Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Post #3 What to Look for in a School-Program-Department-Advisor - My PhD Process: How I Survived a PhD in the Biological Sciences and Succeeded Afterward

One of the most important things I tell aspiring MS or PhD students is to be extremely aware of the school, program, department, and advisor that you choose. I guess this sort of holds up for undergraduates, or law students, or med students to some extent as well, but let's focus here!

Me, Lance Presser discussing something important (of course).
As I was finishing my undergraduate at North Dakota State University (NDSU), I had a fairly high opinion of my abilities, having spent a lot of time in a research lab, double-majoring in biotechnology and microbiology, and having a pretty good idea of what I wanted to do with my life.

I applied to some of the top infectious disease MPH programs in the country (University of Pittsburgh, Emory, Boston University, and Tulane) and was well received by all of them. Eventually I chose the University of Pittsburgh. Why? Well let's look at what they did right.
  1. Outstanding program. Obviously, if the program has a reputation for being great, your PR people don't have to work quite as hard. Pitt has the benefit of lineage. Jonas Salk, Patrick Moore and Yuan Chang, the Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study, etc. A tradition of excellence is hard to beat.
  2. Student outreach. As special as I might have thought I was at the time, I really wasn't a rock star student or researcher. However, the people in charge of recruiting sure treated me that way. The administrative staff, the faculty that I met, even the students who took me out to lunch when I went for a visit (especially Leah and Alicia), everyone treated me like they wanted me there. And for the most part, the students seemed happy (at least happier than other PhD students I have known). Maybe it was just better times.
  3. Outstanding curriculum. Curriculum can be tricky. Sometimes it looks better or worse on paper than it actually is. Pitt had a nice variety, and I appreciated that even though I wasn't getting an MPH (I ended up in the MS program), I had the opportunity to take many of their classes.
  4. Departmental culture. This one is also tricky to gauge. The best advice I can give to people is that a department typically takes on the attitude of the chair. At NDSU the microbiology department chair seemed very uninvolved and lazy. Therefore, the department for the most part stagnated. At Pitt, the department chair seemed very concerned with finances, rankings, and putting out a lot of impactful research (he was also one of my committee members). Therefore, people thought he was a bit impersonal, but the department was very successful at obtaining funding, and publications. At Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science (RFUMS) the microbiology department chair told students things like, "Now that you are here, best put your balls in a freezer. Graduate school is no time for relationships." or, "You should consider yourself lucky you can attend your grandparents funeral. I didn't even go home for my own fathers." You can easily extrapolate what kind of person (person is generous) would say those types of things to students, and being the chair, you can easily extrapolate what the culture of the department was like (hint: anger and fear).
Once at Pittsburgh, we as MS students had the opportunity to rotate with two faculty members before choosing our permanent lab. I had interacted with Todd Reinhart ScD before matriculating, he was from Minnesota, had got his ScD from Harvard, he was doing great research, and an all-around super person. He was my first choice for a rotation, and I really liked it, but the project was too molecular for my taste at the time. I just wasn't ready for that kind of project

My next choice was Frank Jenkins PhD who had an interesting project that involved immunohistochemistry and other staining techniques, looking for what tissues, organs, and systems Kaposi's sarcoma associated herpes virus (KSHV) infected in men who had died with AIDS.
Cathedral of Learning - University of Pittsburgh, PA
I liked the lab, I liked the project, I liked the people. It was a great experience. The mistake I made at Pittsburgh (similar to the one I made during my undergraduate) was, I didn't focus on getting my name on papers.

As a MS student, I should have volunteered to help the PhD students in the lab more, with the hopes of getting a middle authorship out of the deal (there were three PhD students in the lab at the time which meant at least three opportunities for middle author papers). I also (and this is debatable because, who knows how these things turn out) should have considered another lab, or pushed harder in Dr. Jenkins' lab to get a first-author paper out of the work. Another possibility would have been to put out a review article. I was doing a lot of reading for my thesis and there were multiple "name-brand" KSHV researchers at Pitt. A review article would have at least shown I knew what was going on in the field and had the ability to write and think critically.

As my time at Pittsburgh was drawing to an end, I knew the next step was a PhD. I was impressed and inspired by the faculty and PhD students at Pittsburgh and the career path(s) I saw myself on required a PhD. I could have stayed at Pitt. There were faculty that would have taken me. I had a good run at Pittsburgh, I had won scholarships and awards for my thesis, I had a good reputation among the faculty, students, and administration. However, I felt it was time to leave. Whether that was the right decision...I don't know, but I do periodically ask, "What if?"

