Thursday, March 6, 2014

Post #1 Introduction - My PhD Process: How I Survived a PhD in the Biological Sciences and Succeeded Afterward

Welcome to My PhD Process.

More than likely you are a current PhD student, or maybe you are thinking about starting a PhD program. You are reading this because you have heard that a PhD is difficult and you want information, hints on how to be successful, or maybe you are a sponge (which is great if you want to earn a higher degree) and are trying to ingest every bit of information you possibly can.

Whatever the reason that led you here, it was a good one. Not that this series is going to be the greatest document ever written, but I have been through a PhD program, and it didn't go well. That being said, I was extremely active in understanding the process, trying to change the process, and eventually mastering the process. Many of my close friends over the years have also completed their PhDs at numerous other institutions (University of Pittsburgh, Michigan, Chicago, Wisconsin, Colorado, and Northwestern University, etc.) and some of them have failed in their attempt to earn a PhD. I have tried my best to learn from them and understand what made their experience different than my own.

The current attrition (dropout) rate for PhDs is accepted to be at about 50%. Half of all PhD students quit. Personally, I am surprised the attrition rate isn't higher. I am also surprised that so many people are still willing to enter a system that has steadily over time failed to live up to the standards it had over history maintained.

There were numerous times when I felt the urge to quit. After my second year, around qualification time was a very rough period in the lab. It didn't get any better afterward. I will discuss my background in more detail in the next entry, but I will say that quitting is a very personal choice, and isn't always a bad one. Every situation is unique, but I will say, even if it doesn't seem like it at the time, a PhD is valuable. It has value in the real world. It may not be "worth" what you are going through, and it may not be "worth" what you thought it was going to be, but it does have value and they can't take it away from you.

Through this series of blog posts, I am going to take you through my thoughts and observations on a number of topics including
  • The unwritten rules of graduate school
  • Frustration
  • Understanding your department and lab
  • Expectations vs. potential
  • Controlling your image
  • Just-in-time learning
  • Hints and tips along the way that will save you time, energy, and anguish
I also plan on discussing how I approached the surprisingly terrifying idea of "I am finished with my dissertation and defending what?"

I hope that these posts can stimulate discussion, answer questions, entertain, and most of all help people get through what is for most people, at this point in time in history, a difficult time.

I encourage everyone to use the comments section below!

Lance D. Presser has a PhD in Microbiology and Immunology and currently is a Public Health Laboratorian.

Follow Lance @ldpsci

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  1. Thanks for starting this series! I'm about to start applying for PhD programs in soil biology and am very interested in all the tips that I can get. Did you do a masters program first or go straight to PhD?

  2. Thank you for reading! I did a MS program before my PhD, but I am still torn on whether or not it was the right move. I thought about doing an MPH, and I think maybe that would have been better (but I go back and forth on that decision). Most of my friends did NOT do a MS before going into their PhD. The reason I chose to get a MS first was because I felt I wasn't quite ready for a PhD yet. It is a tough call and honestly, if you are concerned about it, you might consider applying to both types of programs.

  3. HI Lance,

    I just want to say that I am looking forward to reading your articles in this series. I am in my 3rd year of a biomedical sciences PhD program, and I am sure you will have some useful information and ideas.


  4. Brian,

    Looking forward to writing them! And I am excited to see more out of your blog too. If you or Barret above have suggestions for ideas you want me to discuss, by all means let me know and if they aren't on my list already, I will definitely include them.

  5. Thanks for the reply Lance! As for ideas, I'd be interested to hear your take on whether or not students should change institutions when going from undergrad to graduate study; it seems that everyone I ask has a different viewpoint on this.

  6. Barrett, I can definitely talk about that. There are definitely a lot of variables and opinions when considering that sort of scenario.