27 and a PhD

Home » Grad school » Choosing your battles and getting your PhD ASAP

Choosing your battles and getting your PhD ASAP

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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We’re told from day one that we will learn a TON of skills while in grad school. These bits of knowledge come in the form of things that happen to us, or others, advice that’s passed down from one grad student generation to another, or via the PI, among others. We learn about when to talk to our boss about vacation, or ask for money to go to yet another conference this year, or what’s the best way to get that secretary or admin person to show you some mercy when you’re submitting documents for whatever even though you know she/he hates students, especially you. We also learn about where to get lunch for free almost every day of the week, and who to choose for your thesis committee (or not).

But one of the main skills we learn (or develop) is which battles we choose to fight, and which are just worth abandoning. In particular this was very helpful when I had to submit one of my papers and also when it was time to leave (though my boss was extremely supportive of me getting out ASAP, so it wasn’t like I was fighting a lost cause, it was more of getting the stupid committee together for a few hours … the bane of every grad student’s existence).

Through the years I’ve met people, at different stages of their graduate careers, who know when it’s worth doing something, and when it’s best to just leave. And I’ve tried to learn from what they’ve experienced. See, I ‘ve  never a quitter. When my 4th grade math teacher hated my guts, I could have switched teachers but did’nt. When the choir director wanted me to sign as an alto, when I’m clearly a mezzo, I kept doing the alto part, or when the boss wanted me to try a program I knew people before me had tried for months on end without a positive result, and I thought I had the magic touch, I kept at it. Luckily I gave up on this quickly (by some miracle of nature or something) and thankfully that was one of the first battles I decided not to keep fighting. This entry isn’t that much about me. It’s about how people I know have chosen to quit, or stop fighting (while in grad school) to either get their degree, whatever it is, and one who hasn’t. One of my best friends in grad school decided to join her MS lab because she loved the type of research done there and was sure it would keep her happy for (what she though would be) the duration of her PhD. This same friend had done a rotation in said lab, and witnessed a few fights between the boss and one of the techs. I mean, it was a screaming match that half a hall could hear. She knew the boss had a temper, and I remember her saying that she wouldn’t tolerate any kind of screming (luckily for her they never fought). She was confused about whether to stay in that lab or do an extra rotation. I remember telling her that if the screming was a deal breaker, she should cross that lab off  her list. She eventually joined the screaming lab, passed her qual and continued full-speed ahead with her thesis research. By year 4 of our PhD stint said friend confided that she’d lost her zest for the lab work, there was no direction for her research and the boss (who is an MD and had rounds and all those things that occupy the MD life) was taking her time to help her put together a committee meeting to see what progress could be made in a thesis that was stagnated. My friend needed input to see where things would lead, but her boss, due to whatever reason (I’d say for time reasons and also fear of being told she was an incompetent by her PI peers) was not very keen on that idea. Long story short, friend did schedule a meeting, the committee saw all her effort and gently reminded the PI that a) they should have met ages ago, b) the research was too far off the original scope of things and was going nowhere, c) the PI seemed lost, and d) she’d better get her (the PI) act together and start looking for guidance and feedback from her fellow profs, or soon her lab would be empty due to a lack of care  (on the PI’s part) and the student’s losing all interest in their projects. By then my friend was tired, and started exploring options outside of academia. She didn’t want to be shackled to her boss’s  presence forever, and more importantly, she chose not to keep fighting the PhD battle. After some soul-searching my friend eventually found a job as a math/biology teacher and left the lab. Two postdocs finished their fellowships and left, a rotation student left for another lab, and another labmate left with a masters (my friend also left with a MS). The lab closed and the PI returned to her clinical practice. When my friend decided to leave with a master’s I was shocked. here was a brilliant scientist, basically giving up on her dream of having a PhD due to an incompetent PI. As the years have gone by, I can now see and appreciate why my friend did it. She’s much happier teaching and feels more fulfilled. She also has time to enjoy life with her hubby, go on marathons with him in ways she couldn’t during her stint in school.

