What I learned about Maximizing the PhD Experience

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I had the opportunity to attend a career development workshop where a guest speaker came in and talked to us about what to expect after the PhD. It was to my surprise, we learned that 57 percent of PhD students do not know what they want to do after they graduate. Majority of those surveyed chose to go to school because they either felt they had to, or because of some vague notion such as they love research and the accumulation of knowledge. It turned out that after graduating, they learned nothing, 51 percent of Postdocs still do not know what they want to do next. As a result, majority of PhD’s choose academia by default because that is the conventional route.

While I am only in my second year, it’s become obvious that in addition to focusing on my lab work I need to start thinking about what I want to do after I graduate. Most second year students might be able to relate, trying to figure out your future at this stage in the game is extremely exhausting. That is completely normal, you are only in your second year, knowing what you are going to be doing 4-5 years down the road is going to be exhausting because a lot can happen between years 2 and year 5.

Most of us are advised to keep up to date with current events in our perspective fields, read up on topics outsides our immediate focus, attend conferences, take developmental courses and network. All these are good option, by doing the following, you meet people and develop new skills. Interestingly, its not going to be someone within your immediate network that will be offering your next gig, its going to be someone from an extended network, probably twice removed. In addition to doing the following, it is highly recommended you do informational interviews.

What exactly are informational interviews? This is when you contact someone who is doing something you think you might want to do, and you go talk to them about their job and what its like to be in their position. What most people do not realize is that people love to talk about themselves, scientist are the worst, and so you will be welcomes greatly. And what is the worst that could happen, they say no? Through an informational interview, you can find out information like average salary, the day to day routine, the politics, support system, potential for growth, out of work life, and requirements to be considered, thus allowing you to tailor your studies towards meeting those requirements.

Word of caution. Never ask for a job during an informational interview, you will ruin it for anyone else who comes after you. The expectation during an informational interview is to get information, not a job. Additionally, the person you will be talking to is probably in no position to offer you a job. So asking for a job after the fact makes things awkward, dampens the atmosphere, and puts a lot of pressure on the professional who has donated their time.

In summation, expend your repertoire of skills, and keep asking questions. Spend time with people better than you, people doing what you want to do, in that circle, no information is a waste.  

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My PhD slump and tips on how to overcome it

I have just completed my first year of graduate school and I would like to think I did pretty good. I past all my first-year classes, I completed all my lab rotations, and I feel I have found the lab I will be doing my thesis project in.

When I was still applying to graduate school, I was told it is still not too late to get out. At the time I did not understand what my mentors meant when they warned me. Both my mentors were 5th year PhD students on the verge of graduating. They only thing left that they had to do was get a first author publication and write a review and they would be out the door, but they walked around functionally depressed. I am beginning to see why.

I would normally wake up nice and early around 6:00am, 5:30am sometimes depending on the time I went to bed the previous night.  I’d check the news, take a shower, make my breakfast and make my way to school. At school, I would go through my classes, after class I would go to lab, complete my scheduled experiments and then go to the gym. After the gym, I would make my way to the grocery store to buy what I will be cooking for dinner. After dinner I would take care of a few things, and then hit my books to prepare for the following day. I was able to keep this up for about 12 months, but I can’t anymore, and I cannot figure out why.

The enthusiasm to read comes in waves. Like a passing wind. When it’s there, it’s refreshing, and I remember why I do what I do, but then other times, I put most of my energy into maintaining that temporary spur of energy. When I think about it, things have gotten difficult and below are a few reasons why.

