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!
151. Avoid These Phrases in Your Peer Review
The Peer Review villain, alternatively known as ‘Reviewer 2’ or ‘Reviewer 3’, has gained meme status. This is the person who takes your submitted journal article, drenches it in red ink, shreds it, burns it, and feeds the ashes to feral pigs.
And unfortunately, it has happened to all of us. There always seems to be one reviewer that doesn’t just ask for additional experiments, but finds a way to cut a little deeper.
Maybe it comes in the form of an emotive shaming (“Disappointingly, the authors failed to cite Smith, 2015”) or a veiled accusation (“It seems possible that the outlier data has been scrubbed from this report.”), but however it happens, it can affect something more than your experiments.
Some hostile comments might make you wonder whether you belong in science at all.
But, it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, it shouldn’t be this way.
This week, we talk with a linguist and a psychologist about carefully crafting your peer reviews.
Peer Review Detox
Dr. Rebekah Baglini and Dr. Christine Parsons realized there was a toxic undercurrent in some reviewers’ writing.
“Rejection is always difficult, but reviews that use emotive or sarcastic language are often the hardest for recipients to deal with, particularly if they are early-career researchers,” the two wrote in their recent article “If you can’t be kind in peer review, be neutral” published in Nature, November 30, 2020.
They argue that scientific reviews should look more like scientific writing: reviews should be neutral, fact-based, and not reflect the personality or emotions of the author.
But the shift to negativity can be subtle, and their article gives many examples:
The fact-based statement “The project proposal didn’t fulfill the stated requirements” can be modified to:
“The project proposal didn’t bother to fulfill the stated requirements.”
“The ‘project proposal’ didn’t fulfill the stated requirements.”
Both modifications drip with contempt, but neither adds value or new information. They just tell us how the reviewer was feeling in that moment.
This week, we talk with Drs. Baglini and Parsons as they unpack the importance of neutral peer review, the words to watch for, and some simple things you can do to make your own writing more appropriate and helpful.
And isn’t that the point?
Dr. Parsons concludes, “You don’t go around punching players on your own team. One of the objectives of peer review is to improve scholarship. Not just your own scholarship, but to improve scholarship in your field.”
For a full list of expressive words and phrases to avoid, see their article in Nature.
To follow their work, find them on Twitter (@RebekahBaglini and @ce_parsons ), or at thea href="https://interactingminds.au.
150. Rediscover Your Scientific Passion
Nadia wanted to help patients. She had considered going to medical school, but found biomedical research to be an exciting opportunity to develop new knowledge and therapies.
After graduate school, she continued her training as a postdoc. She was on the faculty-track, making plans for her project and her next career advancement.
Then, COVID hit.
She was living and working in New York City as the largest pandemic in a century unfolded around her. She realized she had developed some skills over her years of training – PCR, data management, lab operations – that might make a difference in patient outcomes.
So she pressed pause on her postdoctoral work to start a clinical testing lab that now runs 60,000 COVID tests each week.
Center of a Pandemic
Dr. Nadia Khan is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York City.
Dr. Nadia Khan, PhD
When the COVID-19 pandemic started, she realized that her experience preparing RNA samples and performing qPCR would be useful in performing COVID tests.
She reached out to her University, and got started preparing samples at the Mount Sinai COVID lab three days a week. But space was limited, and it wasn’t safe for her to continue working as a volunteer.
But the spark was already glowing: “I liked being able to use my scientific skills in a way that was useful tot he public in a time of need,” she recalls.
Charting a New Course
She teamed up with some contacts at a local biotech startup and forged a COVID testing lab to respond to the pandemic. She now manages nearly 30 employees and makes a sizable impact on COVID-19 in her community.
“I think I’ve always wanted to be a PI and have my own lab and direct a lab group, but now I’m starting to realize that I can be a scientific leader in a different way, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be in the academia world for me to feel successful,” she says.
Looking back at the path she took through her graduate training, Dr. Khan notes that “we only equate our successes with publications or getting awards, and we’re only really exposed to that. We only know one way to feel successful. Once you realize there are other ways to get that satisfaction, it opens doors for you. How else can I use my scientific skills in a way that makes me feel successful and makes me feel good about what I’m doing for the world?”
Her advice for early-stage scientists?
“Keep an open mind, and remember why you got into science.”
149. Yes, Grad Students, You DO Have Transferable Skills
If you’re a graduate student thinking about a career that lies off the tenure track, you’re probably vaguely nervous that your skills at the bench won’t take you very far in the business world.