Not all the cases I know are that extreme. I have a friend that, after doing a post-bac for 1.5 years, decided to apply to the PhD program. She did, got in and took all her first year and part of her second year classes. She joined the same lab she’d worked for during her post-bac time, and seemed to do very well. She’d gotten a publication out of her post-bac project, and was en route to write a second paper with the results she’d gotten after officially joining the lab as a PhD trainee. My friend then started questioning why she was going to get a PhD rather than a master’s. After much deliberation, and almost two years into her PhD she decided to leave instead with a masters, not bother with the qualifying exam, and forget about continuing in academia (as a prof, this friend is now teaching in a nutrition program at a small college in the South).

Those cases are from people who decided to cut their time short in academia and focus on something else. But another critical time in which to examine what to do and whether to continue or leave, is when you’ve finished your course work, passed the qual and are close to being done, or are at least knee-deep in data that’s either not cooperating, or you have no idea what to make of it.

Enter a grad student at my department. Grad student Y (GSY; and yes I’ll probably go through the entire alphabet, so deal with it) is a 5th year grad student. His lab is very prolific, getting out at least 1 student per year (this year 2 students will finish). GSYwas dealt a heavy hand. He took out a project that used a series of biophysical and biochemical assays to probe not only for the interaction but also the downstream effects of some proteins related to ageing and cancer. GSY is a great biochemist and when it was time to learn one of the biophysical techniques that his lab does not master, he was directed to a nearby lab. The thing is that after his assay was done, and his data collected the PI, who’s a master in the technique, promised to help him sort through and analyze the data. The PI did … but gave the student bad advice on how to read the results of one of the assays he did, and since the student didn’t know much about the technique, trusted the PI and went with it. About a year ago GSY, while reading a review on the technique, realized the PIs mistake, and saw that his data was not very useful, inconclusive at best. He approached his PI and the collaborator and told them what was going on. They decided that they’d tried to make the most out of it, but all he got was inconclusive. He doesn’t get a clear picture of whether what he has is a dimer or trimer, or something completely different.

A friend of both GSY and I was sitting with me at a seminar the other day and told me about the latest progress and a lab meeting that GSY had a few days ago. GSY presented his data and then spent the next hour or so rambling on and on about how his stuff made no sense,  how he wished he would have picked on the error before, and how he couldn’t really put all those bits of info in a paper he’s been working for over 1 year now (he wanted to have a mix of some of the results of his assays in his PhD lab, and the stuff from collaborator’s lab). At the end of the meeting GSY and his PI met, and apparently, the PI told him that not all of his data is garbage and that if he wants to finish soon, he can. He only needs to focus on whatever he learned via the other techniques, and put the inconclusive data in the back burner for some other student or postdoc to pick up later and sort through (or not). In other words, GSY could defend in the next 3-5 months, if he puts the stuff that worked in order, forgets about inconclusive data and publishes what did work and what he can use.

I applaud GSY’s PI for sitting down with him and help him sort through his existing data and find a few strong points he can take with him, write ,submit, and defend. Not all PIs are like that. And sometimes, even with the PI’s input, a student may choose that he or she wants every single answer to every single piece of data he/she collected, and forgets that there’s a life waiting for him/her outside of the academic walls. Not all Pi’s offer this type of advice. And often times, grad students spend more time, money and effort in something that truly doesn’t work or is doomed to fail (kind of like what my first friend above experienced). Eventually, the PI may get all fed up with the situation and cut funding off comepletely to try and “stimulate” the student to get out, ASAP.

Sometimes a PI or student can get his/her mind and hope invested into a project and their peripheral vision goes down the drain. They fail to see that things just aren’t worth exploring, or that the avenue chosen is not the best, or heck! that they’ve done enough and it’s time to move on. That’s why you have collaborators, or meet regularly with your committee and lab members. Hopefully those regular meetings and talks can help you stay in track, or give you ideas about a new approach or about what to focus your attention on.

