Category → reflections on life
In case you’ve missed it, this week there’s currently a dialogue between Chemjobber and Vinylogous (of Not the Lab and a current chemistry graduate student) on the topic “Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health?” This dialogue began with Chemjobber relating a personal vignette of a low point he remembered from grad school and then posing the premise:
Yes, graduate school in chemistry can be bad for your mental health. Science can lend itself to isolating workers from healthy habits, from friends and from family. For people who see themselves as competent and at least as good as their colleagues, bench research in chemistry can rub failure in their faces and deliver fierce blows to self-confidence. You can see yourself as falling behind, not pulling your own weight, never giving a good group meeting and just simply not up to snuff.
After setting the stage, Chemjobber then asked Vinylogous, “Is graduate school in chemistry (which you’re participating in right now) making you crazy?” Both Chemjobber and Vinylogous were/are, respectively, organic chemistry graduate students (as was I—well, organometallic), so there’s a shared perspective. Of course, this has an inherent danger of describing circumstances not germane to other chemistry disciplines, but that’s probably a minor point.
Vinylogous’ response is now up, and is the second post of what will become a five-part dialogue, alternating between the two blogs. This first response is very thorough, covering a number of aspects which may influence a graduate student’s behavior and their feelings of self-worth. After relating some personal experiences, Vinylogous arrives at a central theme:
I think a question worth exploring is this: what aspects of the system contribute to the inordinate amount of stress and threaten mental health? I’m going to spend some time discussing my observations, and I invite comment on them.
I found a lot of the observations very insightful. There’s a lot of pulling back the curtain going on here to expose activities and behaviors that usually go undiscussed. I particularly liked Vinylogous’ emphasis on the importance of work-life balance:
Overall, discussions of work/life balance are absent from chemistry programs; frankly, a student and PI should establish a mutual understanding of what this means, and it should be open to re-negotiation later on. In our departmental orientation, we were handed a list of university counseling centers in an almost embarrassed manner. But no discussion of how to step beyond the lab. Instead, our area head told us: “You should always have something running in your hood.”
Vinylogous then brings up other important considerations that are worth reading, so, please stay tuned as the rest of this dialogue unfolds in the coming days.
I’m glad to see this topic discussed so frankly. It’s particularly timely in light of last month’s ACS Presidential Commission report and C&EN coverage on the status of graduate school in the chemical sciences and Deirdre’s terrific ensuing guest post here.
It is finished. My final defense was last Wednesday—and I passed!
This is a milestone, and milestones are to be blogged about, right? The thing is, I don’t know exactly what I have to say about it. Perhaps it just hasn’t been long enough for it to sink in yet.
It’s interesting, this whole final defense thing. For years, you’re going, going, jumping through each hoop that’s presented along the way. From the very start, you’re anticipating the end, which will one day come. You survive classes, give numerous presentations, pass your prelim. Years pass by, then the long-awaited final defense comes… and goes.
And then… you’re done.
Done? Huh… Okay, awesome, I’m done! That’s it, I guess… I have a Ph.D.
Meanwhile, you proceed to announce on facebook that you passed your final defense and everyone can call you doctor now. Friends and family shower you with congratulatory remarks. It’s wonderful.
But somehow it still hasn’t quite hit that I really do have a Ph.D. For real. I guess I thought I would feel a greater sense of relief and finality. Of course, I’m happy. But it’s a bit anti-climactic when all is said and done.
Overall, I’ve had a wonderful time in grad school. Perhaps this is easy to say now that it’s all over. But really… I’ve lucked out. Sure, I’ve worked hard, but anyone who’s gone through grad school knows that there are a number of factors that are just outside of your control. Many of those things fell into place really nicely for me. I’m really thankful for that. Continue reading →
For the past four years, I’ve kicked off the New Year knowing more or less what the next year was going to hold: I’ll be in the lab, working on my project, hoping for good data that will lead to papers that will lead me one step closer to graduation.
But this year is different. My defense date is almost scheduled in March (waiting for one last professor to confirm), and in May, I will walk across a stage and receive my Ph.D. diploma.
