Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Post #5 Learn the Rules - My PhD Process: How I Survived a PhD in the Biological Sciences and Succeeded Afterward

Post #5 in this series is all about learning the rules. Some of these rules are written down, some are not. Some of these rules are obvious, some are not. Some of these rules make sense, some do not. Therefore, I would like to talk about a lot of these rules and I would suggest that if people read this post and have their own experiences to share, use the comments section below.
These aren't in any specific order because it depends on your personal situation.

Vacations, Holidays, Weekend - In a "normal" job it is understood that for the most part, baring emergency, these should be days off where you are not working. In graduate school, I have found that isn't true. There is a wide amount of variation but personally, during my PhD, vacations, holidays, and weekends were work days. What was really great, is when we did take a vacation day, we had to explain why we were taking it, and were judged on how we used it. I had to sit down with the dean of the graduate school because I took a Friday off to go watch North Dakota State University's (NDSU) March Madness debut. To them, that wasn't an adequate use of vacation time. I was still in my first year. I didn't realize this interaction should have been a big clue as to the behavior and culture of the school and department.

During my third and fourth years of my PhD, I worked between 300-330 days per year. If you just subtract holidays and vacation days from a normal year, you are already down to 340 days. If you work all holidays and don't take any vacation days, but just take weekends off you are down to 261 days. I hated it. But if you want to make it worse, add to the fact that my advisor and the chair of the department still didn't think it was enough. This is crazy. Those are extreme hours and working that much is stupid.

You are going to want to determine what the rules are for vacations, holidays, and weekends before you join a department or lab. Graduate school is going to be hard, you are going to have to work a lot. No question. However, there are advisors out there that are reasonable and won't work you to death, or won't be passive aggressive when you do want to take a vacation. Many times what will be written down, isn't what the department believes. We were told that we got 10 vacation days per year and holidays off. In reality, any day we took off was a strike against us.

Free Time - Free time or down time in the lab is inevitable. Even if you are doing multiple experiments, there will always be incubation times or centrifuge times or time points, etc. What you do with that intermission time is up to you right? Possibly, but you may have a advisor that has a lot of input on what you should be doing. I would call them micromanagers and terrible, but that might be what you have to deal with. Intermission time is important, there is a lot of research that shows that letting your brain reset is helpful throughout the day. There are also other useful things that can be done such as read manuscripts, studying, actual human interaction (as if that exists anymore in academic labs), or just stopping, looking out the window, and thinking about experiments or ideas.

If you have questions, use the comments section below!

Computers and Social Media - Most graduate students will have either a program or personal computer for use. Ideally, keep it personal. I hate having to have institutional software and spyware installed on my computer. So since I have a computer in the lab what can I use it for, only work? This is a pretty big question and everyone deals with it differently. I know there are many offices that block certain sites (especially social media). I know a lot of places that frown on usage of social media at work. Personally, I can see both sides. On one hand, you don't want people falling down the YouTube rabbit hole, or pinning things on Pinterest for hours on end. On the other hand, what did people do before they had social media? They played cards, they literally talked around the water cooler, they brought photographs from their vacation into work, the read the local newspaper, etc. Nothing has really changed except platforms and attitudes.

Reading Papers in the Lab - This is a no brainer right? I mean if you have a little downtime between experiments and want to read papers then by all means go ahead. Wrong! (Okay well probably not wrong, I just like mimicking this old Saturday Night Live sketch) Most labs are not going to have a problem with this. I only include it because at RFUMS the chair of my department (and therefore my advisor) didn't like us reading papers in the lab, because it wasn't lab work. Reading was homework, lab time was for experiments. You've been warned. There is a lot of crazy out there.

Work Day - This is another good example of the wide range of variation allowable by certain advisors. I have heard that a mythical land exists where some advisors let their students come in and work on their own time. If there are experiments to do, they do them. If there is a long incubation or writing to be done, they don't have to do it in the lab. Personally, I have never experienced these things. I was given a few weeks out of the lab to write my dissertation, but by that point in time my advisor was actively trying to stop paying me, (which was against the bylaws in the graduate school handbook that stated students would get paid for one month following their dissertation defense because there are always edits, and things that need to be cleaned up in the lab, etc.) so it was obvious he just wanted me gone (and I wasn't arguing). Personally, paper writing was done in the lab, experimental design was done in the lab, everything had to be done in the lab. Honestly, I think this is a pretty stupid approach. Yes, some people have control issues and if they aren't in the lab, they aren't getting work done. Don't hire those people. However, if you have made it to graduate school, chances are you are going to be fairly self-motivated and driven. You also should be allowed to work creatively (which is an idea that currently, in academic science, seems to be dying a slow death). Smart people should be allowed a decent amount of freedom to be creative, work in a way that is productive for them, and not be figuratively held to a lab bench all day, regardless of the time it takes, or the task they are preforming.

Please share your own experiences using the comments section below!

