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!
141. Why We (Still) Podcast
What makes two PhDs who escaped from grad school years ago want to revisit all the highs and lows of their training? Short answer: Beer!
But the long answer: Grad school is no cakewalk – classes are challenging, experiments fail, and sometimes, PIs seem like they’re from another planet. We made it through one day at a time, relying on regular conversations and scheming over a beer at the end of a long week.
Hello PhD is your chance to join those conversations and benefit from the experience of other scientists who have made their living in, and out of, the lab. We want to help you take advantage of all of the great benefits of your science training experience, and avoid some of the mistakes and pitfalls.
In this episode, we revisit the early days of Hello PhD, and look back on why we started the show in the first place.
Some things haven’t changed – admissions are still mysterious, PIs are still a pain, and experiments still fail.
But some things HAVE changed for the better, and we want to celebrate the demise of the GRE and the uptick in ‘alternative career’ training.
After 5 years ‘on the air’, it felt important to look back at the ground we’ve covered, and ‘renew our vows’ to make graduate training more effective and less likely to ruin your life.
There’s still so much to do, but we’re honored to walk that road with you, our audience. Here’s to the next 5 years of Hello PhD!
We raise a glass of Surf Melon by Oxbow Brewing Co to celebrate 5 years. It’s a Farmhouse Ale with watermelon, sea salt, and lime coming all the way from Newcastle Maine.
140. Mailbag: Do I need more experience? Biology vs. biomedical. Et al!
You keep sending questions, we keep answering them!
Take My Advice
In our last mailbag episode, we noted that ‘comprehensive exams’ or ‘prelims’ varied not only by University but even department to department in one school.
We asked you for your experience, and wanted to share just one of those repsonses:
My department (Computer Science and Engineering) doesn’t even really have an “exam”. Instead, if you pass certain required classes with a 3.0 or higher then you have passed the comprehensive exam. I’m not sure what passing a few classes is supposed to evaluate. Thank you both for doing what you’re doing.-Josh
So there you have it, there’s even a comprehensive exam that is NOT a comprehensive exam. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯
Next up, a listener took our advice to spend some time getting experience before going back to school. And that led him down a different, but no-less-satisfying path.
…I started a job at a large engineering company right after graduating and got to spend the first 6 months of employment studying and learning technical subjects I wasn’t able to study during undergrad. Now I am doing work that I really enjoy and continue to learn every day. This summer I began the first class of my Master’s degree in Robotics Engineering! I will be taking one class a semester online (funded by my company) while continuing to work full time.I know it is not the traditional academic path, and it’s not even a PhD. But I am excited to be continuing my formal education, and I am grateful for the guidance and perspective you two provided to help my decision making. Keep up the great work!– Adam
This vs. That
Next up, Christy wonders what’s the big difference between a biology department and a biomedical department. They’re both just basic research, right?
I was wondering if you have done any episodes that talk about the differences between biological and biomedical science PhD programs. I have come across numerous schools that have both. I know that the former tends to be more focused on basic science whereas the latter might be more translational, but I would be really interested in hearing more similarities and differences. If you have already done an episode on this, could you let me know where to find it? And if not, maybe you could consider doing one in the future. -Christy
We highlight the different focuses, like ecology, plant biology, environmental science, human diseases, and where to find each. We also point out that the funding systems are different and it’s worth understanding where that money is coming from before you sign up.
Last, we hear from an applicant who spent 3 years in one lab. Now he’s applying to graduate school and worries that he’ll only have one letter of recommendation:
Dear Josh and Dan,I am currently working on my Fall 2021 PhD applications. One concern I have is that I have worked in a single lab as an undergraduate. I joined relatively early on in my undergraduate career (late in my first semester), so I have been working in it for nearly 3 years now. However, this means that I only really have one letter of recommendation from a PI that I have done research with. Do you think this will hold me back when it comes to PhD admissions?Thank you both very much in advance and for putting out so many hel...
139. Back to School During a Pandemic
In March 2020, the world shut down.
International borders were sealed. Businesses shuttered. Schools locked their doors and students were sent home to learn ‘remotely.’
