I don’t know why since I hate ducks now (the taste, yuck) but every time I read that story I felt connected to it.

Let me give you some background. I’m the first-born grandkid on my dad’s side of the family. There are 5 of us (my sister, my 3 cousins and I) …, on my mom’s side there are a gazillion cousins. I mostly interacted with my dad’s side of the family, as my dear grams was the one that took care of the sis and I when my parents were at work. My grams divorced my grandpa a couple of months before my parents got married. My mom says that my sis and I were a much-needed breath of fresh air on grammy’s life and she made sure that my sis and I were loved, and cared for while our parents worked. She made sure we had the best clothes, shoes and toys. Grammy was always proud of my grades, and she gave me 1$ for helping her pick up the leaves on her backyard every day during the fall (hey, this was the 80’s!), and a couple more if I brought back a school report with straight A’s (which I did, until the year she died … I recovered later, but needless to say, it was tough). But above everything … grammy always made a point of telling me how beautiful she thought I was. I grew up thinking I was a princess, because in her eyes (and in my mom’s eyes) I was the prettiest girl to ever be born.

Then I started in school. I look back at pics of my first school years, and I was a regular cute kid, with my dimple, my natural ringlets, and a desperate want to be friends with everyone. I think back to the fall of 1986 and how I was driving my mom crazy because I wanted to be in school, and play and learn. I was so eager to learn. I’d grown up watching PBS and Sesame Street,  Inspector Gadget. I wanted to do experiments, to solve crimes, to  have work with cool equipment. I wanted to show people how much I was learning. You have to understand … I was in love with the idea of learning, of having my brain absorb everything that was discussed in class, and playing with the toys that all those kids were playing with on TV, in their classrooms. (more…)

What is wrong with me?

Do I really want a career in science? As in really, really want it? Really? Yes! Then why on Earth do I act like a jerk in front of pretty important PI’s?

May be just the way I perceive things … but, a few weeks ago a pretty important PI in the field of mass spec visited our school, our department. This person is super, super important in the field, and has had more papers in top-notch journals than I’ve ever seen in my life (not really, but he has more covers than Einstein … ok, joking!).

At the end of the seminar I went and introduced myself, as I knew some of the PI’s this mass-spec-guru has worked with. It is not super directly related to my former field, but we could have crossed paths before had I done my PhD 5 or so years before I did (which would have been impossible, given that I would have been 15-16 at the time and/or a genius) … but whatever. Point is, apparently such-important-PI-in-mass-spec knows my PhD PI. Such-important PI said that his lab knows about my previous boss’s work and that they’d crossed paths and ask me how my postdoc was going and why I switched fields … to which I answered in the stupidest way possible … I said that things weren’t working and that my contract was up in a few months …  and that I really couldn’t explain why I had left my previous area of expertise since I had this protein that was not behaving (turns out a couple of days after, said protein decided to make my life easy once and for all) . I’m sure that mass-spec-guru felt how I seemed to be screaming with my whole being “I love your work, please give me a job and get me out of this bloody hell.” I’m sure that’s what registered in this PI’s mind because as soon as I said the words, his face changed and basically brushed me off wishing me good luck in all my future endeavours. I mean, could I have been more of a dork, an idiot full of crap? Seriously? I need to somehow master my ability to chit-chat with these high-profile profs and show interest without seeming too needy.!! Not only that, but if ex-boss and super-important-mass-spec-dude meet again, I’m going to look like a badly adjusted dork who makes previous boss look like an idiot in front of other gurus! I mean, sure, my ex-boss knows my quirks and knows what I mean even before I say it. But, I’m not a grad student in previous PI’s lab, I’m out and my way of doing science, of behaving and everything that I do eventually reflects on how I was trained and where I come from. And I do not want to be fired … so, I just seemed like an unadjusted melodramatic teenager. For heaven’s sake, I’m a postdoc, not a whiny 1st year grad student!