While this makes me extremely excited, it’s also bittersweet.
It’s exciting, well, because the end of grad school means the start of something new—finally!
But it’s also a tiny bit sad because, as much as I’ve complained about it, I’ve enjoyed being a grad student and have made some really great friends who I’m going to miss.
I know those who are in the thick of grad school will beg to differ, but it’s a pretty sweet deal, being paid to get a degree and all. I’ve learned a ton, and although day to day I haven’t noticed it, I’ve grown a lot in five years.
It can also be a bit frightening, if I let it be. When several years of your life are spent doing one thing, and one thing only (or mostly), it’s a little unsettling to not know what you’ll be doing in five months time. Continue reading →
I’ve been a bit spotty with blogging recently, so I apologize. I’ve been pretty tied up with collecting and analyzing data for what will be the last
It is a wonderful feeling to be close to the end— I can’t overstate that!!
Anyone who has gone through grad school can probably relate to the feeling of utter elation you get when you realize that you will in fact graduate with your Ph.D. in the forseeable future. The end is near!
For those fledgling graduate students out there, you may be a bit jealous of this feeling I have. But I just have to say— stick it out and soon enough you too will know what it feels like to be almost done!
Wow, there are a lot of exclamation marks in this post. Not to be overly dramatic, but throughout the first several years of grad school, it often feels like it’s never going to end. There are ups and downs and more downs (see earlier post about how I fell out of love with research).
The thing about a Ph.D. program is it’s so nebulous when you will finish. It’s not like undergrad where you check off all the boxes, pass all your classes and walk across the stage to get your diploma. It’s hard to explain that to relatives who assume you’ll have a month-long Christmas break since you’re still a student. No, it doesn’t quite work like that actually…
So when it finally hits you that the end is near, it’s an incredible feeling. Especially, I feel, for someone like me, for whom the end of grad school is the end of research, once and for all, and the beginning of doing what I really love. Continue reading →
This guest post was written by Selina Wang, PhD.
When I became a “PhD“ rather than “PhD candidate”, I couldn’t get the question “Now, what?” out of my head. It reminded me of the feeling I had when being asked “What do you want to do when you grow up?” as a five-year-old. Except I wasn’t five and I was supposed to be smart and have a respectful answer that validated the three letters that were now attached to my name.
I was fearful to step into this unfamiliar territory. In addition, the same excitement I felt about my area of research when I first started the PhD program was now accompanied by the additional baggage of skepticism and confusion. I was about to face some huge energy barriers and to anticipate high entropy – something called the post-doctoral life and beyond.
As I explored post-doctoral opportunities, I felt a little lost, sort of directionless and almost underwhelmed by this supposedly-one-of-the-greatest-accomplishments-of-mine-so-far. Industry, government or academe? Not sure. A job that pays better than a graduate student’s stipend? I hope so. I started to wonder how many of us that attend graduate school with a crystal-clear view of our future career direction maintain that view upon graduation. You know, despite how clear your NIR tubes are and how your crystals grow bigger and faster than your labmates’.
I, like many, had an incredible experience in graduate school. I was in love with doing research and could have stayed in the program forever if I was allowed to (and if I had won a lottery so money was no object). I had a strong sense of purpose – to discover the unknown, to tell people about things they didn’t yet know, to satisfy my own curiosity. I was surrounded by individuals who cared about the same things as I do, including an assiduous PI who started his tenure-track faculty position the same year I started my PhD program. They understood my dorky jokes, granted that they didn’t have the sense of humor to laugh at most of them. It was a safe environment to learn and to do research – which was my job.
Five years quickly flew by (with the exception of the year of my qualifying-exam). I had to move on to a post-doc position, though the idea of being a post-doctoral researcher never excited me. Why give me a PhD if you don’t think I am ready “as is”? At the end of my two-year post-doc gig, I felt my skills were sharpened and I started to feel an itch to get out into the real working world. I had a clearer idea of my strengths and weaknesses and since I’ve enjoyed doing research and teaching, I applied for tenure-track faculty positions.