At the same time, many universities and research labs also closed down for the summer of COVID-19. While a few labs remained open as essential research continued, many scientists froze down samples, trashed cell lines, and went home to spend some quality time with PubMed.
But now as summer wanes, the research labs are thawing out.
This week on the show, we called three researchers at different universities and in different career stages to find out what it’s like to go back to lab amid a pandemic.
We learn how they spent the quarantine, and whether they’re ready to return to the bench.
We also find out what policies are in place for a safe return, and what extra precautions they’re taking to avoid contracting or spreading this still-dangerous disease.
We talk about many serious challenges:
* How do you learn a new technique when no one can sit near you?* What can first-year students learn in a rotation when the PI is never there?* Is it possible to socially-distance in the tissue culture room, or is everyone safe if they just wear a mask?* How do core-facilities process samples if the researcher is not there to guide the process?
But we also find some silver linings:
* Every student can attend virtual research meetings.* Every scientist, no matter where in the world, can give a departmental seminar* Taking time away from the lab can inspire more creative thinking and detailed planning.
No one wants this pandemic to last a minute longer than necessary, but the scientists we interviewed show they are resilient, resourceful, and dedicated to their research – just as you would expect.
138. Listener Mail: Changing Fields, Comprehensive Exams, et al!
The mailbag is overflowing, and it’s time to answer YOUR questions.
First up is Leslie, whose summer internship was cancelled by COVID. Now it’s not clear whether a fall application to grad school will be successful.
Dear Josh and Dan,I am an undergrad at a small liberal arts college looking to apply to biomedical PhD programs this year. At my school, there are very few opportunities to do research outside of course-related labs. I’ve listened to a lot of your podcasts about applying to grad school, and I’ve learned that research experience is one of the most important parts of a PhD program application. I was able to intern at a lab in a large research institution last summer, and I was admitted to an REU program on the West coast this summer. Like many programs, the REU was cancelled due to the pandemic. I was really excited for this opportunity, and I am worried that this will hurt my chances of being accepted. Will admissions committees take into account the fact that most summer internship experiences were cancelled this year? Should I mention on my application that I was admitted to the REU program?
We talk about all the tectonic shifts that COVID has caused in the academic world. And while some changes (like class grades moving to pass/fail) are no big deal, the quality of your research experience remains paramount.
We share some ideas for getting that experience over the coming months, and how to hedge your bets.
Next up, Ethan is hoping to enter a new research field that is far outside his prior experience.
Hello!This summer, I graduated with an undergrad degree in Mathematics and I’m about to start a PhD in Mechanistic Biology (focussing on plant genetics). Luckily, I have found a supportive supervisor with a background in computer science. I’m very hopeful she will be able to help me navigate the transition from a purely theoretical perspective to a mix of wet-lab science and bioinformatics. I’m aware of how important the supervisor-student relationship is and I’m glad I’ve developed this positive relationship.However, I am struggling to find examples of students who have moved straight into a new topic after undergrad. The main difficulty I envisage is the culture shock I’ll face while working in the biology department, and the different expectations and values relating to research. Do you have any advice about surviving (and hopefully thriving by using my niche set of skills!) in this new environment?
Of course we have advice! 😀
We’re pretty certain Ethan’s background in math and programming are going to be in demand in his new program. As the biological sciences increasingly embrace large data sets, having some tech-chops will put him ahead of his peers.
At the same time, we think it’s important for Ethan to do the hard work of catching up on what he’s missed in the biological sciences. Learning the new field deeply will unlock insights that a single-subject scientist will never see.
He also needs to be ready to deal with the impostor syndrome that affects every student. It just may be more pronounced as he gets his feet wet in a new academic ocean.
Last, but not least, Rhiannon is wrestling with not only a pandemic, but also with comprehensive exams!
Hey Josh and Daniel,I’ve been listening to your podcast for the better part of my PhD and I absolutely love it! It’s my favourite thing to listen to during the long days of cell culture. 😀With the current COVID-19 situation, I’ve decided to use the time away from the bench to...
