27 and a PhD

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Letter to my young self

Thanks to biochembelle I learned about this. Go check it out. I’ll be waiting for you. GO!!! Now take a moment and write a letter to your younger self and, if you can, submit it for this year, if not, keep it safe until next year. Ready to read my letter? Good.

Since I am in the middle of a very intense job search I won’t give too many specifics of my current life, but I’ll do my best to give you a general sense of who I am, who I was at 13 and where I’ve come.

Dear 13 and not a PhD:

This year many changes will happen. You will lose some amazing people in your life. You’ll make it. You’ll be OK. It will be hard not to have their physical support, but they will be a guiding light and a constant presence in your life and studies.

You have just watched a movie about doctors and surgeons and you’ll want to become one for a number of years, up until you do some research and listen to a very wise biology professor. Listen to her … one day you’ll be thankful. Also, even though you didn’t become a surgeon your favourite system is still the cardiovascular. You’ll become a scientist … a SCIENTIST. Like those smart people mentioned in your biology books.

So, onto the goodies. In 1999 you will be one of the first students selected to attend the same school as your grandpa did back in the firty years before you. Mom will cry (as usual) when this amazing thing happens. You will think about grandpa on your first day of school. You will remember granny too on your graduation day. You will miss them, but somehow you’ll be extremely happy for their support. You will have tons of people remind you that said school is not easy, and that even though your GPA is good it will be no match for the school. They’ll say not to get discouraged if you fail precalc or calc or chemistry, it’s normal for them and others. Don’t be cocky … these courses will make you sweat and fight tooth and nail, but you WILL make it. And you will pass most of your classes on the first try. You will graduate in 4 years and will go on to a very pretty university in the southern US where you’ll spend some of the most challenging and trying times. You will come out an expert in one of the disciplines of structural biology. It is beautiful. You’ll see.

Some of your friends will move on, move away and carve a niche for themselves and their passion. So will you. Don’t judge them too hard. Don’t be too shy when you try to contact them. They will remember you fondly.

Pay attention to your chemistry, calculus and physics courses. They are extremely important for your career. You’ll wish you could go back and pay attention to everything your profs taught you. But it’s OK, you’ll develop the capacity to teach yourself well. You will serve as an inspiration to a friend you once had jealousy feelings towards. These emotions are normal, but you’ll overcome them and when you learn you were an inspiration you will cry a little. She will be a rock and an inspiration to you. A bit of a competitive spirit is good … but don’t let it get to your head.

Even though it may not seem that way, your humanities and social sciences courses will be amazing. Sure, the names of the classes sound boring, but remember the meaning and root of the word university, you are there to become a well-rounded student, to challenge views and form an opinion. And you know what? Remember that passion for Greek mythology you had in high school, when you’d absorb yourself in those books to lands far, far away? That’s how your humanities class will start! It will be amazing. You still haven’t visited Greece …. but I’m sure you will someday.

Attend every public lecture on all topics related to your passions. Learn to take out time for yourself, and it will help you get rid of some of the stress associated with excelling at everything. It is OK to fail, it is OK to fall down. You just need to stand up tall and give it your best. Independent films are good, auditing classes is great. Explore your resources and take advantage of them.

You will develop a passion for editing and helping people craft beautiful stories, papers and even resumes. It is a talent of yours to share. Update your resume often, and you will be amazed at everything you’ve accomplished when you’re applying for that fellowship. You will not get it, but the experience will be great. You will look back at everyone who’s been a source of inspiration and encouragement. You have done wonderful things, but it’s also been a team effort. Acknowledge that and be thankful. Always be thankful.

You will fail your qualifying exam in grad school. It is perfectly fine. You will take it again and the committee won’t need to deliberate long to decide that you shall pass. They will hug you. It will be amazing. You will write about it, and inspire people to take a second chance and excel.

One day you’ll do a report in college which will have deal with a parasite you find fascinating. Less than a year later, during a summer internship, you’ll learn about a technique that is instrumental for studying that parasite. A year after that you will join a group, which you had no idea even existed, that studies said parasite with said technique. You will learn how to control exquisite techniques and equipment to study it. You will be amazed and ever grateful for joining that group. Did you know that your work will be on covers of scientific magazines? YES! It will be amazing, and humbling. Soak it up like a sponge, like every piece of knowledge that passes your way.