Career experts always ask you to highlight your ‘transferable skills,’ but what does that actually mean?
Is it true that you’re hiding a set of superpowers beyond just pipetting small amounts of liquid from tube to tube?
This week on the show, we explain the mysterious world of transferable skills, and tell you how to build on those powers while you’re still a student.
It’s All About Context
Definitionally, a transferable skill is just one that you have developed in one setting, but that could be applied in another.
If you’re the lab’s PCR Ace, you can transfer that skill to any other molecular biology lab, clinical diagnostic lab, or even forensics lab. But you’re probably NOT going to use that skill as a bank teller.
When people talk about transferable skills, they’re usually talking about an ability that can be widely applied in many industries. And to see those features of your training, you need to step back and look at your work with a bit of abstraction.
Sure, you won’t be running PCRs in a lot of other careers, but you MAY be called on to do precise measurements, a skill you’ve developed by mixing those reactions.
Moreover, being ‘great’ at PCR means you’re also probably great at the math it takes to determine the concentration of reagents, the ability to manage time so that your gel is poured when the reaction is done. You’re probably stellar at troubleshooting when things don’t turn out the way you expected, and you’re able to synthesize and interpret the data you just genrated.
So while PCR isn’t exactly a transferable skill, you’re demonstrating plenty of broadly useful abilities that hiring managers are looking for.
This week, we walk through just a short list of the many skills you’re developing as a graduate student.
You’re becoming an expert in information management – combing through journal articles, generating experimental data, and communicating your findings to a wider audience.
You’re managing projects, and sticking to a budget and timeline. You’re also leading others, organizing with collaborators and mentoring new students.
The fact is, you’re doing many of the things companies search for, but you need to learn how to translate your experiences into stories they’ll understand.
For help with telling that story, check out this Nature Blogs article on the 3 parts to a compelling transferable skill story.
And for a list of 20 skills you’re developing right now, visit this article from Jobs On Toast.
HelloPhD has also talked about transferable skills before, including this interview with career counselor and author Melanie Sinche!
What are your transferable skills? Leave us a comment below!
148. Listener Mailbag: Contacting Prospective PIs, Supporting Friends, et al!
Happy New Year to all our Hello PhD listeners!
2021 has already been… a lot. But we’re here to help.
This week, we open the mailbag to answer your questions about graduate training and life in the lab.
You Asked for It!
Our first note came from Vibhatha, who found that a Science Writing Checklist we mentioned way back in Episode 21 was missing from the website:
I know this is years later, but I am trying to access the material from the podcast. The following link is not available: http://www.sciencewritingradio.com/hellophd/.Is it possible to get this information? I also tried to check the website, it is also not available. If you can provide an alternative source to grab this information, it would be really helpful for me.
We reached out to our guest from that episode Dr. David Shifrin, and he was able to locate the file. It’s now available in our show notes at 021: The 4 simple tips that will make your writing stand out.
Thanks to Vibhatha and David!
Our next email was from a listener who responded to our recent episode on virtual interviews: 146. Ace Your Virtual Graduate School Interview w/ Dr. Beth Bowman
We asked for your experiences, and what it was like choosing a grad program without ever having set foot on campus.
Lindsey was an early test-subject, virtually interviewing in Spring 2020. Here’s how that turned out:
Hi Josh and Dan!I just started my Ph.D. this fall in mechanical engineering. I was going through the interview process right as the Covid lockdowns started in the US, so I only got to visit half of the schools that I was accepted to. In the end, I was deciding between a school that I got to visit in person and one that I was not able to visit. I ended up going to the school that I did not visit in person. It was definitely scary to commit to a school and a city that I hadn’t been to. Talking to students on Zoom really helped get a sense of the culture, even though it was a lot less information than I got from visiting in person. I’m very happy with my decision and love my research topic and the wonderful people that I get to work with!
That’s great news, and thanks to Lindsey for sharing! If you have experience with virtual interviews, feel free to leave a comment below, or email us at email@example.com.
Hello? Is Anyone There?
Brian wrote to find out if there is a better way to contact potential PhD advisors. He’s been getting a lot of nothing when he emails his request.