137. Tools for Finding a Research Mentor
There are two conflicting truths for many early-career graduate students:
* The mentor you choose is vitally important, and can impact your ability to complete a PhD and your career trajectory years into the future.* Many students choose a mentor based on feelings, hunches, and hearsay.
Truth 1 should be self-evident by now. A mentor trains you, helps you develop a research program, and ultimately has a say in when and how you graduate.
Later, they will also write you letters of recommendation and speak with the search committee that may consider you for a faculty position.
Toxic mentor relationships have driven countless students away from science altogether, and healthy mentor relationships have acted as a springboard for fruitful research careers.
But what about Truth 2?
Given the importance of choosing a mentor, why do so many students ‘rely on their gut’ when making this life-altering decision?
This week, we talk with a scientist who has developed the tools and framework for making that choice more rigorous, and hopefully, more successful.
Dr. Andres De Los Reyes, PhD
Finding Your Fit
Dr. Andres De Los Reyes has benefited from great mentorship throughout his scientific career. And that experience helped him develop the tools to aid every emerging scientist in their own journey.
He writes about those tools in his book The Early Career Researcher’s Toolbox: Insights Into Mentors, Peer Review, and Landing a Faculty Job.
Dr. De Los Reyes argues that there is no single mentor on earth who is right for every scientist. A student’s goals, personality, and training trajectory are unique, which means that finding the ‘right’ mentor is also individual.
But sorting the mentor needle from the University haystack can be difficult.
Dr. De Los Reyes recommends spending some time understanding which scientific questions really light your fire. He calls it your “burning question,” and understanding what drives your inquiry will help you identify a mentor that can support you.
According to Dr. De Los Reyes, “You might find somebody who does work aligned with that [burning] question. The degree to which you can pursue ideas and studies linked to that question is partially dependent on you, and very heavily dependent on who trains you.”
“Because we only get as much leeway to pursue our questions insofar as those who train us allow us to do so. And mentors vary considerably on how much independence they give to students to pursue questions.”
One of the tools in The Early Career Researcher’s Toolbox is called The STAR Framework. It’s a model to help students identify both their own needs and preferences, as well as a way to identify a mentor who will match.
STAR stands for Size, Time, Area, and Resources. A trainee can assess each element to determine whether the mentor can fill their particular need.
For example, ‘Time’ refers to “The quantity and quality of time a mentor spends meeting with their trainees.”
Some trainees may be new students, or postdocs entering a new field. They’ll need MORE time from the mentor for hands-on training, experimental design, or paper editing.
136. Rebuilding an Inclusive Academia with Dr. Ashalla Freeman
As protesters march in the streets, you’ll hear calls to “Defund” or “Disband the Police.” These advocates argue that tweaks and training programs will never be enough to meaningfully alter the course of modern police departments, some of which can trace their origins to slave patrols in the South.
You simply can’t get there, from here, they say. We need to reimagine what we mean by ‘public safety’, and look for other ways to foster healthy communities.
That same revolutionary approach may sharpen our thinking on academic training at a University.
As we grapple with the way our society treats people of color, we can’t turn away from the advantages and obstacles enshrined by our educational system.
Indeed, access to education may be one of the many steps in our path to equality.
We caught up with Dr. Ashalla Freeman, Director of Diversity Affairs for UNC Chapel-Hill’s Biological & Biomedical Sciences Program and Co-Director of the NIH funded IMSD program.
Dr. Ashalla Freeman, PhD
Dr. Freeman works to promote the development and success of biomedical PhD students from groups historically underrepresented in the sciences and implements diversity awareness programming for the UNC School of Medicine Faculty Diversity efforts.
This week on the show, she shares her ideas for making science more diverse and inclusive. Some solutions, like regular training for students, faculty and staff, could be implemented tomorrow with tangible results.
But the real, and lasting, changes take more work, and more introspection. She talks about the need to explore the origins of academic training, and how its very designs have always privileged some groups over others.
When we ultimately understand how our academic institutions were born and evolved, we’ll be able to reimagine them from the ground up with diversity in mind.
And diversity – of experience, ideas, and people – can only strengthen and accelerate scientific progress.