What I learned about Maximizing the PhD Experience


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.  


Minority Enrichment Programs and the Un-talked about side Effect.

I feel the following questions replays in the minds of a lot  minority PhD students, even if they do not say it out loud, they probably ask themselves, do I belong here? Who viewed my application and what made them think that I’d be a good fit? These are not rare question, and I am sure almost everyone (black, white, Asian, Hispanic, etc.) asks themselves this, but I decided to bring this up to address something that I have been thinking about a lot. There are a lot of enrichment program out there that aims to help students from disadvantaged background get to where they want to go, academically and professionally. However, the true value of affirmative action or program that aids individuals from disadvantaged backgrounds is under appreciated. Furthermore, too many people fully understand the importance of a diverse work force, but even more importantly, very few appreciate how serious and wide spread systemic oppression really is. I feel this is a problem even among the students whom these programs aim to help. Below you will see what I mean.

In high school I was an upward bound student, in undergraduate I was a McNair scholar. As a Post-baccalaureate, I was a PREP scholar and now as a graduate student, I am an IMSD scholar. I have benefited greatly from these enrichment programs and appreciated the help of the many mentors I have come across.

As I have highlighted above. I myself, have taken advantage of the educational programs that aims to help students from marginalized background advanced forward in their academic pursuits. I have received a lot of grants, scholarships, and travel awards, and through my experience I have heard a lot. My scholarships have been called the black scholarships, the recognition I have received for my efforts, I have been made to feel that I got them only because of my skin color. After receiving this kind of feedback for so long, I began to question myself as well as the work of those around me who are trying to close social, political and economic gaps among the different race groups. Have I just gotten this far because of my skin color? Am I as good as I think I am? Am I as smart as I think I am. If I were white, would I have gotten the grants, scholarship or travel awards that I received?

I have seen many institutions award their minority students for their accomplishments. I appreciate this because nothing builds moral than acknowledgement that your efforts are being noticed. However, is titling these awards minority awards painting the picture that minority students are not as good as everyone else? I ask this question because I was thinking about a conversation I had with a fellow student who was going to be recognize, he did not feel excited about his award. He felt the award was merely recognizing the fact that he was from a minority background, and not actually recognizing his accomplishments.  He said, if he needed someone to remind him that he was not white, he would just go home and talk to his parents, or look at a mirror, he did not need a minority accomplishment award to know that he was a minority. I said, damn!.

So, my question to everyone out there is, is affirmative action helping, or is it creating a culture and mindset that minority students cannot complete. And while it is critical to address the issues of the historical events that has led to the established system, how can students take advantage of the enrichment program that aims to close the social, economic and political gaps without feeling less about themselves? Are “minority accomplishment awards” helping or creating more harm? I am not questioning the system that has been set, nor am I criticizing the efforts of the programs that has helped to get to where I am at this point. But every now and then I come across people who makes me question myself, making the imposter syndrome feel more real.

What depression looked like, from the outside looking in.

This might be a little unrelated from my other posts, but here goes nothing. How do you appreciate something that you have never truly experienced? How can you understand something that you have never gone through? How do you begin to wrap your brain around something you can’t even visualize? These are questions I started to ask myself as I stood by friends or family who were experiencing depression. I decided to write this piece after I started reading about the anxiety and depression experienced by graduate students. But then I realized, at one point or another, I have either seen or lived with someone going through depression, so I wanted to describe what it looked like and what I have seen.

Having to watching someone you care about suffer from depression is hard. I say watch because that is all you can do. Be there and watch. You want to assure them that you are always going to be there, and that everything is going to be okay, but, as nice as those words sound, have you ever truly evaluated what that will take? Ever asked yourself if you truly can even be there, and if you can, are you who or what they need to get past their depression. I do not know what the right answer is, or what the right thing to do. Supporting someone suffering from depression can often go one of two ways. You can one, help them heal and they might get better, or you can become an enabler and make them sicker.

It is no secret that major depressive disorders are under appreciated or not fully recognized as diseases. This is something that even I was guilty of until I watched it unfold multiple times. I grew up in a small village west of Kenya along the shore of Lake Victoria. A part of the world where there is more emphasis on surviving than maintaining mental health. As a result, there are a lot of children and adult living with mental health problems. I must make myself clear that I myself have never gone through depression, so below is just my recollection of what I have seen looking from the outside in, either as I listen to someone who was going through depression or trying to help them cope.

