Writing Early could save you Weeks or Even Months Down the Road

Last week I had a scheduled meeting with my program director. It was a routine checkup, just to see how I am doing, have I picked a lab? How do I like the lab and what do I see my future looking like? Towards the end of that meeting, we started talking about my research topic. She started asking me question that made me ask myself as she was talking, are these things I am supposed to know now? or three years from now?

She recommended I start writing early. She is not the first person to tell me this. Writing a final dissertation or even a grant proposal takes an enormous amount of time and effort. Starting early is never a bad idea. Daily, I read between 3-6 papers, some related to my research topic, while others are more general. Summarizing each piece into a short paragraph could lead to an accumulation of material that you may later use to write the introduction/literature review section of your final paper, or the introduction/literature review section of poster or grant proposal.  I once watched a former co-worker of mine freak out for an entire month about how stressed she as about her final paper and presentation. Her paper was due in a matter of week and her defense was schedule for around the same time. A week prior to both of those deadlines, she wrote her paper and prepared her presentation. I was wanted to ask her, why were you freaking out again? You clearly had more than enough time. Not too many people can do this. I know I can’t. I learned early that I am the kind of student who need time, a lot of time before I can turn any assignment in. If that is you, always remember to start early.

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I did five lab rotation when everyone is only expected to do three

In most graduate school applications, you are asked to talk about your research area of interest. At some schools, you can apply directly into a department and hit the ground running, while in others have applications for broader programs. Regardless of the type of program, lab rotations are required prior to choosing who it is you will work with until you graduate.

In my program, students are required to do 3 rotations prior to selecting and committing to a lab in which they will complete their thesis project. I decided to do 5 rotations. Prior to starting a rotation, you are expected to research through a list of potential advisors, submit their names to the program director, and only after you get the green light letting you know that it is okay for you to start your rotation with them, do you proceed. I decided to do things my own way. Like every other student, I submitted my list of potential advisors who I thought I might want to work with, but the ones I put down were not who I ended up working with. I followed through with my first rotation as planned but It was not what I expected it to be. I spent seven weeks merely reading papers, biting my time for when someone would come around and teach me something. Don’t get me wrong, I didn’t just passively sit there, I was proactively moving around the lab, asking questions, observing where I can, and asking how it was that I could help. I sort after any potential work that I could do hoping that my enthusiasm and willingness to learn would grant me a project of my own. But before I knew it, the rotation was over, the most that I did was a BSA protein quantification assay and an occasionally helped in the cell culture room.

I learned that this is the experience of many first year PhD students. The PI who ran that lab told me that the true purpose of a rotation was to give you exposure, not a project. Sometimes exposure means merely showing up, watching and asking questions. I understood, and it was fine, I learned a lot through just talking things out and reading about them.

After the experience I decided to switch who I had planned to do my second rotation with. I made the transition smoothly and only asked for approval after I had already changed my mind and started working.  This worked out great. I liked the lab, and even like the people in the lab, and I liked the project that was lined up for me. Apparently, I did a good enough job and the PI asked me if I would like to make his lab my dissertation lab. I agree because it felt like we saw eye to eye. But the next day, he asked another student as well. So now this guy was planning on taking on two students. This is fine, except for that fact that my program had this rule that each lab can only take one student at a time. This cause a bit of some drama. I was advised not to make a final decision on what it was that I was going to do, especially since at that point I still had an entire rotation left to complete.

I went through with my third rotation. This was the lab I was most excited about, but sadly it did not turn out as I expected. During my third rotation I learned that I needed an advisor who was more readily available. Some students are independent, can think for themselves and can service perfectly fine merely emailing their advisor. Additionally, some students can also come in in their first year and designed their own project. I am not one of those students. During this rotation, I felt I was going to be left stranded and aimlessly floating around waiting to figure out what it was I was supposed to do. I need an advisor who is available for more than just one 1hr every week and commits more than 7 minutes of that hour to his or her students project. I like a PI who has an open-door policy and if he or she cannot be in the lab, then there should be a senior students or senior scientists that can show me where things are and how things are done in the lab.

These concerns led me to my 4 rotation. At this point I am learning, just because someone work is a good fit with your interests, it does not mean you have to pick them. For me, it was important that the advisor, the project, and the lab culture was a good fit for me. I did my 4th rotation without telling anyone. It lasted a week and half. I did one assay, and within 10 days, I learned what the lab was about, what they did, and the culture of the lab. I liked it, but I had two concerns. One, the senior student I was working with told me I should consider elsewhere and only if everything else does not work, should I consider his lab. This made me feel like maybe I was not wanted. When I thought about it, it felt like maybe they did not take me seriously because I was bouncing around so much, and I only scheduled a week-long rotation with them, so maybe they felt like I was not serious myself.

