I grew up on a small family farm near Turtle Lake, ND. With 2010 census numbers showing a population of 581 people, 95.5% white, most people have a firm grip of what my childhood was probably like.
|Circle indicates Turtle Lake. Located in McLean County, ND|
- I was 60+ miles from the nearest McDonald's
- I was 60+ miles away from the nearest interstate highway
- The closest city of 100,000 people was Fargo, 230 miles away
- The closest city of 500,000 people was Winnipeg, 323 miles away
|Rusty the Turtle - Turtle Lake, ND (It was spend money on this or a public pool...good call Turtle Lake)|
There was nothing spectacular about my childhood. I wasn't a child prodigy. I wasn't in any special classes. I was above average academically, but what does that really mean coming from Turtle Lake, ND? I don't want to spend a lot of time going through my entire life, but some of these points are relevant to the decisions I made about my academic career, and could be relevant to yours as well.
The summer before starting high school (9th grade), my family moved 110 miles due east to Grace City, ND and I would start high school in nearby Carrington, ND. Carrington was bigger (roughly 2,100 people), the high school had better teachers, and there were more extracurricular opportunities than Turtle Lake. That being said, there were no AP classes, no real upper level courses what-so-ever. I was one of eight in a class of roughly 55 who took physics (which was taught by the earth sciences, chemistry, basketball coach).
|Chieftain Café - Carrington, ND (Yes, it is the defining landmark.)|
As a sophomore or junior in high school, I asked my career councilor about being an epidemiologist, to which he replied, "I have no idea what that is" and left it at that.
My senior year, a few Carrington H.S. alumni came back and gave a talk about career-type things. One of which had gone to North Dakota State University (NDSU) and graduated with a degree in biotechnology and had started Aldevron, a small biotech startup in Fargo, ND.
|Aldevron - Fargo, ND|
The biggest thing that I regret as an undergraduate researcher was not being more organized and goal driven. In the lab, I was so excited to be learning techniques and doing science that I neglected to think about publishing papers, and without anyone telling me otherwise, I was content to "just learn". What I got out of my undergraduate research was a lot of technical knowledge, thousands of hours of practice, and a great mentor in Dr. Rust and Dr. Gibbs. What I didn't get was proof that I could be productive, in the form of publications or grants.
At the end of my undergraduate, numerous friends went directly into PhD or MD programs, but I wasn't ready for that kind of commitment yet and I applied to Emory, Tulane, Boston University, and the University of Pittsburgh Infectious Disease MPH programs. I got into all of them (although not exactly with Emory), and ended up choosing the University of Pittsburgh, based almost entirely on the efforts of Robin Leaf and Dr. Todd Reinhart to recruit me there. I wanted to go to Tulane, it was my first choice, but Pitt got to me first and it worked out for the best because I started my MS in the fall of 2005 and Hurricane Katrina struck Tulane shortly after.
Use the comments section to ask questions!!!The University of Pittsburgh was great. I loved it there, I loved the people, I thought they were all incredibly bright and talented. Again, I got a lot out of it, but what I failed to get were publications. Nothing. So now I had six good years of lab work, two BS degrees, a MS degree, and not a lot to show for it.
Just a note here. I often debate on what I would have been better off with, an MS or an MPH. I don't think even in hindsight that question has been answered yet, but for people who go this route, it is something to consider.
I think the lack of manuscripts is what doomed my PhD application. I think my lack of publications was the difference between UW-Madison, UM-Minneapolis, or UW-Seattle. Instead the only school I was accepted to was Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science (RFUMS).
Note: One of the most important things I did before applying to PhD programs, especially with the rise of "interdisciplinary programs" was to directly email professors I was interested in working with and asking if they had time, space, money, etc. Many of them were very honest and either had a firm yes or no. One professor at Northwestern mentioned she wasn't taking students any longer because she was retiring. Most would say they had space, and were impressed by the CV, get into the program first, and then we will talk.
As funding has stagnated and dropped over the years, the amount of faculty that have funding for a student has also dropped. The number of students being admitted into PhD programs has not dropped. Therefore, if you don't do your homework, you may end up in an interdisciplinary program and not like any of your options for mentors. I saw this at the University of Pittsburgh, and again at RFUMS. It sucks to all of a sudden realize that the one person you wanted to work with doesn't have space in their lab.
Use the comments section to ask questions!!!
I started at RFUMS in the fall of 2007, and was honestly excited about it. It was significantly smaller than the schools I had previously attended. It was more focused and specific than the schools I had previously attended. Geographically, it was a great fit for me. The longer I was there, the more problems I started to notice, and eventually came to understand the absolute failings of the microbiology department, graduate school, and administration (the medical school has been put on probation by the LCME TWICE! in the last 10 years). I won't get into all of them now, or in some cases ever. I will be detailing some of them in certain sections because I learned a lot by watching these failings, or actively trying to change them.
When I arrived, there was no alumni association for the graduate school, no organized teaching opportunities for those who wanted teaching experience, and they didn't actively recruit or advertise (while sitting in a hotbed of large Big-10 universities) undergraduates interested in graduate school. They had/have an extremely limited footprint.
RFUMS was located near Abbott Laboratories, Takeda, and Baxter and had minimal relations with any of them, and since I started there (roughly seven years), no graduate or postdoc that I know of has gotten a job at any of those companies.
Not only were there institutional failings, but I will be sharing numerous stories of mistreatment by my mentor and the microbiology department chair at RFUMS, with the intention of warning, and helping others who have had to or will go through similar situations. I developed a lot of coping/defense mechanisms that in the end were very effective. I plan on sharing them throughout the posts.
After a very rough PhD, I ended up with two first-author manuscripts that I am very proud of, multiple semesters of great teaching experience, some wonderful extracurricular activities, and thicker skin. I left knowing that I wanted very little to do with academia in its current state.
It took me a while to find a job after finishing my PhD. I was teaching at the time and considered it a nice "working vacation". I eventually interviewed for a postdoc and my current position in a public health department. I took the public health job and I love it. I love everything about it. So, as always, if you have questions, use the comments section and check back roughly weekly for updates.
I encourage everyone to use the comments section below!