At Pitt, I encountered a lot of stellar faculty from other universities who came to give talks, I presented at the American Society for Virology conference in Madison, WI, I had read a lot of papers. I was starting to know things, and I assembled a very nice list of people I was interested in doing a PhD with at a variety of different universities. I set my sights high, universities like Harvard, Univ. of Washington, Univ. of Texas Galveston, Northwestern. I also set them not-so-high when I applied to Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science.

At each of these schools I specifically emailed faculty I was interested in doing a PhD with. Most of the faculty I emailed were great. They were very honest about their ability to take students, due to space or funding issues. I had one faculty say she would love to take me but she was retiring, most said they would take me but I had to get accepted to the program first. Unfortunately, in most cases, I didn't. This is a key step! With interdisciplinary programs becoming increasingly popular, and funding continuing to decrease, making sure the faculty you are interested in have space and funding BEFORE you decide to matriculate to a graduate program is vital!

If you have questions, use the comments section below! 
Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science - North Chicago, IL
I eventually was accepted to RFUMS and started there in the fall of 2007. Let's look at pros and cons, pros first.
  1. I was accepted. This may seem obvious, but if you are absolutely set on getting a MS or PhD, and you only are accepted into one school, sometimes you just have to suck it up and do it. We all make sacrifices, if yours is going to a sub-standard school, or a weak department, that might just have to be the case. You can still be successful, you might have to get a little lucky, or work a lot harder.
  2. Geographical fit. I am a Midwesterner. I had friends and family in ND, MN, WI so being in North Chicago for a few years was a comfortable idea. It is also close to Chicago and Milwaukee (two major cities), and very close to large biotech including Abbott (plus Abbvie), Takeda, Baxter, and Hospira.
  3. Interdisciplinary program. I am not entirely sure that this falls in the positive category. I think when done properly it is a very good thing. I think when done poorly, it can be very detrimental to developing graduate students.
  4. Young faculty. I rotated with three faculty members at RFUMS; Robert Marr, David Everly, and Gulam Waris. All three had been hired within the last year.
  1. No recruiting. Anyone reading this blog heard of Rosalind Franklin University of Medicine and Science? No? I didn't think so. RFUMS is located in North Chicago and people living in North Chicago haven't even heard of it. The medical school has a modicum of recognition as does the podiatry school, but both of them are known as something different (Chicago Medical School and Scholl College of Podiatric Medicine). When both of your somewhat well-known programs call themselves something different (in order to distance themselves from the umbrella RFUMS name) maybe there is a problem that needs to be addressed. In the hotbed of Big-10 schools, and no recruiting is done for the graduate school. RFUMS is not attracting the best graduate students and that is a problem.
  2. No alumni association. When asking the administration if they think they have been successful in training graduate students their answer is 100% yes. What is this answer based off of? Nothing. Zero data. There is no alumni association for the graduate school. 30+ years of graduate students and what do we know about them? Nothing. RFUMS doesn't know where they are, RFUMS doesn't know what they are doing. It is one of the most basic programs that a school is responsible for. It helps networking. It helps you understand and track the training you as a school offer. It helps you fund raise. There are so many important aspects of an organized alumni association, and it isn't an especially difficult task.
  3. Limited interaction with local universities. Northwestern University, University of Chicago, Loyola, Rush, all within 30 miles of RFUMS. How much did we interact with these world class institutions? Maybe once a year at a seminar. Some professors in some departments had small collaborations, which is great. However, most did not even acknowledge that those other universities existed. Most professors were very content in their ivory tower at RFUMS, even though it wasn't an especially nice ivory tower.
  4. Limited teaching opportunities. I can't say there were no opportunities. The neuroscience and pharmacology departments had some teaching assistant-type opportunities. I think physiology might have had some TA opportunities. Microbiology technically had TA duties, but it consisted of monitoring the medical students while they took exams, and handing out workbooks four times a year in some of the medical students problem based learning sessions. There are local colleges, both private four-year and community. I was able to get an adjunct teaching position at a community college, as was another graduate student a year my junior. However, both of us had to hide it from our bosses, and when hers found out, she tried to get her committee to make her quit, even though the graduate student's ultimate goal was to teach, following her PhD. It was very obvious in these situations that certain PhD advisors didn't care what their graduate students wanted for a career.
  5. Limited interaction with local biotech and pharma companies. Geographically, RFUMS was located within a hotbed of large pharma activity. Ideologically, they couldn't have been farther away. There was very little interaction between the graduate school at RFUMS and those pharma companies. In the five years I was at RFUMS and in the couple of years since, I am unaware of anyone (PhD or Postdoc) that got a job at one of those companies. I know a few of the technicians that took jobs at Abbott, and with it, usually they doubled their salaries. The fact that no PhD or Postdoc was able to break into one of those companies from RFUMS is pathetic. It is just another issue that speaks to how little the administration and faculty cared about students, and how little the RFUMS name meant, even on the local level.
  6. Small homogeneous department. When the chair of a department takes an overwhelming majority of one ethnicity of students, postdocs of the same ethnicity, promotes faculty within the department from those postdocs, after awhile "inbreeding" develops. It can very quickly develop into a stagnant, toxic environment.
  7. History of administrative failure. At RFUMS, the medical school has been put on probation by accreditation committees twice in the past ten years. The graduate school has had a history of incredibly poor deans, and recently RFUMS split the dean position into two (promoting both positions from within). The Peter Principle is alive and well within RFUMS.
  8. Interdisciplinary program. Normally, if run properly, I am in favor of interdisciplinary programs. RFUMS traditionally puts together a list of faculty that can "potentially" take students. Every year the list is garbage. Half of the names just stay on the list in the hopes that they will get funding (hint, they never do). With an interdisciplinary program communication, honestly, and openness are key. You absolutely cannot convince students to come to your school, only to switch or limit the faculty they can work with. 
  9. Young faculty. Again, typically a good thing. However, administration failed to notice the trend of decreased federal funding and went through a very large "young faculty hiring phase" around 2006-2007. This has led to a large glut of underfunded, young faculty who are struggling to survive. 
If you have questions, use the comments section below! 