What I didn’t expect was a particular interviewing incident that reminded me what matters to me and why I chose to pursue higher education.
During an interview lunch at one school, a faculty member started on a rant about a reviewer’s comments on a paper she recently submitted. Other faculty members also shared their experiences with the peer-review process. This conversation lasted a while before one faculty member threw her hands in the air in frustration and said she should not have to listen to anyone’s comments given the reputation of the school where she worked.
Sitting quietly, I was reminded of Einstein who said, ”I have little patience with scientists who take a board of wood, look for its thinnest part, and drill a great number of holes where drilling is easy.” I wondered when they were going to ask interview-like questions or simply acknowledge my presence. They didn’t. I was simply having lunch with a know-it-all-self-righteous person, who even pointed out that the only reason she came to lunch was because the restaurant had nice offerings. I thought I was the one that was poor and liked to take advantage of free food.
The word “faculty” is defined as teaching members or power/authority. Maybe that was the confusion? They thought they were authorities rather than teachers?
I received similar impressions from many of the faculty, thus despite how this department looks on paper, it was not where I belonged. However, in addition to my bruised ego, I didn’t walk away from this experience empty-handed. After thinking, and over-thinking, I got the answer to a question that has been haunting me since I was five. What do I want to do when I grow up? It’s not so much about what I do, but it’s about how it makes me feel when I do it – how it makes me come alive.
Isn’t that why we went to graduate school? To feed our passion for discovering the unknown and to take a chance on what we believe. With all the pressure associated with grants, publications and political moves, it is easy to be skeptical and lose sight of what is important to our internal self. But what are we good for if we don’t take risks, make mistakes, and learn from the mistakes? Failures in research have led to many of the most exciting and unexpected results, in a serendipitous way. The discovery of things not looked for has lead to wonderful products such as Post-It Notes, Teflon, the pacemaker, and even the microwave (Percy Spencer, a scientist at Raytheon, noticed that emission from a vacuum tube caused a candy bar in his pocket to melt).
What marks a successful failure? Perhaps, it’s our perspective. We are not know-it-alls, we all are barely know-its spending our lifetimes on figuring “it” out. With a passionate heart, a purposeful mind, and a focused attitude – I no longer feel loss. Thanks to this great lesson from my “failed” job interview.
Several conversations with people I just met have gone something like this:
So, what did you study in college?
Wow. I hated chemistry! You’re in grad school now, that’s cool… What are you studying?
Huh. So… what are you gonna do after you get your Ph.D.?
Become a writer.
(Blank stare). Hmm… how does that work?
At this point, I go on to explain how I’m super-psyched to use my background in chemistry to communicate science in fun and down-to-earth ways so that anyone can understand.
I’m sure other non-traditional careers folks out there have had conversations like this.
I suppose blank stares are to be expected, since we’re going after careers that are not typical for people with our background. Before I stumbled into the world of non-traditional science careers, I certainly didn’t have the framework to grasp that you could take your science degree and waltz into a seemingly unrelated career path.
I’m happy to be pursuing something that I love, even if it’s atypical. Grad school equips you with a bunch of transferable skills that you can take with you wherever your heart (and job opportunities) lead. So you should never feel boxed in.
Like so many of the people I’ve written profiles about for this blog, I love pursuing my passion! I have never been as excited about a future career prospect as I have been since discovering science writing.
Most people find my non-traditional career goals interesting. Some wonder if I feel I’m wasting my time getting a Ph.D. in chemistry.
I tell them I don’t feel grad school was a waste at all. I’ve learned a ton, both about science and about myself. I’ve grown and matured and am better prepared to confront the challenges of my future career than I would’ve been straight out of college.
That’s not to say grad school is for everyone, or that if I’d do it all again if I could go back knowing I wanted to be a science writer from the start…
I’d like to think I’ve left an impression on some people I’ve talked to (or perhaps other students out there who read this blog), and that some have walked away encouraged to think outside of the box and let themselves dream a little, too…
I’m back in the lab!
It actually feels good to be back.