Publications - There are a couple things to be aware of when it comes to publication expectations, but the first thing I want to cover is "how many?". For most PhD programs, there is going to be some lower limit. For me it was two first-author publications. For others I know it was one, some it was three. There are some instances I have heard of where people graduate and get a PhD without any first-author publications. This is not a good situation. You aren't going very far without at least something that says you were productive. There isn't much to discuss here because it is a fairly straight forward question. But you need to be aware of not only departmental expectations, but individual mentor expectations as well.  

Grant applications - Similar to publications the more of these opportunities you have, the better. Even if you aren't planning on staying in academia, the ability to understand, write, and construct grants is a valuable skill to have on the CV. Getting one is just a bonus.

Teaching and Other Extracurricular Activities - Is teaching required, or mentoring medical students or summer undergraduates in the lab? What about serving on committees or running for student government offices, being active in a graduate school association etc.? Personally, I think a lot of these things are good and important. Now, if you don't want to teach, you shouldn't have to. However if you do want to teach, you should be allowed to (as long as you are in good standing). In my personal experience, this is a very inflammatory subject. The department that I was in highly frowned upon any extracurricular activity. I was tapped to be President of the student council (not just graduate students, but all students, including the medical school) but by that time I knew enough to at least ask my advisor if it was okay (I didn't know enough to already know the answer) and obviously he said it wouldn't be worth my time (in hindsight he was wrong). Later, I was tapped to help start up the INfluence Student Potential and Increase Representation in Education (INSPIRE) organization. By that point in time I had lost all respect for the decisions of my advisor and knew that he wasn't making decisions that even remotely considered my best interests, so I got involved and it has been a success that I am very proud of. If you don't want to get involved in extracurricular activities, that is fine, just make sure that you aren't required to. The same goes for if you do want to participate, make sure that your advisor is accommodating to your decisions.
Plans Postgrad - For decades, there was a somewhat hushed cold war between scientists. Academia vs. Industry. If you stayed in academia, you were noble, pristine, honorable. If you went to industry, you were a sellout, no longer in it for the betterment of human society. And if you went into teaching, non-profit work, writing, etc. you had to turn in your scientist badge. You were kicked out of the club, basically not even worth being considered. I have three comments on this.
  1. It was all lies.
  2. It is so stupid that it has hindered the entire infrastructure of biomedical science in this country and around the world
  3. There are people out there that still think this way. If you find one, hit them with a stick.
Most of the advisors I have dealt with have been completely clueless about opportunities outside of academia. Most of them don't even have ties to industry. This is a huge problem. One of my most recent posts on the excellent manuscript published in PNAS Rescuing US Biomedical Research From its Systemic Flaws discusses broadening the career paths for young scientists. I think this is absolutely necessary and I highly recommend that even if you are planning on going into academia, you find an advisor who can help you with multiple different career paths.

Personal Items - Would you want to eat lunch with your advisor every day for the entirety of your PhD? Maybe...but, I doubt it. Now imagine that it is required that the whole lab eats lunch together...every day. There are some labs that are like this. There are also some that function more as a family than a work environment. This can be a very positive thing or it can be an extremely negative thing. It might sound attractive to have that level of closeness to your fellow graduate students and lab mates. But, what happens if you don't particularly like them, or your mentor is a walking inferiority complex? Personal items like lunch, family events, after-work functions, etc. are all handled separately by each lab. Birthdays and holidays are another good example. Is there a celebration, are there gifts involved? Depending on your thoughts on these items, it can get somewhat uncomfortable if the lab or your advisor is totally different.

Graduation Requirements - These are straightforward and should be in a contract, or handbook that was given to you when you started graduate school. However, graduate advisors and faculty will try to add things, change things, make you do extra, etc. If you feel like what they are doing is helpful or beneficial by all means, do it. If you feel like what they are trying to do is harmful, or not in your best interest go back to the guidelines and make sure they are aware that what they are doing is wrong. The guidelines and contract are there to protect you. Make sure you know the rules and make sure they aren't changed on you at any point in time.

There are a handful of other random thoughts I didn't have much input on, but wanted to include.
  • Maternity or Paternity leave
  • Funerals
  • Other leave of absence (illness)
  • What journals (high profile vs. open source)
  • Marriage
  • Dual-Degree (MD/PhD, PhD/JD, PhD/MPH, PhD/MBA) opportunities

And honestly even with all of these points above to consider, faculty advisors rarely even know what they want. They are fickle, they are stressed, and a lot of times they will take it out on you by changing their mind constantly.
I encourage everyone to use the comments section below! 

  • Lance D. Presser has a PhD in microbiology and immunology and is a public health laboratorian.
  • Hire Lance for any of your microbiology, virology, teaching, editing, grant writing, or public health consulting needs.
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  1. Very good info. I found it very informational especially that I'm doing some research now. Please do update your post and keep on posting. Thanks you!


  2. I really enjoyed reading your article. I found this as an informative and interesting post, so i think it is very useful and knowledgeable. I would like to thank you for the effort you have made in writing this article.