Below are lists that I have compiled in no particular order. The are based off of my experience and many of the other graduate students that I have been around over the years. Obviously, there will be some subjectivity, but hopefully this will give you a better idea of some of the things you should be looking for when considering graduate programs, etc.

Top five things to look for in a graduate school
  1. Size and scope - Can you succeed at a small graduate school? Sure. Does having access to more resources, faculty, and options help? Absolutely. It is amazing how at a larger school like Pittsburgh you take for granted things like journal access. Then you get to a small school like RFUMS and have access to so few journals that it hinders your research and writing. 
  2. Name - Can you succeed attending an unknown school? Sure. Is it easier to network, get jobs, and get ahead when you attend schools like Harvard, Yale, Pittsburgh, Colorado, Michigan, North Carolina, Wisconsin, Berkeley etc.? Absolutely.
  3. Location - I never would have thought this was important, but like a lot of non science jobs, there are certain cities or states that have a critical mass of smart people. Pitt was like that, with Carnegie Mellon right next door. RFUMS was even like that, it just didn't realize it. NDSU was not like that. It was very isolated, which was fine at the time, but I would have hated to be a graduate student there.
  4. Amenities - Sports teams, fitness centers, surrounding bars and restaurants, a beach, running trails, etc. maybe none of those are important to you, but they generally affect everyone's well being.
  5. Trending - This might be a little subjective, but certain colleges just tend to get hot every now and then. It doesn't hurt to ride the wave.
Top five things to look for in a graduate program/department
  1. Culture - The culture of the program and department are probably the most important things to consider. If the culture of either of these is toxic, lethargic, or apathetic, you are more than likely in for a rough time. This can be hard to determine, but if you can find a few 4th or 5th year PhD students and ask, they will generally fill you in. Some advisors and professors will be better at shielding you from this then others, but if the graduate program has a bad culture, you are going to have some of it rub off on you. The best way to determine this at the department level is to look at what the department chair's personality is like. Also, ask around. Most of the time someone will be honest with you.
  2. Name recognition and repute - Lineage still means something in science, as does being a standout in your specific field (we can argue about whether or not that is a good thing). There is a reason certain labs always publish in Science and Nature vs. lesser impact factor journals. Even if you are a great research if your program, department, or mentor aren't cooperative, or supportive, your talent can go to unrecognized or be wasted.
  3. Student success - This needs to be monitored and if the graduate program is not paying attention to what happens to its students after they graduate, it means they don't care. Make sure to look for programs that are involved in their students success, nurture their students with resources, have alumni and other networks that are open and accessible. At Pitt, I got the impression that most of the faculty honestly cared about what their students did after graduating, and helped them achieve their goals. Obviously, there is going to be some give and take because as a student, you are there to get work done and advance yours, as well as your mentor's careers. At RFUMS, it wasn't an impression, it was a firm "You are here to do what we say and if you want to do anything else...don't." The microbiology department at RFUMS was notoriously stubborn, and unless you wanted to do a postdoc, you were wrong. Teaching, public health, consulting, policy, etc. were not options. As a graduate student, your number one job was advancing your mentors career, typically while sacrificing your own interests.The number of careers in academia is rapidly shrinking with no end in sight. Non academic careers are becoming more and more popular, although there is push back from many faculty. Departments and programs need to recognize that there is more than one way to be successful during your PhD as well as after.
  4. Time to graduate - This is becoming less of an issue as funding is becoming more problematic. However, there are certain schools that still have a penchant for keeping graduate students as long as eight to ten years. If you can't finish your PhD in five to six years, either you or your advisor are doing something wrong. Taking ten years out of your life to do a PhD is not a good investment.
  5. Flexibility - This is directly related to the above "student success". Many PhD students now days are not interested in "traditional" academic careers. Most of this has to do with the lack of them, and the competition for the few remaining ones. It just isn't worth it anymore. However, there is a larger (growing) group of PhD students that never had any interest in academia in the first place. Industry, writing, teaching, biotech startup, public health, all are viable options that more students are considering, and most graduate programs are failing to adapt.

