Science is hard work, but making it through a PhD program and into a rewarding career can seem downright impossible. Wouldn’t it be nice if someone shared the secrets for success at every stage? Admissions, rotations, classes, quals, research, dissertations, job-hunting – avoid the pitfalls and get back to doing what you love. It's like getting a PhD in getting a PhD!
179. Teaching Opportunities for Grad Students w/ Dr. Alaina Talboy
We’ve all met them – the unsung heroes of your Intro To (Biology, Psychology, History, etc.) class.
Sure, they don’t give the lectures, but that’s about the only responsibility they dodge. Instead, they’re leading lab sessions, holding office hours, proctoring exams, and grading papers.
They’re the Teaching Assistants, or TAs, and they’re a critical part of undergraduate education.
But who are these heroes without capes?
We learn more in this week’s show!
We’re joined once again by Dr. Alaina Talboy, author of What I Wish I Knew: A Field Guide for Thriving in Graduate Studies. We last talked with her about why you should never refer to yourself as a ‘graduate student!’
This week, she’s here to respond to a listener question sent in by Kristi:
My question is – is there a place for people who just love teaching in academia? My dream one day is to be a professor, but I’m not sure I’d thrive in the “publish or perish” environment.
Dr. Talboy assures us there IS a place in academia for those who want to teach, you just need to know where to look.
And there are plenty of opportunities for graduate trainees to gain experience while also earning that PhD.
Three Types of Teaching Opportunities
There are certainly MORE than just three teaching opportunities for graduate students, but the three below are accessible and require different levels of commitment.
1. Teaching Assistant / Course Assistant
The illustrious TA. As mentioned above, a TA has a wide variety of responsibilities from leading labs to proctoring exams. You’ll be expected to know the course material, attend the lectures, and make yourself available for office hours.
A TA position is often required by the department that takes you on as a graduate trainee. It may be one of the criteria they use to award your stipend, and you’re expected to spend about 20 hours per week on the role.
The challenge is that 20 hours a week doesn’t leave much time for you to take your own graduate-level courses, or to embark on a novel research project. Time management is key at this stage, and Dr. Talboy shares some tips for managing student expectations.
“I always put in my lab syllabus that I answer emails within 24 hours with the exception of the weekend,” she says. “And I do not answer emails beyond 5:00 PM on Friday because I am off work. And that is a really important rule to set up for yourself!”
“Don’t answer emails on weekends, man. Just don’t do it!”
A Course Assistant may have additional responsibilities, like delivering some lectures in lieu of the main professor. It’s a great way to get some experience in front of the class.
2. Instructor of Record
As a TA, you were teaching, proctoring, and grading someone else’s course material. You weren’t expected to create the lesson plans, lectures, homework, or exams.
As the “Instructor of Record” you start with a blank slate and build the course from the bottom up.
This can take from 100-300 hours depending on the ...
178. I Didn’t Even Know “Research” Was a Thing!
For some students, graduate schools is a foregone conclusion.
Perhaps they’ve wanted to ‘be a scientist’ since they were nine, and along the way, they learned that a PhD is a stepping stone on that path. Or perhaps they knew their career prospects with a Bachelor’s degree were thin, so they new an advanced degree was in the future.
But Josh wasn’t that student. He was a junior in college before he even learned that ‘research scientist’ was a career that he could pursue.
This week, we revisit his-story. (See what I did there?)
Josh wasn’t always a research program administrator and podcast host – in fact, he came to the research career path relatively late in his undergraduate training.
This week on the show, Josh looks back at those formative years. He describes how his high school classes limited his exposure to the biology career he’d eventually love.
He also describes the ambivalence he felt in his early undergraduate training, exploring options in math, chemistry, and physics that just didn’t capture his attention.
But everything changed when he sat down with his academic advisor. She suggested ‘research’ – a career he didn’t even know existed. She connected him with a faculty member at his University who was just setting up a new lab.
And the rest, as they say, is history.
Tune in to hear his insights, memories, and all the things he wished he knew when starting out.
177. Mailbag: Is Academia Lonely? And, Lab Tech vs. Med Tech
You send questions to firstname.lastname@example.org, and we answer them on the show!
Is research always this lonely?
This week, we hear from “Foobar”, a computer science PhD student in Germany, who is wondering whether academia is always as lonely as she is feeling right now.
Just like every other student, I had to find a teeny-tiny problem which lies in a sub-field of a sub-field and make it the topic of my PhD studies. The group that I am in counts five people, me included, and everybody studies different problems in different sub-fields. Each student has their own experiments, which are not related, to the point where I am not familiar with the technical details of their work, and they are also not familiar with my experiments. Collaborations are not really encouraged, as we need first-author publications, and there is no immediate incentive for them to discuss any detail of my day-to-day experiments with me (let’s not even mention helping). People come in and are polite, but there’s not much to talk about, and our PI is incredibly busy — we get one hour a week to discuss whatever we need and that’s it.Am I under the wrong impression that PhD students / academics may work more closely? Is it normal to be 100% on your own? Most of my friends are outside the university, and they are not computer scientists, thus it happens often that I cannot discuss my everyday work life with anybody.
