Dr. Mom, My Adventures as a Mommy-Scientist

Discussion of my journey from grad school to postdoc to tenure with two kids, a husband, (and a bit of breast cancer) in tow.

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Dr. Mom's Guide to Grad School

Well, I've been wanting to write this post for a long time, but it has taken a while to get all my thoughts together. Basically, I felt a bit like a lost lamb during my initial grad school experience and wanted to share my insights with the rest of you guys.

First some general comments: If you pass your first semester and your qualifying exams, if you show up everyday and produce something in the next four to seven years, you will graduate. The length of time that it takes depends on many factors including your productivity, your advisor, and your field. In general, the more productive you are the faster you will graduate. This can however backfire if you get one of those rare advisors who holds on to students as long as they can. From their perspective they are getting cheap (heck almost free!) well-trained labor, and the better you are, the harder it may be to let go. So this is the 'advisor factor.' You can identify advisors with the problem by asking around before committing to a research group, so this pitfall is avoidable. As far as how much productivity is needed, I think that it depends entirely on your field, but in general I've heard three 1st author papers is about the right amount. That said, I think that graduate school falls into several phases that are very similar to adolescence:

Phase 1: Youthful Enthusiasm or I'm an idiot and my advisor knows everything.
When students first arrive at grad school they usually have a burning desire to get started right away. They want a thesis project assigned and work to commence immediately. What is extremely difficult for students to understand is that a thesis project cannot just be assigned. [Although some advisors will do this it sort of undercuts the whole academic process.] A project must be developed, and for that to happen the student needs to read, appreciate and understand the literature. Reading the literature can be boring, and in the beginning difficult. If you can barely understand the paper in front of you, what hope do you have of seeing the holes in it and devising experiments to test them? But that is the essence of phase 1. Your advisor should help you develop this skill and together you should decide on a research project. Additionally in this phase, many students doubt their skills. It is extremely difficult to make the transition from watching a professor endlessly lecture in undergrad to the one-on-one interaction that you find in grad school. In many cases, students are so intimidated by their advisors, that they forget that advisors are just people who have their own strengths, weaknesses, and flaws.

Phase 2: A Little Success- I'm not that dumb after all.
In the second phase, your class load should be lightening up and you should be moving into the lab, computer lab, library, or field. At this point you and your advisor may have drafted a rough idea of what your thesis project will be. You will have read the literature and have some idea of the direction that you plan to take, and will begin to devise experiments. In the best case, someone in your lab will be working in the same area. In this situation, they can help you to get over the initial hurdles. In the worst case, you may be trying to duplicate work from a published paper, with no sounding board to see if you are going about things the right way. If you are in the latter category, I recommend finding someone who can assist. Try another lab, another department, and in the worst case you can directly email the authors of the paper and ask for their protocols or help. You would be surprised how many authors are flattered by the attention and get back to you quickly with helpful information. During this phase you are mostly repeating work that others have done before to prepare for the next step that you would like to take. Because you are repeating previously published work, it is likely that you will be successful. At this stage you may get your first paper, and your confidence will soar.

Phase 3: The Valley of Death or I'm an idiot and my advisor is too.
In this phase, you will attempt your first novel experiments building off the work of others that was duplicated in phase 2. Because you are trying something for the very first time, you will likely fail, at least initially. Personally, I failed for a good year and a half. The girl ahead of me failed for about a year, and the gal ahead of her for 2 years, so don't feel bad. However, when you are in this phase, it is all too appealing to simply leave with that Master's degree. Your confidence will flag, you wonder is it not working because it is theoretically impossible or am I a miserable failure in the lab? In many cases, you become extremely frustrated with your advisor. Why aren't they helping me? Don't they know what is wrong? The secret is they probably don't know what is wrong. This is the the phase in your career where you begin to become more competent than your advisor in your little niche. And the thing is, even if your advisor did know and just told you what to do, that's not the point of the PhD. The point is to struggle a little with an idea that no one has faced before, and then to come out on top.