Top six things to look for in a graduate advisor
  1. Funding - If they don't have it, they aren't going to be able to support you. Usually they won't take you as a student, but there are some out there that will take you and then once the funding runs dry, not support you. Young professors usually have startup funds that they can use for this purpose, but I think it is probably best to find a middle-career professor who has ample funding.
  2. Network - What do you want to do during and after graduate school? Can your boss help connect you to the right people and places? If not, you are going to have to either do it yourself through cold calls and emails, or rely on other people to help you. Also, there is a very legitimate chance that if your boss isn't in a certain world, (e.g. consulting, teaching, industry) then they might not approve of your decision, and will potentially hold those things against you.
  3. Considers your future and career plans - Related to the thought above, maybe you want to be a microbial photographer. Maybe your advisor has no idea on how to do that, or no connection to any other microbial photographers. But, let's say that you are a good worker, you get your lab stuff done on time and you do it well, you follow instructions, write papers, and are generally productive in the lab. There is no reason that you advisor shouldn't reciprocate and try to help you as much as possible with the next stage of your career. The dirty little secret is, most of them won't help. Either they can't, or they won't, but most of the time, you will be on your own. There are good advisors out there that will try their best to help, and they are worth their weight in gold.
  4. Sane - If this seems like it should be obvious, you might not have hung around with any faculty members, postdocs or graduate students lately. Climbing the ladder in academia requires a certain personality. It does not encourage sanity. This is obviously pretty subjective, but make sure that your sanity and your advisors sanity match up.
  5. Publishes, and advocates for you - It isn't all about them and it isn't all about you. However, both you and your advisor should accept that you are on the same team, and a team works together to be mutually beneficial. Publishing, helping you with your career, are things that a faculty member should be doing to help their students. Sometimes, one side of the team fails to recognize that fact. Guess who usually loses (hint: it isn't the faculty member).
  6. Established lab - Make it easy on yourself (or easier I guess) and find a lab that has a postdoc or technician that will teach you techniques. Most advisors don't have time for that type of hands-on learning. 
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 for any of your microbiology, virology, teaching, editing, grant writing, or public health consulting needs.
  • Science Macrocosm Forum

1 comment:

  1. piracetam is in Nederland niet vrij verkrijgbaar, via internet is het onder andere in het Verenigd Koninkrijk te bestellen. Zoek altijd een shop met een goede reputatie en een wat langere bestaansduur.
    Goede shops hebben ook een zogenaamde CoA, een correspondence analysis. Dit is een certificaat dat de zuiverheid van het medicijn of supplement aantoont. Er zijn erg veel fora over nootropics, waarbij insiders je goed opweg kunnen helpen bij het bestellen van piracetam.
    piracetam kopen nederland