“Foobar” is in a tough situation. She finds herself in a lab where collaboration is not only difficult because of disparate subjects, but it’s actively discouraged in favor of first-author papers.
The good news is, academic research ISN’T always so siloed. Not only have we experienced great scientific collaborations, we’ve also enjoyed the camaraderie working in a lab with some truly wonderful people.
Our advice for “Foobar” is to make collegiality one of her criteria as she graduates and looks for a new lab. She can also find ‘research buddies’ within the department, on Science Twitter, and at conferences.
Will a medical lab technician job help me get into grad school?
Next, we have a question from Grant, who is wondering whether getting a job running medical lab tests will help prepare him for a PhD program.
Thanks for your inspiring pod! I have a BS and want to get research experience in order to attend grad school, and like the recommendation to become a lab tech first. I am considering a two-year program that would make me a Medical Lab Technician, but am not sure this is the kind of lab tech experience grad schools would value; I don’t think it would count as research experience. What are your thoughts?
As an avid listener, Grant has heard us say time and time again that a great way to get experience for your grad school application is to work as a lab tech for a year or two.
But what he points out is that we use the term ‘lab tech’ pretty loosely, and never really define it!
First, we encourage Grant to think a bit about his career goals. There ARE jobs for which a Medical Lab Technician role can be a stepping stone to a career he’d love.
But for a PhD program doing basic, exploratory scientific research, that medical lab tech role might not be as helpful.
Basic research is dedicated to answering questions no one has ever asked before. It’s tied intimately to the Scientific Method that starts with a hypothesis, tests that through a series of experiments, and reaches a conclusion.
176. Stop Calling Yourself a ‘Grad Student’ w/ Dr. Alaina Talboy
Titles are a part of our identity. If you meet a school teacher, computer programmer, or rocket scientist, you will instantly form an impression of what kind of person they are without any additional information.
The bias we impose upon hearing a title can be good or bad, of course. But we all invariably take these mental shortcuts, and it influences how we treat the people we meet.
What’s interesting is that these titles reflect on us, as well. What I call myself impacts what I expect from my work, and how I expect others to treat me in my role.
This week on the show, we talk with a PhD who helps current graduate students as they explore careers outside of academia. And she has some advice on how you can reimagine your graduate title.
What I Wish I Knew
This week, we’re joined by Dr. Alaina Talboy. She’s an educator and cognitive neuroscientist who successfully transitioned to industry after graduate school, turning down the opportunity to take a faculty position.
“Both offers had their pros and cons”, she recalls. “But ultimately I had to make the choice, not just for me, but for my family.”
And though the choice to leave academia was intimidating, she found happiness and success ‘on the outside’.
Now, she devotes a few hours each Friday afternoon to the service of current graduate students. She opens her calendar to ‘coffee chats’ where grad students can connect and find a listening supporter.
Dr. Talboy describes it this way: “In these coffee chats, people from academia – whether they’re currently enrolled, thinking about enrolling, just finished their PhD, or any kind of conversation that comes from an academic background – they are free to come and talk to me, get any advice that I could possibly give and, in my way, help them make their next decision just by providing information.”
Over the years, she noticed some common themes and threads that tied the conversations together, and that inspired her to write her new book, What I Wish I Knew: A Field Guide for Thriving in Graduate Studies.
The Graduate Career
One of Dr. Talboy’s insights is that when we think of ourselves as ‘grad students’, all sorts of other issues will follow.
She says that new students often have the misconception that graduate school is ‘just more school’. They are often surprised and overwhelmed to learn that the skills they honed as an undergraduate will not be enough to get them through graduate training.
“You’re no longer just a student.” she says. “You are also an educator. You’re going to be teaching courses, probably. Or you might have a research stipend where you’re engaging in research activities. You’re working in a lab seven or eight hours a day.”
“So there are a whole bunch of hats that people take on as a ‘graduate student’ that really changes their experience.”
Aside from the culture shock of expecting to be a ‘student’ in the way they remember, graduate trainees also fall in the trap of believing that their new role is still not a ‘real job’.
That has many consequences. In a ‘real job’,
175. Four Research Traps (And How to Avoid Them)
The day-to-day reality of many graduate programs is that you’ll spend most of your time doing research.
Even if you don’t end up working in a lab or doing experiments forever in your career (and most people don’t!), being able complete experiments is going to help you efficiently progress through your program and eventually GRADUATE. And isn’t that what we all want?