You’ll face a lot of challenges, you will be judged hard by peers and unknowns alike. But you will make it. It’s OK to cry.You will help, in a small way, to give science a more human face. And people will be thankful for that.

Finally, you will travel and enjoy life. But don’t take yourself so seriously all the time. Life is a balance of work and play. Don’t judge yourself too harsh and don’t always take no for the final answer.You will still love Super Mario Bros 16 years after, enjoy ;-).



Dr 29 is proud of her hispanic heritage and her love for science currently living in Canada. She completed a bachelor’s of science in general biology in 2003 and a PhD in structural biology in 2009. She’s learned to love and respect supporting roles in science and non-academic careers for PhDs, and is currently exploring staff positions in her former field of study. She’s a proud daughter, new auntie, sister, girlfriend and scientist.

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…)

My two cents on the overproduction of PhDs

Hello fellow readers! It’s me, finally writing about on a science/grad school topic. If you’re a fellow tweep or reader you already know that I love to stalk read the blog of Dr. Leigh. Turns out she’s writing about all things pharmacology over at Scientopia. I decided to go around Scientopia and read an entry or two there. Then, I saw an entry that caught my attention immediately. Rob Knop writes about the Overproduction of PhDs based on an article (great by the way, read here) written by a prof at U of K that appears on the Inside Higher Ed career advice section.

For a while I’ve been thinking that based on the huge amount of students that enter grad school right after undergrad, whether for a Master’s or a PhD, it seems to me that two things are happening: A) some of them don’t have a clue of what they want or are getting into and/or B) their profs have told them over, and over, and over again that the academic path is THE path to follow if they love science, and since many hands and minds are needed they’d better head over to grad school and MUST do a PhD and MUST become a PhD and land a tenure-track position in order to be successful.

That type of advice is partly why I based my decision to go to grad school. Back at my old school the “counselor” was a hack. Seriously. That woman had no clue whatsoever of what type of advice to give, other than give up on chemistry 101 if you’re failing or falling behind and either become a doctor (MD or PhD) if you’re doing a degree in science (biology or micro) because as a plain biologist you may get paid pennies and then go on and live like a hippie with long hair and unshaven legs. In high school I didn’t receive any counseling either. But I chose to do a BS in Biology because I’d always been intrigued by science and by the human body and I wanted to become a surgeon. Notice a chain of disasters? Luckily for me I a) enjoyed doing my degree, b) did internships in other schools during the summer to learn more techniques and get some hands-on experience on topics such as DNA fingerprint and blots and doing gazillion gallons of buffer. (more…)

Getting “high” on research

I don’t know what’s going on, but for whatever reason I’ve been “high” for a couple of days. Ever since the boss OK’d my going on vacay in a few weeks (2 weeks, 2 whole weeks, end of June, here I come!!) I’ve been on cloud 9. I can barely contain my happiness. But I guess it stems from the fact that the boss is also “high.” A few students have defended recently, plus we’re getting new students for the summer (and maybe 1 new grad student), and I know he’s going to a conference in Eastern Europe later this year … but that’s pretty far out, thus I really don’t know the reason for why the boss is SO happy. But regardless of the cause, he’s happy, he’s excited and consequently people in the lab have a better attitude.

I’m blessed to have really cool lab mates who are quick to offer a helping hand and sound advice when things aren’t working. And we all get along. There’s not a single person in my lab (now) that I don’t like. My office-mates are cool. In general, life in the lab is really good. I have to say that pretty much every single lab I’ve worked in has had a good dynamic. Sure, we all have our days, and sometimes we get along better with some people. But overall, I have to give thanks to the high heavens that things have been very positive everywhere I’ve conducted research. (more…)

Vacay Time and Other Topics

Hey y’all! Some of my southerness had to come up at some point, ha!

So, today I’m concentrating protein and hopefully freezing it soon in liquid nitrogen (I hope the campus LN2 facility is not closed for the holidays yet). I’ve had a couple of my labmates saying their good-byes and merry X-mas for a day or two, and our next door neighbors brought a card and freshly baked cookies to lift out spirits. I’m concentrating and maybe this might be the last step of purification and storage I’ll do until next year. The BF and I made arrangements for transport to the airport and soon enough we’ll be on our way to see family and old friends. I can’t wait to be home (though I’m sure some drama will happen due to events that occurred earlier in the semester). I’m not sure how much of it I’ll post, but I’m sure I’ll have some disagreements with a few family members. But whatever, eventually things will settle, they always do.  Mmmm, I dunno. But in any case, I may or may not be able to post more frequently than I’ve been doing now. My parents have internet and a PC, but my mom will be using it a lot to do church related things, so bear with me if you don’t see much of me around the blogosphere.