People must realize that depression is not a choice, nor is it a phase, it’s a sickness with well characterized and defined biophysical and biochemical pathophysiology. Depression presents itself in varying degrees. Some cases milder than others, but, it encompasses more than just a change in mood, it alters your entire life. It changes how you feel, how you think, your interaction with your family members, your friends, and even your significant others. It changes what you think is true, and what is false, it changes what you think is real and fake. It changes the way you eat, if changes the way you sleep. It changes the way your body feel, it affects recovery, bone growth, brain development, and even shortens life expectancy.

The hardest part for me, has been figuring out where I fit in in the grand scheme of things. Looking from the outside, there is nothing you want more than to make a change for the one suffering, to make them feel better. There is nothing you desire more, and if you could, you would wave a magic wand over their head and make the whole thing go away, but the world does not work like that. And so, you begin to feel helpless. With each episode you begin to realize just how little of a “measurable” difference you can make. The situation gets worse when the one suffering sees how hard you are trying, but no matter how much they want to, they cannot change how they feel. Keep in mind that they did not ask to be this way, and if they could they would turn things around. While depressed, they are embarrassed for being the way they are. They don’t want to be dependent on anyone, they don’t want to be complaining all the time, they don’t want to be an inconvenience to anyone. Battling with all these things in their head drives them deeper into depression which only makes this worse.

They won’t deny the fact that they are struggling. They will tell you that its hard, and that they hate what they are and how they are feeling. They will apologize to you for what is happening, and what it must feel like for you. As they deal with their struggles they are thinking about you and what it must be like for you to be going through that with them. If they see you having a hard time they start to feel bad for you and about themselves for putting you through all of that.

You realize this cycle and starts to wonder, or atleast I did, what good am I doing? For some this can be overwhelming, but in the process you have to stay strong. In some situations, you might be blamed for certain things that may have nothing to do with you. You might be told that because you did this, and you did that, I am this way. You might be told you caused this and that. But you must remember that is not them talking. That is what they are feeling.

You might also be told to keep everything a secret making you the only person who sees them through their pain. I mean who wants their business out there. What is happening is already embarrassing enough. They have probably been told they are just seeking attention. Or maybe they are spoiled, they probably have also been told there are bigger issues in the world, other people have quit on them before, it’s too hard. The worse one is being told, why can’t you just snap out of it. I was once asked to think of any sickness out there, anything from a broken bone to an auto immune disease. How would you feel if you went to someone, told them you need help and they said to you, snap out of it? I got the picture, you don’t want to hear that.

 The secret to supporting anyone, is that you cannot go down in the pit with them. Its in the very nature of the word. Being a support mean you must support, you can’t support anything if you fall apart. I learned this from a YouTube video I once watched. Think of a boy who falls in a well and you want to get them out. You cannot afford to fall in with them, or you will never be able to do anything for them. So, you swallow whatever you are feeling, and you absorb what you need to absorb, and you do what needs to be done to make the situation better. Or atleast that’s what it feels like you must do. During this time, the one who is depressed will see what is happening, and they will try their best to make things just a little bit lighter, but that will only last for so long.

For that child who fell in the well, if your hand is not long enough to get them out, go get a rope tell them to hold onto it and pull them out. Call the fire department and the police. Call the community and bring together who has the necessary resources to help you help this child.

Lastly, talk about how you feel. The worse thing you can do to someone who is suffering from a lack of self-confidence is to treat them as a helpless child who cannot handle anything. I get it, why would you make things about yourself. After all they are the one that is struggling, but, in talking you build trust, bond which brings strengths to the relationship which will give them what they need to keep fighting.

After countless hours thinking it over, I cannot for the life of me reason out the best thing one can do for themselves or for the depressed, but whatever the case is, talking is key. Talk to each other, talk to family, talk to significant others, and talk to professionals.

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.

Post-baccalaureate Research Education Programs (PREP) and how they can help you decide what to do next.

If you are a student interested in going to medical school or getting a PhD in biomedical science, but you are not too sure about yourself, not sure where to start, or maybe you need to improve your academic standing, consider applying to one of the 41 Post baccalaureate Research Education program (PREP) that are offered in over 20 different states across the country.

