Wednesday, March 12, 2014

Post #2 My Background - My PhD Process: How I Survived a PhD in the Biological Sciences and Succeeded Afterward

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. 
File:ND McLean County Turtle Lake.svg
Circle indicates Turtle Lake. Located in McLean County, ND
The best way I can describe geographically how isolated Turtle Lake is;
  • 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 CafĂ© - Carrington, ND (Yes, it is the defining landmark.) 
What I am trying to get at is, I had no idea how many opportunities I was missing out on, or how far behind I was, compared to many kids in large high schools in urban or suburban settings, that I would be competing with later on.

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
Michael Chambers (CEO and Founder of Aldevron) was super nice and inspiring, and I was very interested in biotechnology as well. Those were some of the big reasons I chose NDSU and decided to double major in biotechnology and microbiology. It was the only school I applied to. The idea of going to a "name-brand" university didn't even strike me as something I should consider. NDSU was close, cheap, and had what I needed. I will always defend my choice to go to NDSU, but even though it worked out for me, I feel that there are rural ND students who don't feel empowered to explore other options outside of the local colleges and universities, and are therefore not reaching their full potential.

NDSU was great. I will continue to insist that it is highly underrated. The coursework is top notch. I still think the research aspect of things (specifically Microbiology-related) is lacking, but efforts have, and are being made to improve. I was persistent enough to convince Dr. Lynn Rust to let me volunteer my time in her lab, and when she moved to take another position, her replacement Dr. Penelope Gibbs continued mentoring me. I spent a lot of time in the lab as an undergrad, and while I learned a lot (technically, culturally, maturity, etc.) my undergraduate lab experience is the source of one of my biggest regrets/career blunders.

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! 

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

Follow Lance @ldpsci

Hire Lance as a consultant using Zintro. 


  1. Hello Dr. Presser,
    I am interested in taking a similar education path so it is fantastic to see where you went with it. What did you feel were some pros from taking the MS program over the MPH program? If I'm correct, the MS is more science based with practical lab work whereas MPH is more statistics, some application, classroom work? I would really like to look into epidemiology so I'm trying to look at which would fit best.

    First year undergrad was a mess for me. I am in second year and have improved a lot. My question is, how did you attain a laboratory position? I'm afraid that with my low grades from first year, the professors wouldn't accept me into their lab. Furthermore, how would I go about looking to publish some work? I don't feel that I know enough to create an experiment that would be significant enough to take up lab space, time, etc.

    Hoping to hear more about your job and experiences!

    Thanks, Alexander

    1. Alexander,

      Great to hear that you are interested in a similar path. Epidemiology, public health, etc. it is all very exciting. You are correct in thinking the MS is more science (bench) based than the MPH. Luckily, the curriculum I had for my MS also included a lot of biostats and epidemiology coursework.

      From what I have seen, if you are looking for an epidemiology job, say for a city, or state public health department, I think it would be best to get an MPH. You will need the stats and computer software background. You can do an MS, but if you want to be an epi, get to know SAS, STATA, SPSS really well.

      As far as the laboratory position, the only thing you can do is ask. If they don't let you do research, start by washing dishes or whatever they can give you. If you can just be around lab activity and get into the world somehow, it can open up more opportunities, getting to know other people, etc. Just be honest with the professors and let them know that you are really interested in science and work hard to prove it to them.

      Publishing is tricky, as an undergrad it is very difficult and very few people do it. However, if you approach the professor in your future lab honestly, and tell him you would like to learn as much as possible, but you hope you can contribute a figure or something, enough to get on a publication, hopefully they understand and work with you to make that happen. It does help getting into MS or PhD or whatever graduate programs.

      I didn't know enough to create an experiment when I first started either. Do your best and hopefully you can find someone willing to be a good mentor to you.

  2. Thanks for posting this, Lance.
    Although I did not grow up in a small, isolated town, I did have a similar high school experience. I went to a small, poor private high school with a graduating class of 40. My AP Bio teacher was an athletic trainer who told us on day 1 that he knew nothing about AP Bio and had us read our books. I had some undergrad research experience through my small college that I attended. I was friends with the daughter of a previous Neuroscience Chair at RFUMS and was able to do summer research in Judy Potashkin's lab. For grad school I only applied to RFUMS with the thought of doing my research in the Potashkin lab. I knew I would be accepted.
    Once I started school at RFUMS that is when I discovered that their advertisements were pretty much a lie. I started before the interdisciplinary program and was shown many Neuroscience electives (non of which were actual classes anymore). I was told it was "too difficult to take them off of the course offerings". I took pretty much only med school classes and was very jaded which was reflected in my grades. I actually had a job offer to make about $40k after my first year ($40K is just under my current salary as a postdoc). This was in 2005. Also Potashkin was nightmare and would talk about me behind my back when I rotated in her lab in an official capacity. Rotating in Marina Wolf's lab (and subsequently joining) was the only thing that brought me hope and the only good thing to come out of my time there. I feel as if Marina is the best thing at RFUMS. She cared not only about my work, but also about me as a person. I finished my Ph.D. in 2010 and I still go to her for advice and support about my future career (whatever that may be).
    They are just now starting an alumni association for the Grad school. The thing that I find the MOST IRRITATING is that all correspondence from RFUMS is addressed to Mr. Jeremy Reimers, not Dr. Jeremy Reimers. I voiced my complaint about this in a survey and in an email, but nothing has changed. I did not spend 6 hard years of my life dedicated to that institution only to be called Mr.

    I am looking forward to hearing more about your experiences, keep up the great work!

    1. I would agree that Dr. Wolf, is an extremely valuable asset for RFUMS, she really actually cares, which can be tough to find among faculty. I love that they put a Mr. on it instead of a Dr. lol they should have a pretty good idea of what your salutation should be. I had to laugh when I got the first alumni newsletter...six years after I started trying to fix the problem, and about twenty years later than it should have started.

      Thanks for the support. And anytime you want to chime in, I know you have plenty of stories from PhD/Postdoc land as well.

  3. Lance,
    Thanks for posting this. As it continues to grow I hope others will learn from it. Way to keep it informative and engaging!

    1. Thanks Dylan,

      Trying to help where I can. I would like to think there are people out there that will gain from my experiences. :)

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