I’m tempted to write an email to visiting PI and/or my ex-PI and mention that I met mass-spec-guru and how I enjoyed the talk and I hope I didn’t scare him or something (not those exact words, but, you catch my draft). I don’t know. All I know is that I acted like a complete moron, and now I feel as if I need to apologize for acting that way and seeming way awkward … at least compared to how I am normally.

Have you done this before? Would you “patch” things up and contact each PI or just one? I mean, I’m not sure I want to work for mass-spec-expert/guru in the near future (I did love his work and how it was creating a bridge among disciplines) … but I’m not sure I’m good enough, you know? And if I did that, and say, get that position, I’m not sure I want to stay in academia. So, in theory I would be wasting 2+ years of my life just because I had to be in another super-awesome lab. Should I greet this person and say the things I wanted to say, but didn’t get to because of my stupidity? Or should I just brush it off like nothing happened and hope he won’t remember me or cross paths with my former PI? Oh! to be me and behave like an idiot in front of super high- profile people.

How much do you want that PhD? Part Deux

The other day  I talked about a grad student I know (Grad Student X, or GSX) and how, for some unknown reason, and even though his data is all collected and analised and he’s got no funding, he still  hasn’t defended, let alone handed his thesis to his supervisor.

Today I want to go deeper into possible reasons for why this is happening, what GSX could do to be in the good graces of his boss, and get out soon … and offer my opinion on people who seem to hit the grad school wall and, in a way, avoid writing the thesis and getting out sooner rather than later.

So, yesterday I had a few questions about GSX’s situation. I’ll restate them so this enty flows more evenly:

  • If most of your data has been collected, and you should, in theory, be working on the write up, which on average takes his labmates 3 months to complete, shouldn’t most of the thesis be written by now?
  • Shouldn’t you be scheduling your defense already? The way the thesis is written up here is that any papers you have submitted and are accepted can be added as print-outs, no re-writting necessary, which shaves the time of reformatting or re-writing things so that they comply with the grad school’s format/rules. Therefore, if your thesis includes an intro, a brief materials and methods section for the computing part, and a conclusions chapter, in theory … shouldn’t that be in the final stages?
  • GSX is still a student, which means he has access to computer centres on campus, and free internet in the library, so, even if he didn’t have hydro (power) in his house (due to the loss of funding), he could potentially take the bus (which is still being covered by the grad school fees) and write up a bit every day. If these things have not happened, then, what else is going on?
  • Or why has this process taking so long? I know this sounds terrible, but it just blows my mind when I think that maybe, just maybe, you aren’t that willing to get out with your degree ASAP. I mean, come on man, we all go through rough times when it’s time to write the thesis. We have at some point or another dragged our feet when writing. If (God-forbid) something else is going on (say, a family problem or illness), why not talk to the boss and see if funding can be reinstated pending good progress on your writing? Say, a chapter every month or something similar.

All these can be summarized as follows, there is a roadblock, or mindblock, and GSX needs to get in charge of the situation so that he can a) jump start his writing and b) finish the dang thing in order to get out, get on with life and possibly make-up for the time lost with his boss.

I honestly have no clue what’s going on in this guy’s mind. I am baffled. Then again, I do not posess all the facts. I’m simply an outsider. But from experience I can tell you this: when I hit my 5th year in grad school I was SO ready for it to be over and done. I’d had it with the salary, health insurance, city, boss, labmates … everyone. It’s what I tell the grad students in my lab as having the “OMG I hate my life, why on Earth did I decide to go through grad school”-moment. Once you’ve hit that point, you know it’s time to get out. So, it baffles me to think that someone who has all the ingredients to make the thesis work, all the parts are in place, doesn’t want to or can’t do it. I mean, for heaven’s sake! you have performed every single experiment required. You’ve been to every seminar and meeting you needed to be, the boss paid you for 1 extra year to see if you could get your act together and write … and you have nothing to show? What’s the issue here? Like I said, maybe there’s something deeper that can’t be seen or understood. Maybe this guy’s depressed or has fears of being in the real world. Big secret revealed! WE ALL DO! I mean, sure, we’re pissed at the school, boss, lab, labmates,  and ourselves. But we are ready to grab life by the horns and get our stuff together and make something happen. What worries me is that if this student is in a persistent state of funk, he may not get ahead. Or like me, maybe he doesn’t know what to do with his life or career once all the brain work is done.