On a slightly different note, I’ve been thinking about a couple of posts I want to write about. I want to finish the “series” I started on what to expect while in grad school, I also have a post planned on undergrads, undergrad research and grad school and relationships in grad school. I may post something about the break, but I don’t want too many specifics so that anonymity is kept and the universe retains its balance.

I probably won’t write again until I’m home, so for now I wish my readers, however few or many you are a safe trip, a safe and calm, and relaxing vacation time. And for those of you who celebrate it, a Merry Christmas. Best wishes and much luck on your last experiments of the year. Ta ta!

Being nice to the coworkers (trying anyways)

I love this time of the year. I really do. For whatever reason twinkling lights, hot cocoa and warm clothes make me smile. But co-workers … sometimes they get on my nerves.

I’ve counted .. there are (at least) 15 people in our lab. There is equipment open for a few of them at any given point, but there aren’t enough of two important things for pretty much any biomedical lab … micropipettes and gel apparatuses (and gel combs and plates). This was especially evident this week. I was purifying yet another batch of protein when I found myself short of the 2 things mentioned above. One of my co-workers, who is a nice guy, but can get on people’s nerves, was making a batch of at least 8 gels. He and an undergrad assistant he has run gazillions of experiments every single week. This is not bad, given that the guy has spent at least 5 years in school and has no papers or conclusive evidence pointing to a way out of the chaos. Some new experiments he is running are working now so he and his assistant are in turn purifying tons of proteins and making a gazillion gels to view their results. Nothing wrong with this picture so far … except that as I stated before there are at least 15 people in our lab, and at any given point 14 of them are running experiments that require the use of some of the same equipment he’s using.

I try to be understanding. I try to be good, not get on his way. But two things almost sent me off to the psych ward this week. First, he and his assistant needed to run 8 gels in 2 days. Nothing wrong with that other than we are 2-3 weeks away from finishing the semester, undergrads and grad students (and all of the postdocs, including me) in the lab are trying to run as many experiments as possible, as fast as we can so we can go on and take time off without feeling guilty. Now, all those other 12 people (excluded are the boss, said co-worker and the assistant) need to run similar experiments, or at least run gels. Another post doc, noting that said grad student was making all the gels he could, asked is he could pour him one or two for later use this week, since the grad student would be taking all the materials available to pour gels. I tried to ask him for one, to no avail. He said something akin to “sorry, but y’all have to wait till I feel like it.” Luckily my purified protein could wait for a few days at the fridge while some materials became free. Since I’m trying to purify one protein per week and the purification I’m currently running is fast, and the protein is mostly stable I had no trouble. But image what would have happened had this been the last experiment separating me from my defense. I would have gone ballistic. The second thing that set me off is that not only this guy, but pretty much everyone else who was running experiments had taken all the available pipettes and were not returning them to the designated area where we keep them. I go and “steal” one from another co-worker, then said grad student wants to take it from me although he had one already. I caught him, said “dude, you get to use it when I’m done, which will be soon, but I already took it from someone else and will finish with it soon, so wait.” He complained that he needed it, and another postdoc came to the rescue. I was a bit mortified by the lack of respect. I had just taken the stupid pipettor, why couldn’t he just wait? Anyways, things were sorted out eventually.

I have no trouble waiting while something in the lab becomes available. But for a few weeks now I’ve noticed that said student takes as much time and space and resources to make sure his experiments are running while everybody else has to wait or shift things around. Now, I’m fairly new still, and I’m still learning my way around things, but it irritates me when I have to wait many hours, or even days to have to run a stupid gel. Something that in ~3 hours could be done and over with. What irritates me the most is that we have sign up sheets for most everything else, but not for gels, or related equipment or materials. I’ve been toying with the idea of asking the lab manager to get one, or for us to discuss having a limit on how many gels a person can pour per day when it’s crunch time and everybody else has to wait while one person runs 6 gels … really, the same person has been using at least 3 distinct gel apparatuses. It’s not fun. The worst part is that because this massive back up is formed by having several of us waiting to run a gel, it goes haywire when the gel materials become suddenly available. You should have seen how many gels were at various stages of staining or de-staining last Friday. It was monumental.