It’s not easy, and sometimes it’s hard (if not impossible) to convince a committee, let alone your boss that the project is crap and you really have done everything you can to push things forward. Sometimes it’s the other way around and the PI has to almost shake the student to see if he/she wakes up from their stupor and realize that it’s OK if your project didn’t answer every single question you set to answer. I think that you can still present data that may not be always positive or pretty and label that findings from your studies, showing what hasn’t worked, what could become a future direction in the lab and what you would suggest to test next, even if you don’t get to do it.

My best guess as far as what to do in such a situation is to prepare a strong case in your favour. Organize what you have, show it in the lab meeting, to the boss, or collaborator (in case it is you who are trying to convince the PI, or committee that the work is failing miserably). Be honest about what you’ve done, the measures taken to make progress and how and why things haven’t progressed. Chances are that if your PI is a reasonable person he/she will see your point and help you and guide you into what to look into next or who to meet to start detangling the mess. You may, on extreme cases, need to get the big guns (your committee, dean of studies, or heck! even the chairman) involved. Be prepared because it can get messy. But, if you’ve done very exhaustive research, have everything well documented and can’t devote any more time because it’s simply a dead end, you should be able to move on from this. In part, this is why a lot of students and postdocs have side projects to keep them busy while managing a difficult case or adapting things and finding out if an experiment or project works. Always document, and if things are stalled, choose to fight the battle that will get you out the door, with your PhD sooner rather than later.

Finally, if your PI is gently reminding you that it’s time to move and that he or she are satisfied with what you did, and you have enough material to present a convincing thesis, even if a part of it is about troubleshooting, go ahead and listen and stop fighting a battle that has been lost for a while now. Part of one of my projects was to determine a structure of something that was a bitch to work with. I spent a while trying to figure things out. I tried every recommendation and tip given to me. Until the lab manager, the PI and I got together and talked about my frustrations with said project. PI immediately had me switch projects and I got almost half a dozen publications from that second project. I collected data for grants, I got a paper published in one of the silent giants of scientific publishing. “Giving up” is not always easy, but it may end up being more rewarding and getting you out of trouble/school faster than you could ever think.

 

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7 Comments

  1. Given the problems I’ve had in grad school, I’ve had so many friends tell me that they’re surprised I haven’t quit. I was a bit lucky, though, and someone gave me a heads up about some problems I would encounter doing a project given to me by my previous advisor. If it hadn’t been for that person, I would probably be digging myself deeper into a big, dark hole. But, I was disappointed to lose the project. I had such hopes for it.

    • Dr. 29 says:

      I had a few ups and some downs that were pretty ugly. I think we all want to quit at some point, even under the best of circumstances. We all have this day (or days, or heck! weeks) where things get tough and we feel like it’s time to give up. I think that it’s hard to strike a balance between giving your sort of 100% and giving up on a project and not trying a hand at everything we can think of to fix/tweak and having a project that is extremely challenging and hard to make progress with which may keep us way longer than expected. I think we should all listen carefully to the words of wisdom that people give to us, whether about a project, PI or department. I’m sad you lost the project, but at least you had a heads up and probably made an informed decision about it. Thanks for commenting 🙂

  2. Anthea says:

    I actually don’t think that we all have ups and downs..and really whether we get a good PI/supervisor is sheer luck sadly. Some of them are really good researchers but awful supervisors. Others don’t care about their gradstudents etc..others do. Projects do fail…and people do decide that they don’t want to be at grad school any more. Fair enough especially when we all do get to a point where its just really hard to, as you say, strike a balance between your 100% and to make progress on a project that’s really challenging. Yes, it’s really good to recieve words of wisdom regardless of where they are from.

    • Dr. 29 says:

      It’s like a lottery indeed. Like you said (very well if I may add), not all PIs are cut to be great mentors, or supervisors. Some should be left to their own devices and never, ever interact with students. But the current system of wanting a PI to be everything, from mentor, to full teaching prof, to administrator of this and that …. it’s a lot to juggle. That doesn’t excuse the lack of people and mentoring skills.

