27 and a PhD

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Reading papers

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.


January 2012
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…. Or not. This am, Cackle’s post on reading papers, based on Scicurious’s entry on the same topic, caught my attention. I can’t lie (well, about reading, anyway). I simply don’t read. Even though I was almost peeing in my pants when I got the job that got me back into my former field of training (I should start calling it FFT, not to be confused with fast Fourier transform), I have yet to read the latest and hottest in the field. I don’t read a single paper a week, and haven’t done for a while. There, I said it. I know, I’m a failure. But hey! isn’t admitting one’s shortcomings the first step?

When I was an undergrad I usually read a couple of papers a week papers, just because I was trying to make sense of what I was doing. In grad school, my FFT was somewhat small, and whenever a new paper came out, the boss would automatically email  it to everyone. We wouldn’t usually discuss it, unless we specifically used it in a paper or grant. Nor did we have regular journal clubs. And I was thankful for that (I know, bad, bad, horrible habit). It wasn’t part of our lab culture (I know, lame-ass excuse for not having regularly scheduled paper discussions). And eventually I understood when one of my fellow labbies said (to my question about reading papers in the lab) that she barely had time to  read, after the insane amounts of data she was churning out (I became like her after she left). We would occasionally, over lunch or sometimes via email, mention some brief points, about new papers and we always made a point of stopping by the sections/talks of people in the field (regardless or how hot or not was their research) during society meetings. But other than that, there wasn’t as much emphasis on reading and discussing papers. Same thing when I was an undergrad, though that apparently changed a couple of months before I left.

Then in my (rather brief) postdoc, my boss set up keyword alerts for the papers in our field, which he would forward to lab peeps, depending on the project. Our lab had at least 3 different areas of research going on, so he would forward said papers to the interested subset of labbies. We did start to have lab meeting soon after I joined (a tradition which had not been going on for a few years) and the boss encouraged peeps to present summaries of papers or present recent results during the meeting. I can’t remember if I ever presented a paper, I mostly talked about failed experiments and crappy results, up until the week I was gone.

Institutional access at my current place of work is rather limited. Thus, I can’t always count on having the latest available research at my fingertips. And I can’t even do an #Icanhaspdf, because the last 6 months have been mostly a blur (between people quitting, new people wanting to start projects and requiring more time than we have, it’s a miracle I get to sit sometimes).

I did audit a class last year and attended a couple of paper discussions, but some of the papers were methodology-type papers, and that would cover a wide range of time, from the very first papers published about the techniques (my parents were probably not even born) to some somewhat recent ones. I did try to read them as much as I could (starting with the abstract, reading all the figures and conclusion, and if I had enough interest, I’d check out the supplementary materials (holy crap Science, why the hell is more than half of your papers published in the supp. materials, WTH???).

I didn’t include catching up with the literature this semester, because we’re still short-staffed … hopefully if/when we get a new staff minion I’ll have some time off to check out my fave journos and catch up on what I’ve missed.

*Le sigh*


  1. Jessica says:

    This makes me feel better for not having kept up with the literature–or more importantly remembering all the findings and citations. My boss can rattle off “In 1988, X lab found Y results” and I’m lucky if I even remember that Y results were found by anyone.

    I’m in the 3rd year of my PhD and happy to know you completed yours without an encyclopedic knowledge of all the literature.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Oh no worries. I don’t remember years, and sometimes authors! I believe that it is important to know some of the most critical findings off the top of your head, but as far as years and all the authors’ names? I usually had a pile of papers with me with little sticky notes that had the years and the most critical points written on them. And I did take sometime to digest some of the papers (again, and again) when I was close to my defense. I was afraid that with the nerves, I’d forget everything (I kinda did, but I passed!). And yes, supervisors have that talent. Mine used to recite things and I was like, whoa, then I remembered that they’d been doing this for at least a decade longer than I had, hence why they remembered things.

      You (and I) don’t need to be walking encyclopaedias :-).

  2. joshuca says:

    I made it though my PhD without a running knowledge of current literature as well. Our group never had regular meetings or journal clubs, and my boss never pushed. I kind of regret it sometimes now because I hate reading the journals, but I really liked it at the time.

    • Dr. 27 says:

      Ugh, I hated (and still do) lab meetings and journal clubs. I just don’t have clever stuff to say/contribute. For whatever reason, whenever I join a group we either start having meetings, or stop altogether. Weird. Thanks for visiting 🙂

      • Jessica says:

        We have two lab meetings a month as well as intermittent journal clubs. I get so nervous about what what questions/comments to say in front of the boss–you don’t want to look stupid.

        I’d love to cancel all meetings but I know in the end it’s probably good for us to learn to present and say semi-intelligent things.

      • Dr. 27 says:

        Oh yes, I definitely know what you mean. I thought I was the only one who worries about saying something in front of the boss and trying not to sound silly. Ugh, goodness, do I know the feeling. And you are indeed correct, even if it’s painful, it’s good that we do it. Thanks for your visit and comment 🙂

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