When I started my 5th rotation, the lab which I ended up choosing, the PI of the lab received me with a lot of enthusiasm. My program director email him, (a program outside the graduate program) told him I was looking for one last rotation and asked if he could host me for a few weeks as I learn how things are done. In a sense I came somewhat recommended, by, circumstance. This must have given him some impression that maybe I’m smart. We set up a meeting and met within a few days. I liked the guy right off the back. Calm focused, smart, motivated, has a lot of work going on in his lab and a lot of funding. I liked what he was working on and looking forward I saw that I would received a full education in his lab.

I came into this program interested in virology and host pathogen interaction and ended choosing to work on rheumatic disease with a specific focus on spondylarthrosis. I’ve been told that I strayed away from my initial inters, I was unfocused and did not know what I wanted, I say, I knew what I wanted, and this integrated program has given me the chance to learn about a lot of different fields. Pathogens has been implicated with development of a lot of rheumatic disease and autoinflammatory dieases, so from a different angle, I feel I am doing exactly what I came here to do.

Planning it all out..

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First, I have to say, plans are meant to be changed. But no matter how many times you must change the plan, I have come to realize that, having a plan, no matter how disorganized, is always better than not having a plan at all. So, don’t hesitate to go back to your planner to redraw and re-plan things out. I firmly believe its all part of the process.

We were asked to think carefully about how we want to go about our graduate education. Looking forward in time can be a little overwhelming. It is 2018 and I have just finished my first year of the program but now I am being told that I have to figure out how I want to go about the next four years. It is a bit much. Below I will highlight what this plan is supposed to look like. For my program, the goal is to get you out within 5 years. Even I can see that this is just hopefully thinking. For some people it takes the additional sixth year to finish because a lot of things goes into how quickly one finishes their program. There is the personal motivation, support, project, and most importantly the advisor.

  1. Year One (2017-2018)
    •  Courses
    •  Lab Rotation
    • Select a Lab
    •  Pass the comprehensive cumulative exam
  2.  Year Two (2018-2019)
    •  Courses
    • Pre-dissertation Research
    • Pass the qualifying exam (defend your proposal)
    •  Form committee
  3. Year three (2019-2020)
    • Pre-dissertation research
    • Develop a research plan
    • Hopefully, publish a paper
    • Attend a conference (present a poster)
    • Make sure to meet with your committee a few times during this year
    • Think about writing a grant proposal
  4. 4.       Year four (2020-2021)
    •  Pre-dissertation research
    •  Start writing your dissertation
    • Schedule to meet with your committee
    • Attend conferences/Meetings
    •  Start thinking about what you want to do after graduation
  5. 5.       Year five (2021-2022)
    1.  Finish Project
    2.  Finish writing
    3.  Plan your future
    4.  Defend your thesis
    5. Graduate and Leave

It all seems like a lot, but 5 years is a very long time, and through each step there are people to reach out to that can assist you in planning everything out. A mist everything you must deal with, life still must happen, and I think this is what makes the whole experience so difficult. You have your personal aspirations outside of your studies, there are friends and naturally family is always there, so a balance is critical.

After completing the required course work, on average, you spend 10 hours in the lab. Breaks and holidays becomes a myth and are only possible if you are up to speed with everything that you need to do. So there are no built-in weekends, breaks or vacation. All that will be determined by how organized you are.

Slowly but surely you become a spectator to the outside life because your work demands unreasonable time commitment. This is made worse by the countless failed experiments. By year five, most students are angry, depressed, and more than ready to leave. I know it sounds scary, its no different than any other thing in life that requires time and energy, so when done correctly, the benefits can be worth the time commitment.

Some of these things I have yet to experience, but what I have seen, is that when graduation comes around, you do not see a single sad face. Everyone is celebrating, making thank you speeches, and most move on to what they always pictured themselves doing.

 

Advice from a 10-year-Old

My niece just turned 10. She finished 4th grade and will be starting the 5th grade come the fall. Her hobbies include soccer, playing with her friends at the playground and spending time with her younger sister. While sitting at the dinner table I asked her, what does a 4th grader think about? What do they care about? What makes them happy? What makes them sad? What are 5 things a 5th grader should keep in mind to be successful? She decided to answer the last question because she felt in giving those 5 things, she would be able to answer all my previous questions. After about 2 hours of going back and forth, below are the 5 things my 10-year-old niece told me, that I should always keep in mind.

  1. Be Smart: As a student it is important to keep up good grades. The grades are everything.
  2. Be Fit: It is important to be fit because you don’t want to get tired playing with your friends. Take good care of your body because it looks good and feels good when you are fit.
  3. Don’t worry about your future: Try not to worry too much about your future because if you worry too much, you will start to get anxious about everything. When you start to get all anxious about everything, either everything goes wrong, or you just won’t be able to do anything because you are too anxious.
  4. Get the Job Done: As a student, if you don’t do your job, you can get the good grades, and if you can’t get the good grades you will get in trouble.
  5. Be Polite: Remember your manners. This is the first thing people see from you, and if you re rude, no one will want to be your friend.

This was a conversation that went on for what felt like 4 hours. We went back and forth discussing the finer details of each point above.  I feel she even surprised herself. I could not tell if she was just trying to impress me or if these are things she thinks about when she is alone. But either way I was very impressed.