This week, we cover some common pitfalls that suck your time and erode your confidence. We’ve got advice for avoiding those traps and making the most of your time in the lab. Yes, it’s about getting stuff done. But it’s also about getting the RIGHT stuff done in the right way.
Trap 1. Not Knowing Your Central Question
When Josh works with students, he always pushes them to make sure they have a clear understanding of what their research question is.
No matter what field you’re in or how broad or focused your specific project is, you probably have SOME specific question you’re trying to answer, and it’s important to be able to articulate that.
When a student doesn’t have a clear idea of what the research question is, it’s hard for them to effectively talk about the project either formally in a seminar or at lab meeting, or even informally with their PI or other lab mates.
This advice may seem obvious, but it happens too often that when you start in a new lab, you’re barraged with new info and techniques and papers. You’re trying to keep up, and the next thing you know, a week, a month, or even a year has gone by!
It’s only then that you realize… “Hey wait, what am I trying to do here?”
Besides making it hard to think or talk about your science, losing sight of your central question can make it harder to maintain your motivation. You lose sight of the connection between what you’re doing day-to-day and the big picture: WHY you are doing it.
If this describes you, stop what you’re doing, scrap your experiments for the afternoon, and take enough time to understand your central question. What you MIGHT find out is that you don’t know because no one told you, or there truly is some hole in the logic or flaw in the experimental design. Maybe you can figure it out on your own, but honestly, don’t be afraid to just come clean with your PI or another trusted person in your lab.
And don’t give up until you understand what you’re doing, why, and how it fits into the big picture. Once you have a firm grasp on that, a lot of other productivity and confidence will follow because now you’re able to frame each of your experiments, conversations, and presentations with that solid understanding of your main question.
Trap 2: Making Your Plans in the Morning
There’s an old cliche: “A failure to plan is a plan to fail.” This next tip is about just that… making a plan.
Early on in graduate school, Josh’s general way of being organized and having a plan was to show up in the morning, get a cup of coffee, chat with folks in the lab about last night’s episode of American Idol (or whatever show was popular in the mid 2000s) and then finally sit down at the lab bench with a notebook to start making a list of the experiments he wanted to do.
It would be 10:30 AM and he hadn’t even started pipetting anything yet, or even worse, he was hungry and ready for lunch before he even got started!
Beyond the loss of productivity and time, this led to hectic afternoons as he frantically tried to fit in all the things he was hoping to get d...
116. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Summer Students (R)
Ten weeks is not a long time. It feels even shorter when you’re tossed into the deep-end of a top-tier research lab.
If you’re spending your summer as a Research Assistant between semesters, or you’ve graduated and want to get some summer experience before grad school, we have ideas to help you hit the ground running.
This week, we respond to a listener question. Talia wrote:
This summer I had an AMAZING opportunity to do research at my dream school. I am a public health undergraduate and I have experience mostly in qualitative methods and community-based research. This summer I’ll be in a really cool epigenetics lab. I have very little background in biology and even less bench lab experience.For all of you bench lab folks and people in a mentoring capacity, what makes an undergraduate research assistant “coachable”? What habits do you love/don’t love in your RAs?
Great question, and we’re sure Talia is not alone in feeling unprepared for her first foray in the lab. Classes and textbooks are worlds away from the hands-on experience of research.
That’s why we crowd-sourced the traits other scientists want to see in summer research students. If you follow these guidelines, you can expect to make lifelong friends and have a solid letter of recommendation by the end of the summer
7 Habits for Summer Research
If you’re interested in a research career, you’ve probably done well in your classes and often been the smartest person in the room. That’s great for your self-confidence, but it’s going to drive your lab-mates and mentors crazy.
When you start as an undergraduate student research assistant, recognize that no one expects you to be an expert.
They expect you to be teachable.
That means asking questions when you are unsure about the material or getting help on the experiment where things are unclear.
And even if you have some prior experience, no one wants to hear you say “That’s not how we did it in my old lab…” Take a breath and be ready to learn a new way of doing things. Maybe the ‘old way’ was better, but you’ll never know until you try the new way!
Pay Attention to Detail
Research is all about the details, and your ability to focus and follow directions precisely will help you succeed.
Have your mentor observe and offer tips on improving your technique – things like pipetting accuracy or clearly labeling samples will make or break an experiment.
And in the first few weeks, we recommend keeping your headphones in your pocket and out of your ears. Get a few successful trials under your belt before you add other distractions while you work.
Engage with the Science
Having a summer student means an ‘extra set of hands’ in the lab, and that’s valuable, but you should strive to be more than a gel-running robot.
To get the most out of your summer research experience, do what you can to actually understand the work you’re doing.
That means asking about how your experiments fit in with the broader goals of the lab. Maybe you’re working toward a figure in a paper – take the time to see the forest for the trees.
It also means trying to understand the techniques and reagents you’re using. How does this enzyme work? Why are we adding this buffer?