I started my pursuits with one semester of lab experience. During that experience, the only thing I learned was PCR. When I started my experience as a PREP student, I knew nothing about molecular biology. On the first day on the job, I was brought in to speak with the professor I was to work with. He oversaw a virology lab. He asked me, “what do you know about viruses?” He cut me off seven seconds into my explanation, gave me a book and told me to come back once I have read the assigned chapters. I came in knowing nothing, and I left knowing how to succeed.

The PREP programs are designed to go for 1-2 years where you live on your own, work along side faculty and graduate student either helping on a project or on an independent project.  They facilitate your test preparation, help you apply to schools and mentor you on anything else that might be going on in your life. The PREP program offered me an opportunity to experience the life of a graduate student before becoming one. I found this to be useful because it a was chance to see what is out there, take it in, and evaluate how it fits into my long-term goals.

See the link below to find out which ones are in your area and who you need to contact to apply.


Why I think diversity encourages innovation. My personal Experience.

 It is not just the diversity of skin that is important, we need the diversity of thought and believe to drive innovation. During my academic pursuits, I have come across individuals who thought I got to where I am because I was black. The scholarships I received were looked at as the black scholarships, not considering my merits and effort that put me in the position to even be evaluated. A mentor once told me, so what If you received funding set aside specifically for student of color. On graduation day, it won’t matter if you are black, white or yellow, you will all be doctors. We need different people from different background doing different things and below is why I think that is important. 

I think diversity is critical for change because it enabled a thorough look at issues through multiple lenses.  While the core of any problem may be universal, how people are affected by any problem depends on time, location, and the perception of the problem. Gathering individuals with different academic, professional and personal backgrounds in the same space allows for a multifactorial approach to problem-solving that encompass the needs of everyone. And this drives innovation. I graduated from undergraduate with a BS in Conservation Biology. However, it was not until my senior year that I realized I was interested in something else. I started to lean in the direction of biomedical research and potentially pursuing a research career. Unfortunately, I did not have the background to confidently send an application to a biomedical science program, so, I took two years off from school to focus my interest and improve my academic standing. In this time, I worked on scientific integrity research in Washington DC. Following that opportunity, I worked in a retroviral repository lab. After that, I applied and was accepted into a one-year Post-Baccalaureate Research Education Program where I worked alongside graduate students on my own research project. I walked in with no prior experience and became a dependable point person in the lab.

So, what exactly is different about me?

I offer a different perspective on how a student can major in one degree at one institution and over time, work to gain the required experience to enter into an entirely different field of study. In addition to my ethnic background, as a conservation biology major, I have an appreciation for the political, social and economic risk factors that lead to disease susceptibility and severity which extends beyond the background of a classical biomedical science student.

 I would not have imagined myself as a biomedical science Ph.D. student after leaving undergrad with a degree in conservation biology. I carefully thought about my actions and how they will affect my long-term goals, personally and professionally. Staying focused was important because if I wanted to compete with my peers, I had to learn fast. I am a dual citizen. I was born and raised in Kenya, and so I overcame a lot of barriers in my academic pursuits.

It is through sharing stories like this, can we show other students that it does not matter where one comes from, all that matters is where they want to go.


Social media connections lead to greater patient activation


This is just a quick post about an article I found on Nature Review Rheumatology. It says that social media connections lead to greater patient activation. Compared to patients who were assigned to answer module questions using a diary, those who were assigned to answer questions using social media forums showed greater agency, community, self-efficacy and empowerment. The findings suggest that interventions that promotes patient’s activation could potentially increase patient engagement in their own treatment, promote a healthier lifestyle, drive healthier behaviors as well as reduce delays in seeing medical attention or going in for annual checkups. Below is the link to the article. Visit the link below and share with other people. You never know who might benefit from this.

I welcome any idea, stories, or just a chance for a friendly exchange. As the link below implies, social engagement brings about a sense of community and belonging which leads to healthier choices which leads to healthier life style.

To me this makes sense, if all your friends are doing the right things, making the right decision, sharing their stories, and taking care of themselves, you are more likely to follow suit. So share your experiences, what can others learn from what you have been through?


Sadun, R.E., and Schanberg, L.E. (2018) Using social media to promote medication adherence. Nat.Rev.Rheumatol.

How I deal with my anxiety as a graduate student.