Don’t get me wrong: I loved my internship. It was a fantastic experience and I learned a ton. And I’m still looking forward to moving onto a career that doesn’t involve working at the bench.
But I’m excited about finishing what I started here in grad school, and finishing strong.
A much-needed break
The internship came at a really good time. Earlier this year I felt I was on the verge of burning out. My relationship with my research project was feeling pretty strained.
The internship provided a much-needed break from research, while giving me some really valuable training for my future career. Having some time away from research helped me step back and breathe a little.
Now I feel refreshed and ready to push through the last leg of my graduate training before moving on to becoming a full-fledged science writer.
While I was away from the lab, I even worked a bit on my dissertation, which I’m really proud of myself for. Looking at a document with more than 90 pages of text and figures assures me that the light at the end of the tunnel is getting closer!
A new attitude
As I look ahead to what will hopefully be my last year in grad school, I’m realizing that I could really use an attitude adjustment.
Formerly, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much longer I would have to endure being dissatisfied with my job. And that made every day feel like drudgery.
While I still am on-par with this line of thinking, I’m becoming more aware that there is another side to that coin:
There is something that can be taken away from every experience you have, even (and perhaps especially) the most challenging and difficult ones.
That’s the attitude I’ve decided to hold onto as I brace myself for another year of research.
It’s been about a week, and so far, so good.
To give myself little reminders of my new approach to grad school, I’ve put post-its around my desk.
One of them reads, Make the most of every opportunity.
I’ve also taped up a Dove chocolate wrapper, you know, the ones with those cutesy messages on the inside. It reads: Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.
I resolve to make the most of my last leg of grad school before moving on to pursuing a science writing career… wish me luck!
A few close friends expressed their concerns to me after reading my post about finding your dream job. They said it’s easy to figure out what you want to do when you know who you are.
But many people feel stuck trying to figure out who they are.
I totally agree. Choosing a career has many parallels to romantic relationship– it helps to know who you are and what you’re looking for in a partner.
It’s okay to not know yet. It takes time and life experience to discover what you love.
But there are practical steps to take to help you along on the road to discovering what you were made for.
Mostly, you’ve got to just jump in and start trying different things.
I love how Stephanie Chasteen, also known as sciencegeekgirl on her blog, describes how she “felt” her way into her alternative science career:
I tell this to all people who ask me about my career, which defines the word “alternative.” “I’m like bacteria,” I tell them. Bacteria… do not “know” that the hot spot or acidic island is “over there.” They have no overall map of their surroundings to direct their movement in a straight line towards what they seek. What they sense instead is a local gradient — a small change, right next to them. It’s a little warmer that way. They move slightly. They feel it out again. Move. Feel. Move. And feel. The resulting path is a somewhat jagged, but non-random, path toward the thing that they love. And so is mine.
Here are the practical steps I took that led me to discover my passion.
Until about a year ago, I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do with my career. Research was okay, but I wasn’t convinced it was my passion.
Then I stumbled across science writing and my ears perked up. After a bit of googling, I found a ton of information and realized there were many possible paths.
To narrow down the options, I started testing the waters.
I had some experience writing research proposals, so I thought maybe I could become a grant writer. I bought a book that offered tips for writing grants and attended seminars on the topic. I volunteered to help my PI write a grant proposal for my project. All along, I made mental notes to myself about what I liked and didn’t like.
I also thought about journal editing. I found an opportunity to be an English editor for an international chemistry journal. It was free labor, but a good experience, nonetheless.
I was most intrigued at the thought of doing science journalism, since I loved curling up with a mug of hot cocoa and a science magazine feature story. But science journalism was also the option I felt least qualified for.
I worked up the guts to show up at the info session for the student newspaper on my campus. I sat in a room full undergrad journalism majors and wondered if I was crazy for being a chemistry grad student with no journalism experience wanting to write science news stories.
I also signed up for an introductory journalism course on my campus. This class taught me the basics of journalistic writing, which is totally different from academic writing.
Long-story short, I fell in love with science writing. By the end of 2010, I knew my passion was science communication and that I was made to be a science writer! Continue reading →