Here are my recommendations: reach out to your friends. GSX appears to be in a perpetual state of funk. He’s had friends drop by and check on him. But he closes the door in their faces. So, suck it up and reach out. There are peple interested in helping you. All you need to do is ask. Reach out to your boss, or some other faculty person you may be close to. We might think that bosses are out of this world creatures who’ve lost all contact with reality. Sometimes it is like that. But bosses are parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, friends too. Appeal to their human side, with all honesty. Say how you’re feeling. Your worries about finding a job, or switching fields. Just be honest. Your boss holds a very important card in his/her hands. That is he or she can make or break you career by making a phone call, or writing an email or letter to recommend you. Maybe you will shift careers and get away from science. But if you aren’t  then chances are you will need a letter of recommendation or two to get ahead. In this perpetual state of funk you may be burning bridges faster than you can re-build them. Hence reach out to your boss, or to someone who knows him. He/she is bound to be close to another prof who you might know and that may be a way to reach in and get your boss’s attention. If you reach out and are honest, chances are the boss will want to engage in some sort of action/plan to get you on your feet and working again. But unless you say the word … little can be done. Reach out and use the sources you have. Like I did a few weeks ago, go to the psychological centre or career service place and reach out and try to get your head and thoughts straight. What are your fears? Are they grounded? What do you think is holding you back? Talking to professionals who understand might help in developing a strategy to get you back in place and working on what your thesis. Or maybe, they’ll help you find out you may not need that PhD after all. You may want to pursue a different career and writing and defending are not in your cards. But whatever it is, reach out and talk to people. Don’t keep it bottled up. It is toxic and nasty. The sooner you overcome these feelings or funk, the sooner you can focus on your next stage.

Once you have a plan in mind, if you decide to go through with writing and defending, get on with it. Maybe you want the document to be the best thesis ever. We all want that (some may want it more than others, depending on how soon you want or need to get it done). So, try to look for a job, or set a goal, whatever it is. Find something to motivate you, have a concrete plan. Talk to the boss about it and deliver. Whether it is a new chapter a month or every two weeks. Find something that fits and stick to it. Right now you may want/need structure, so try to make a list of immediate goals to jump-start your writting. Nothing is stopping you. And since you have the example of previous students, try to aim for the same. The mind can play a ton of tricks (mine did, making me think I couldn’t possibly finish before the end of my 5th-going-into-6th year of school). Chances are, the more you talk to people, the more you’ll see the different hurdles they faced, and how they confronted them and moved on.

Find out what’s blocking you. Be honest with yourself and your boss. If this is something you want to have done by the end of the year, open the lines of communication with the boss, or chairperson and establish a plan. Go for it and trust me, it will be less painful once you’re going trough it than you envisioned.

I wonder what’s the cause of your delay. Is it family problem? Are you in need of guidance your boss can’t give you? There are postdocs and other PIs in the department who probably know you enough to lend a helping hand. What are you waiting for? Are you afraid or is it just laziness? Figure out what it is. Talk to a shrink, your family doctor, a trusted friend. Maybe you need a pep talk or someone to sit down and tell you straight to your face that the more you prolong this, the worse it looks on your resume. If you aren’t working, or consulting, or volunteering, then how are you going to explain the obvious gap in your timeline? If you want to stay in the field and go for a job with one of your boss’s collaborators, then you need to open those lines of communcation  fast. Chances are they know the turnover for peeps in your lab and when the see a gap in it there might be questions.