Anxiety and depression in graduate school is real and is a problem. It can affect your work and your personal relationships. While most institutions provide resources to help their students, many still struggle. Those coping with anxiety or depression, unless pushed, will not come forward and talk about what they are dealing with. No one wants to be a bother, or always being the one complaining. We are all dealing with our own things, so it’s a lot easier to just hide. Despite your difficulties, you are still more important to yourself than your school, your job, or your research. You must take care of yourself first. If you don’t, it does not matter what you want to do, you won’t be able to do it, because you will be too overwhelmed to do much of anything.

Anxiety and depression can occur because of a lot of different things, and while some may say ups and down is part of a normal day, a lot of people feel down all the time. It can be because of school, future, work, a failed relationship, family, self, friends, a bad memory or a bad experience. Whatever the case, it’s real.  A comment from a reader on a previous post about anxiety and how the body responds got me motivated to share my tips on how I deal with my anxiety. Depression is something I have only witnessed, I cannot say with confidence I have experienced it.  Below are 4 things I do to deal with my anxiety.

•    Reach out and talk to someone: It’s such a simple thing to say and can be so hard to do sometimes but talking could make all the difference in the world. Find someone who at minimum is willing to listen, just listen. For me, talking is also an opportunity to process my feelings. When you are inside your head, try saying it out loud sometimes. You will be surprised how different things sounds when you say it to someone else compared to when you say it to yourself.

•    Read: When I start to feel overwhelmed I read. Read a good story or if you are like me, read about the anatomy of anxiety and depression.  I have come to learn that when I do not understand what I am feeling, reading helps. Once I have a picture of some of the possible triggers to my anxiety, I could start to evaluate what has been happening in my life that may have brought about the tension.

•    Exercise: One of the best things you can do for yourself is excise. During training, your body releases growth hormones of various types that strengthen mental and physical capacity, all of which counteract the adverse effects of anxiety and depression.

•    Experience: Broaden your experiences and try new things. Make it a point to try something new, atleast once a month. I have come to realize that, the more I experience, the less anxious I feel. When you try something new, naturally you’ll be anxious, you have never done it before. But the more times you put yourself out there, the more confident you will become. Strength comes from experience. I know that sounds like a quote but the science behind it is cool. Comment below if you would like to know more.

Share your tips on how you deal with anxiety and depression in the comment section below. I welcome stories or resources other students might find helpful. Knowing that someone out there knows what you are going through could make all the difference.

Free food and alcohol in grad school: more important than the research.


As a current graduate student, I feel the most important thing any graduate student should know before knowing anything else about their program is, when and where the free food will be served. This is no joke. Having this information saves both time and money.

One of the things I have come to enjoy the most about my graduate experience thus far is the free alcohol and free food. For those who are living the graduate student life, every second you are not doing anything mentally of physically draining is more important than your research. With this in mind, at least for me, free food on campus is 30 minutes to 60 minutes in which I do not have to spend in the evening cooking. That is time I can spend doing something else, or simply enjoying something on Netflix.

In addition to gaining a few extra minutes to your day, taking advantage of the free food at school keeps a few dollars in your pocket. The money you would have spent on food for that day can now either go in your savings or be used for something else that makes you happy.

The key is to show up at each event with absolutely zero shame. Whatever being served, have your fill, and do not show any remorse taking more than you can eat in one sitting, because whatever is left is for the next day. If you do this right, you can secure yourself enough food for up to three meals. My former mentor actually used to come the guest lectures with containers. At the end of each lecture she would confidently fill up her container with the left over food. I watched other wait for the left over food to be taken to the student lounge. Before it even gets there, there would already be a group of student waiting for its arrival.

So the alcohol. This is something I just recently began to think about. The graduate experience is tough. It is tough mentally, and emotionally and nothing is more relaxing that a cold beer or a glass of wine on Friday evening after a long week of work. The best part it’s all free.

The Anatomy of Anxiety: How The Body Responds


Every now and then I find myself overcome with anxiety. I am anxious about school, my future, my research, my family, and even my personal relationships. I have started to do some reading, trying to understand why am I the way I am. What am I feeling? What is happening to my mind and my body?. Interestingly, once I was able to visual what was happening, I started to come up with ways to get it under control.

My anxieties have prevented me from enjoying the simple things in life, even things that are good for me. I have taken comfort in my solitude and I put more work into being alone because stepping out my room, opening up to someone else, opening up to new experiences is just too overwhelming. The excuse is always one of the following, I’m not prepared, I dont want to, or I dont have anyone to do it with. The goal now is to move away from it, and the first step is to understand it, evaluate the cause and with that come up with ways to make it go away.