I guess I needed to vent. It’s also that a) I’m not used to juggle so much to get my experiments done, b) previously, in my old lab there weren’t that many people, thus the wait times where not huge, and c) I had PMS … so imagine what a week that was.

This week I’ll try to stay calm. I’ll try to voice my concern(s) in a respectful manner if the ocassion arises, but mostly, I’ll try to stay leveled and be thankful for having a job. I figure that there will be times when even your favorite person on the planet will get on your nerves, but anything you say or do to “spoil” their experiments will backfire, so better stay calm, breathe and let things flow, and only vent in the privacy of your house, because you never know how a meltdown might hurt you. Till next time, happy research!

Some things to do now that you have offers for grad school

In the previous post I mentioned some aspects to consider once you’ve gotten a couple of interviews lined up for grad school. Today I’ll mention some of the things you may want to consider once the letters (or emails) of acceptance start coming.

Back when I was ~3 months away from my college graduation I got a few surprises. First, an Ivy League school was interested in me. I applied to a few others since my then BF was working at one of them, and I had 2 “safety schools” to which I applied thinking that it would be a piece of cake to get into them. A few months before that I had a very informal interview with a foreigner (a Scottish dude or something) that simply sat me there and talked down to me like I was a piece of crap. He was less than impressed about my grades in analytical courses and swiftly said that those Ivy League schools were not interested in people like me, and that the 2 safety schools would be my best bets. Since I was in a dire situation (according to him) he could consider giving me a chance at his school.

I remember getting out of the interview and sitting on the floor of the building next door and crying like a complete idiot. Here I was, facing the truth about my incompetence. Here was this European guy saying that I was worth nothing (in fancy words) and that if I felt inclined (and kissed his white ass) he could consider getting me a spot in freezing cold upstate NY. I was shocked. How could this be. He berated the 2 schools I applied to, and said that that was all I could aspire to.

Needless to say, throughout the whole application process his words were in my heart and on my mind. I couldn’t turn off his voice, mocking me for even thinking I was grad school material. Some of those words came to my mind at very special times during my graduate career (here) and (here).

He was right, I did get accepted at my safety schools and ended up choosing the top one of the two. Turns out that this safety school is ranked among the top 20 most prestigious US schools and the program I ended up getting my degree in has been ranked #1 for a very long time (his school is ranked a LOT lower than mine …. a LOT). After such an emotional roller coaster, I sat down, replied to both schools, and said I was going to the high ranking one.

My apologies for the detour, we now go back to our scheduled programming.

When it was time to decide where would my time and brains be spent, I considered some of the following:

  1. Location, location, location. Needless to say, if you have family that lives a continent away, or just down the street it can make a huge difference. Whether you are close to them and want to have an easy time visiting whenever you want/can or whether you’re OK visiting them once during the summer, at Thanksgiving and during the winter season, this is a very important factor to take into account when selecting and accepting an offer for grad school. You have to think about all the possible factors that may become (or already are) important to you, like significant others, how close of far they are, the ease of traveling, visiting, etc. If you are starting a family or have a family that is moving with you, you need to consider access to day care, schools, education, entertainment, insurance, etc. I had this friend who had a baby a few months before she started grad school and the determining factor between my school and the school she ended up choosing was having a good health insurance coverage for herself, her baby and her hubby.
  2. Stipend. If you are in the sciences, (or math or engineering), the odd are that there is money available to pay for your tuition and a stipend to get you through your education. I don’t know how it was for students in the humanities and social sciences at my old school, but as far as I understand, it’s not to common for schools to offer a stipend in those disciplines, or at least it’s not that common compared to the “hard” sciences. My BF did have a small stipend when he started grad school in the States, but his parents stepped in sometimes to help cover whatever the stipend did not (and he is the very definition of frugality). So, you need to learn how to create and stick to a budget (if you don’t know how already). And trust me, the first few months will be crazy as you set up your living quarters and get to now your new environment. It’s not the same for a school in the middle of nowhere to offer you 25K to go than for a school in NYC to offer you the same amount. Remember, the lifestyle at both places is different.
  3. Rankings. I didn’t care much for them, but for some people being in a super fancy-schmancy school with a prestigious name is a necessity, thus this is another aspect to take into account.
  4. Research topics. If you know that out of the 8 schools you applied to, 5 accepted you and two have the best facilities, faculty and resources, this helps narrow down where to go. So take your time, do your research on places where your topic(s) of interest is(are) and send in emails. If you don’t and you like X faculty member who is retiring and is not accepting trainees anymore, you could be in a very sticky situation. Save yourself some (future) grief.
  5. Teaching/research load. At my school it was not common to teach, but some schools (especially public universities) tend to have a teaching load on top of your research load. I was cool with the part of not teaching (though I did some on the side, plus I tutored for a little while). If you have aspirations towards becoming a research kinda faculty person, then you might want to avoid going to a school that requires you to teach 2 courses or something similar every semester.
  6. Transportation. I mentioned earlier that if you are into preserving the environment, a school to which there are no bike/walking trails may not be a good match for you. So, again, do your research, look at internet guides of prospective cities. Of course university sites paint a cute and comfy picture, but the truth is that if you don’t have access to buying a car immediately, and the prospects of carpooling are tiny, it may not be a good idea to choose the fancy school in downtown nowhere where transportation sucks and it takes you 1hr to commute from your apartment to your place of work.
  7. Living quarters. This is a biggie. It all depends on how you feel about living alone, or sharing your space with others. I chose to live alone ALL the time. It was tempting, at times, to go live with a good friend. I’m sure we would have survived living with each other, but I know how anal I am. I know how particular I am, about picking things up, cleaning styles, time to study, to shop, etc,. While it would have saved me a pretty penny, I preferred to save a life and live alone. If you are used to sharing quarters, like dorms, etc, then it might be tempting to rent a room in a house, a basement, and share the expenses with others.
  8. Taxes. Sadly, stipends are taxable. I saw sadly because the money that is taken out is will not end up in a pension plan or helping projects, or somehow ending back on your pockets or benefiting your community (this last part is debatable for some, but compared to Canada, having money taken out of your meager pay as a grad student sucks). So, plan accordingly. Consult tax tables, talk to students, but please, do not ever think that somehow you are exempted from filing them. The most terrible thing that could happen is that finally, after many years of sacrifices and studying, the IRS comes back biting your arse to get back the money that they should have gotten from you in the first place. Find out if you have to file both state and federal taxes. Some parts of the country may not have state taxes, but some in others you have to file both State and Federal taxes. So do your homework. Find out the average of what amount of money goes where. Sometimes some schools might not take ANY taxes out of your paycheck, so save accordingly. I talk from experience. Paying 1800$ in taxes on a sad, cold, April night is not cool.
  9. Post grad school life. Yeah, you’re not even there yet and you have to think about what you will do after you get out? Yup. If you’re like me, chances are you chose grad school as a security thing. You are a bit undecisive, but staying in school for a little longer sounds cool. I had this friend who, as she was about to defend looked at me straight in the eye and said that she regretted staying in grad school past her qualifying exam. To me it was tough. I thought that here she was, a great woman, a perfect scientist, an amazing wife and mom, and she thought that because of all the education she got, she would not be eligible to get mid level jobs that required nothing much above a bachelor’s. As I approached the finishing line I realized that I was still (and still am) undecided about what to do with the degree, as far as job related things go …. you would think that after spending 6 years + in a higher ed institution I would have a clearer idea of where to go. But it’s not like that for me. Some days I think of how cool it might be to establish my own lab, then I think of other things, like contracting people, the writing grants part, etc, and it freaks me out. I feel more comfortable working under somebody else’s direction, and I like teaching. So a job a liberal arts school, or a smaller teaching college is very appealing. But these things were not clear to me at the beginning of my career in grad school. I found out about job conseling and job resources later in my grad school life, so don’t be completely discouraged if you have no clue of whether or not you want or will end up in academia. There’s government, pharma, public service, and many other options. As long as you are clear about that, and seek places to look for help and guidance, go where your heart and mind lead you.

So … these are just a few of the aspects (in no particular order). There are many other things to consider. As they appear in my head I’ll add them here. If you have suggestions or questions, please feel free to add or comments. Remember, my email is stitchick at gmail dot com.

Thanks for reading! And best of luck. Up next what to expect in during your first day, week, month, year and subsequent years.