Finally … it maybe be that you are depressed altogether. We’ve all experienced it at some point, be it the seasonal blues, or something more serious. You’d be surprised how many people (including profs) are in some sort of medication, therapy or both. This is very important and it shouldn’t be neglected. I was very skeptic about using medication. Not that I don’t believe that they work, there’s a good body of work out there supporting some of these medications. I sought advice and got on sertraline. And OMG it did wonders. I thought it was just a behavioural problem, but it was that and much more. You may need to visit a few doctors until you find someone who listens and understands. It took me only 2 tries until I found a guy who really knew his stuff and was also into listening to me, how I felt and how serious it was. Some peeps out there are just into writing prescriptions and not listening to you. But someone who truly cares and shows concern about you and your individual situation can help steer you in the right direction. I did try several meds until I found one that was good for me. It takes a bit of effort, but it’s worth it. Seek guidance, visit your student health facility and ask for a referral to a psychiatrist or physician. It will more than likely change your life for the best, or at least, get you out of the funk.

Ultimately, whatever issue or hurdle GSX is working through, it will only be resolved when he takes the first step. I can offer insight and even offer to edit his thesis before the PI sees it … but he needs to make a decision to get out of the funk, in whichever one of the ways I’ve mentioned before, and get out. If/when I learn how GSX is coping and/or defending I’ll do another entry. I hope this serves to get some of you peeps motivated and moving toward a goal, whether it is the defense or an alternate career.

How much you do you want that PhD?

** Disclaimer** The situation I write about is from someone I know, and is similar, in some aspects, to that of others I’ve met in the past. This isn’t meant to reflect the situation of every student that’s still in the lab in his/her 5th, 6th, + year of grad school (I got my PhD after 5.5 yrs in the lab). This is just about this person’s current situation. I don’t believe it’s a one-size-fits-all-type thing, and I only offer my honest opinion. While I do not posses all the facts, I think that given the current information this person should get out ASAP, and push his writing into high gear before it’s too late.

I’ve been meaning to write this one for a while, and since I have a bit of free time between experiments, here it goes.

Part 1

Most of us have seen/heard or been in this position. You or someone you know has been in grad school for over 5, 6 or (insert whichever # you like here) years doing the PhD. Things aren’t going as planned, or you’ve switched projects a few times, or you switched labs because a) your boss died (happened twice while I was in grad school, but no, not to me!), b) your boss moved somewhere else where you didn’t want to move (happened to a girl I know, and to some of the 1st students my previous boss had), c) your boss and you aren’t on friendly terms anymore, d) insert your own situation here.

It seems as if the data from years 2 and on sucks, or is inconclusive, and you are at your wit’s end. Life generally sucks, and then the bomb drops, your funding is being cut or eliminated, depending on which institution you go to (and their rules), which fellowship pays you (and/or for how long), your adviser is running out of money (and/or patience), or your grad funding has an expiration date (like it does in ON, and I don’t know who many other provinces).  It could be for something totally different or a combination of the above.

The point is, you’ve made it past a bunch of hurdles and you’re at the stage where all people ask you is when are you going to defend, not so much the “how’s your project going?” And all of a sudden you have no money, nothing to live on. No stipend. Nada!

Meet grad student X (GSX for short). GSX is 35, single, and in his grad school year #6. GSX worked as a tech for a while, was a DNA machine and then, after a while decided to give grad school a try. GSX has a few papers, some from being a tech, 2 or 3 from his PhD work. GSX is hard working … in his own way. He shows up to the lab anywhere between 10am and 2 pm, and is usually in until 9pm most days of the week. GSX is well versed in current politics, religion, cooking, wine and coding, in addition to being a biochem/cell/mol bio machine. And when he’s not doing DNA or protein work, he’s enjoying his non-lab activities. A bit of a renaissance man if you would.