      I for one, think that students should really listen to what students say and evaluate profs and see what can they do to help profs reach a point where they treat their students faily and aren’t ogres. Too many disgruntled, yet very talented people have left academia due to bad supervisors and departments/programs that only care about the NIH dollars coming in. At my previous school I helped evaluate different profs’s performance at the end of one of my years. I didn’t hold back on saying how was an a$$ and who people didn’t understand or were able to relate to because they seemed so removed from reality and the realities of being students. This was done in private, and I did see changes, especially on the people that delivered lectures and lab/methodology courses. But not every program/university does this. And that’s a shame. I think successful programs are able to recruit and retain students not only because of the nig names that do research there, but also because they show they care. And word of mouth is a great way in which students and graduate can help a program sink or swim. Thanks for your comment Anthea! Thanks for visiting. Best of luck 🙂

  3. Pharm Sci Grad says:

    I wish it was easier. On one hand, I’ve got my PI and other faculty telling me it’s time to go – on the other hand, I have no clue how I’m going to take the jumble of side projects and smash it together into a dissertation. The main project hasn’t met with as much success as I’d like and I’m troubleshooting… but the consensus from those wiser than I is to say enough is enough.

    Damn it is hard though. If not for the temptation of leaving, making more money, having nicer things, and an awesome vacation before the next job – I don’t know how I’d let it go. *sigh*

    • Dr. 29 says:

      Hi Pharmm Sci and thanks for visiting!! I think that while it is wise to go with what your PI and committee say about getting out of there, it is an intimidating task to make sense of the years of work and put everything together into something called the thesis. In my current department, grad students have to have a thesis outline for the last meeting they give if they are going to ask permission to write. I didn’t have to do that but my PhD mentor was very encouraging and said that I should show the initial timeline I gave them on my first meeting, and remind them of the different things I did to achieve those goals. I also included a slide with just words about the different chapters. The committee was very encouraging with their comments and very satisfied that I had done that. After this meeting I got together with my PI and together we went about making sense of things and putting a cohesive story together. I don’t know if your PI would be willing to do this of if he/she is that involved. But this could be explored. If not with your PI maybe someone in your committee you trust of another prof or a postdoc or previous student in the lab. Someone who serves as a sounding board could help you put the ideas in order to make an organized, cohesive story. This is partly what my friend was telling me that GSY’s PI needed to do before the meeting. Got together with the student, weed out some of the stuff that didn’t work, or wasn’t relevant, do include things you tested and are relevant even if they didn’t work. And select which are the strongest points you want to make for each chapter. That PI (I think, I’m not sure) told the student that enough was enough, but it took that particular meeting to see that the student was so invested and that really there wasn’t anything more he could do to advance this challenging project. Sometimes it is hard, as a grad student, to see that …. that’s why a good mentor (whether your PI, or someone else you trust) is crucial. He/she can in a way, show you a way out, talk you out of trouble and help organize ideas.

      For me, it’s been very hard “divorcing” myself from previous research, especially when I see how some stuff has advanced, and how much I wanted to be a part of that. It’s been very hard, especially because I haven’t had the easiest of times in my postdoc lab. But now I look back at what I did, at people citing things, at publications mentioning my work and I feel happy about my little bit of work that pushed the field forward. You will get to that point too, but you (like me) may have to work through a bit of separation anxiety. Bets of luck and thanks for visiting. If you need a sounding board, do write 🙂

  4. […] December – Not even done with lab work but every day I need to do manual lab work I see it as a punishment for sucking at doing the bench. I HATE bench work, HATE it with passion. But, 3 days before Xmas I’ll be home hugging my little nephew. I can imagine his delicious baby smell and I can see myself playing with him on the floor, buying 10000 ridiculously lovely things for him and taking as many pictures as I can, savouring every moment. Next time I see him he’ll be 1, and he won’t remember me, of course. This is one of the main reasons I want a new job, one where I’m closer to my family and things are more flexible so I can see him more often and I don’t miss the rest of his childhood. The sacrifices we do for science. Also, blogged about another student and his quest to finish the PhD …. maybe. […]

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