I have a question that I would love to get your take on: what is the optimal way, and time, to email prospective PIs?In my emails to PIs thus far, I have included a bit of my background, expressed my specific interest in their work, asked if they were taking on new students and if so, if they would be able to meet to further discuss their research. My response has been limited, and I would like to increase my impact going forward. As far as timing, do you think there’s an optimal time over the next few weeks to email PIs so that I can form connections in advance of admission decisions?
This one is tricky, because Brian is trying to make contact during the Holida...
147. 2020: A Year in Review
It’s no stretch to say that 2020 was a hard year for almost everyone. It was marked by a global pandemic, social upheaval, and loss.
The word ‘unprecedented’ lost all meaning around March, and we navigated uncharted waters for the remainder of the year.
2020 was rough, but now that it’s over, it’s time to look back at what we learned.
What do we want to carry forward, and what aspects are we happy to leave behind?
Like the rest of the world, graduate students, postdocs and other academics couldn’t escape the 2020 maelstrom. In the early months of the pandemic, labs closed and years-long experiments were discarded.
Then, just as suddenly, labs reopened, but under tight restrictions and the ever-looming threat of illness from COVID-19.
Meanwhile, in the US, outrage over the killing of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless others forced a reckoning about how our society treats people of color – not just in policing, but in every aspect of our lives.
These themes influenced our conversations here on Hello PhD.
We interviewed students and faculty whose research was put on hold for the pandemic. And we spoke with thought-leaders who helped us envision a more inclusive academia.
This week on the show, we look back on our favorite conversations of 2020, and think more about the lessons we want to carry into 2021. We hope you’ll join us!
Here’s a breakdown of our favorite episodes by topic:
* COVID-19* 130. Coronavirus, and Life Outside the Lab* 131. How to Host a Dissertation Defense On Zoom* 134. Lessons from the Quarantine* 139. Back to School During a Pandemic* 146. Ace Your Virtual Graduate School Interview w/ Dr. Beth Bowman* Diversity and Inclusion* 135. The Science Training Toolbox with Dr. Andres De Los Reyes. Plus, Antiracism for Academia* 136. Rebuilding an Inclusive Academia with Dr. Ashalla Freeman* 142. Advancing Racial Equity in Science w/ Dr. Kenneth Gibbs* Author Interviews* 133. Galileo and the Science Deniers – with Dr. Mario Livio* 135. The Science Training Toolbox with Dr. Andres De Los Reyes. Plus, Antiracism for Academia* 137. Tools for Finding a Research Mentor* 144. Finding a Career that Fits with Marlys Hanson* Mailbag* 126. Listener Mailbag – Ghost PIs, Dress Codes, and Mental Health with Susanna Harris* a href="http://hellophd.com/2020/02/127-listener-mailbag-how-do-you-sta...
029. Tenure Tracker: Choose a Mentor, Not a Lab w/ Natasha Snider, PhD (R)
Choosing a lab for your graduate or postdoc research is one of the most important decisions you’ll make. Most people read papers and abstracts to find the coolest science. Or they favor the big labs with lots of people and solid funding.
But those features can distract you from the real secret of scientific success.
Your Mentor Matters
Dr. Natasha Snider, PhD
This week on the show, we kick off a new series where we interview the people with truly alternative careers – the tenure track faculty! Josh sits down with Natasha Snider, Assistant Professor of Cell Biology and Physiology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
As a recent faculty hire (just over 1 year), Dr. Snider remembers all the details of graduate school and postdoc life that contributed to her success, and shares them on the show.
First and foremost, she recalls the importance of good mentors in her scientific training. Rather than choosing high-profile labs or being drawn into the latest research craze, she assessed the character of the PI and the culture of the lab.
“[I did one interview with] one of the brilliant scientists where you know you’re going to get these hot papers, but one of the first things he said was that he doesn’t yell at his people as much as he used to… After that, I sat through the interview but I knew that wasn’t [the lab for me]”
Aside from obvious anger issues, Dr. Snider shares the warning signs of monster mentors (those are anagrams!), and what type of lab environment you should seek instead.
Good mentors were a foundation for her training, but she also took every opportunity to explore other careers and to build a solid network. She talks about the importance of meeting as many scientists as possible, and tells the story of how she decided to take a faculty position instead of an industry job.
A foraging we will go
And to celebrate the first cold-snap of the season, we enjoy the Fullsteam Brewery – First Frost 2015 Foraged Persimmon Ale. If you haven’t gotten around to foraging your own persimmons this season, then you’re probably too late, and this high-gravity brew is your best bet for sampling the “Fruit of the Gods.”