Phase 4: The light at the end of the tunnel or I know what I'm doing, but my advisor is an idiot, and this project has no future.
For some reason, by the end of the PhD most people begin to hate their projects (probably because of Valley of Death, above). Just about the time that you decide that your area has absolutely no future and you can't understand why your PI is working in it, is about the time that you are ready to finish! Why? Well by the time you can see the flaws and deficiencies in your area, you finally understand it to the degree that merits the title PhD. Also, because of this new found knowledge, gained by slaving through the valley of death, you will be in a position to finally make that breakthrough in your research! If you are lucky this breakthrough will be successful experiments yielding 1-2 more papers. If you are unlucky, you will find that your idea is theoretically impossible and publish 1-2 papers on your folly. The thing is that this phase is very short. Just about the time that you reach the breakthrough, suddenly all your experiments work and now you have several papers to write, a thesis to compose, and to look for a job all at the same time. This can be very overwhelming. The good news is you are done!

Phase 5: The After Glow
I finished my PhD a year and a half ago and it feels like an age. After finishing I was treated with respect that I never found in graduate school. Instead of people questioning my competence, they question my scientific ideas. I have also found that I can complete experiments in 1/3 of the time that it took me in grad school. This is because I can read the literature, devise an experiment, plan it out, anticipate problems, generate potential solutions, and proceed all before I even begin. This would have been impossible in grad school as I just didn't have the technical knowledge to accomplish this. Finally, the success of my experiments has boosted my confidence. I now think that I do know what I am talking about. This makes me more likely to express my opinion, and I am quickly becoming confident enough to be that thorn in your side at seminars always asking questions. The PhD was a horrible process but I now have found my way back to the joy of experiments, science, and discovery and am having a great time. Additionally, all the old wounds between my advisors are healing. Similarly to the rejection of parents that takes place in adolescence, I think you have to go through a period where you decide that your advisor is an idiot. Then, after distance, you begin to appreciate their strengths, to see the error of you own thoughts, and to value them as a fellow scientist.

Well, I hope this helps anyone trapped in Phase 3 (the longest phase). I know that I was really panicked in my phase three until I was meeting with a seminar speaker who had some great advice. I was explaining how nothing was working and he asked what year I was. I said third year, and he told me that everyone goes through that and that it is completely normal. When you are trying to do something that no one has done before, it will take a while to pull it all together. So good luck guys!

13 Comments:

At 6:46 PM , Blogger BotanicalGirl said...

Very nicely written. As a third year I currently feel like an idiot but do not yet think my PI is an idiot. It is a very frustrating year.

I wrote a piece a while ago on How to Survive Grad School that your readers may like in addition to your piece :)

http://botanicalgirl.blogspot.com/2005/06/how-to-survive-grad-school.html

 
At 9:37 PM , Blogger Jane said...

This is a great analysis of grad school! Personally I solved my "third year blues" by switching advisors and topics...luckily, I was still able to graduate on time. :)

 
At 9:12 AM , Blogger PhD Mom said...

Thanks botinicalgirl, your post gives excellent advise on surviving grad school.

Personally, I made it through the slump by proving that my project wouldn't work. Not exactly the way to go, but one PhD later I don't care!

 
At 7:39 PM , Blogger ScienceWoman said...

I've also written on the survival topic. But your post-phd perspective is great.

 
At 8:49 AM , Anonymous aditrip said...

write on time, I am going throu a piriod of "I will never finish this Phd, and no one can help me"
and it is great to read this is normal

 
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At 9:34 PM , Blogger juan said...

They want a thesis project assigned and work to commence immediately. What is extremely difficult for students to understand is that a thesis project cannot just be assigned. [Although some advisors will do this it sort of undercuts the whole academic process.
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At 1:33 PM , Blogger nicole said...

grad school. This is because I can read the literature, devise an experiment, plan it out, anticipate problems, generate potential solutions, and proceed all before I even begin. This would have been impossible in grad school as I just didn't have the technical knowledge to accomplish this. Finally, the success of my experiments has boosted my confidence


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At 3:54 AM , Anonymous Mary Sullivan said...

This would certainly help people who are finding it hard writing their phd dissertation paper. There certainly had a lot of stage phd dissertation, and I think you might find some problems along the way. But, I think what is important is that people should keep moving forward.

 
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