  1. Solitude: Since the start of the program I have spent majority of my time alone. I used to think I was the kind of person who loved to spend time alone, but I have come to realize that even that had its limitation. I have watched a lot of videos and read a lot of stories of students talking about the solitude and what it did to them. Some stories worse than others, but all the same the solitude drains away at the mind and the spirit. I do not have lot of time to go home to see my family, nor do I have the time to make any friends. Easily, without even thinking about it, 10-12 hours can pass by without as much as hello from another human being. This repeats itself for 3-5 days during the week, and when the weekend comes around, it’s the same thing .
  2. Routine: The schedule is extremely routine, especially when the course work came to an end and I started my lab work. I felt like I was doing the same thing day in and day out and the weekends are no different.
  3. Time: There never seem to be enough time for anything. It’s kind of crazy. Let’s say I ‘sleep for 6 hours, this leaves me with 18hours to do everything that I need to do to move forward, but no matter how well I organize myself, there never seem to be enough time to do anything. What’s worse is that most of that time is committed to things that are not helping my studies move forward.
  4. Future: This is one thing that just kind of hangs around in the back of the mind, but as the weeks turn into month, the month turned into a year, I started to wonder, whats coming next? What is all of this going to turn into? What will I be doing next? While researching post PhD life, I found that the possibilities are endless, truly endless, the only issue is getting there. There are more PhD’s than there are positions in academia. Getting grants is harder than ever, and most people do not receive any until well into their 50’s. The industry is more promising and guarantees a higher income, but even that comes with its own barriers. Furthermore, as I get older in age, I start to wonder if I would like a life outside of work, like have a family or something like that. But I’ve decided not to let this stress me out too much. My niece told me something interesting this past weekend. She is 10 years old, and while sitting at the dinner table she said to me, after being prompted through a game, “try not to focus too much about your future. If you worry too much about your future you will get stressed out.” I asked myself you are 10, what do you know about worrying. She said she wants to be a soccer player, an artist, and a veterinarian. When she thinks about how she is going to become all three, she starts to feel anxious, like maybe its too much and that she won’t be able to do it. I said to her, you can become whatever you want.

I overcome these sources of anxiety by taking a step back and remembering why I chose to go back to school. I wanted to become a scientist and that is what I decided to do.  It was more important than having a social life, I accepted the routine, I did not mind the time commitment, and the future would figure itself out. Whether or not I will have a family, or even truly want one, instead of just feeling like I want one is yet to be determine. There are still a lot of things to figure out in that department. Keep in mind that this is a lot easier said than done. Over the past year or so a lot of good things have happened, but I have also been challenged in ways in I neither expected or even wanted, but that comes along with the experience. Truthfully speaking it has played out exactly as my mentor predicted. I used to laugh at her stories as she vented about her problems, but then found myself living through them.

Here are my tips to overcoming some of the issues that I highlighted above.

  1. Keep Reading: My goal is to get in atleast one paper a day. Right now, there is enough time for me to commit 30-45 minutes a day to catch up on the latest work that is out there. I have subscription to nature and cell. Every morning I get notifications on the latest publication and I pick what seems interesting. Like any other skill you want to learn, you will get better at reading, absorbing, synthesizing and applying the work in the literature which will increase your confidence and make you a better scientist. Don’t just read anything that is out there, search and find what is interesting to you. When you like it, it makes it a lot easier to commit the time.
  2. Make Some Friends: Find some friends you can engage with from time to time. Someone or people that can take you out of your routine into something different just to change things up. I recommend making sure that a few of your friends are not in the sciences. The worse thing about spending time with PhD’s is that all they talk about is their work.
  3. Find a Hobby: A hobby can function as an outlet. Find something that you love. Something that brings you joy, something that you genuinely enjoy doing that does not feel like work. This can be therapeutic because it reduces anxiety, reduces stress, takes your mind away from thinking about work, and adds to your skill set. It makes you a more well-rounded human being which makes you more interesting. It gives you something else to talk about when you are at a gathering. Trust me, no one other than you, cares about your research.
  4. Calendar/Schedule: Try and organize yourself as much as you can. Set specific times for when things are supposed to be done and stick to it. This will allow you to fit more into your day, giving you the time to do what you want to do and what you need to do. It will also give a start and an end for each activity. I’ve seen that this prevents the feeling of days just rolling into each other. Having a calendar and a schedule also allows you to track what you do and what you accomplish. After writing it down and crossing it out, you can visibly see what you have accomplished.
  5. Talk to someone: Have someone you can talk to, a family member, a friend, or a significant other if you so have one. If you so need it, go to therapy. Most University offer this service for free and the best part, they must listen to you no matter how ridiculous your complaints are, and its free. Don’t feel guilty, it’s for your benefit.