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!
056. Team Up for Speedier Science (R)
When we think of scientists, we often think of the lone researcher plodding away at the bench late into the night. We imagine Alexander Fleming scrutinizing his penicillium molds or Einstein pondering the latest equation he’s written on the chalk board.
We go a step further when training new scientists: we ask them to complete an ‘independent research project.’ We tacitly perpetuate this notion of the solitary scientist, making her own success or failure.
The side effects of this lone-wolf approach to research are painfully manifest: projects that stall on a single experiment, money wasted teaching everyone the same techniques, and students who burn out due to frustration, lack of direction, or just plain loneliness.
In Part 3 of our goal to modernize the PhD process, we propose a radical 180º turn from the independent project.
Let’s turn science into a team sport.
Though ‘group work’ was a dreaded sentence in your undergrad classroom, teams themselves are essential in most modern industries. Can you imagine a manufacturer who expected one person to think up a product, design the machines, assemble the widget, box it up, and launch an ad campaign?
Yet that’s our vision of an ‘independent scientist.’ A scientist needs to identify the important questions in his field of study, design experiments, execute them, publish the results, and score grants from various funding agencies.
If we draw parallels to the lab, a new way of doing academic research arises. We see a cohort of students, postdocs, technicians and PIs who team up to solve the same problem. They map out the figures for a paper, and then divide up the work.
Instead of laboring away alone at the bench, experiments become an intricate dance. An undergrad prepares the media while the PI (who has good ‘luck’) makes the clone. A tech transforms the bacteria, inoculates the flasks, and teaches the undergrad to do a miniprep.
A grad student, who has flawless aseptic technique, is responsible for transfecting the mammalian cells without contamination. She hands off analysis to the postdoc who has had ten years of experience at the microscope and prefers that quiet, methodical work.
They gather at lab meeting to assess the results of their team effort, and to chart a path through the next week.
Experiment by experiment, figure by figure, they divide and conquer the paper and publish faster than their competitors. Everyone works to her strengths. No one is left to flounder when an experiment fails.
In fact, it’s in every person’s interest to help the others. Never again does a student sit stymied by the transfection that just won’t work; the whole lab needs that step to succeed, and everyone pitches in to diagnose the problem and break the bottleneck.
Of course, this system has its pros and cons. While it’s possible to move more quickly from idea to paper, it requires a level of coordination that won’t happen by accident. And PhD programs would require a tweak to graduation criteria. First-author papers would no longer be common, or meaningful, in such a team-based approach.
Tell us what you think – would you be willing to team up with others in your lab? Have you ever worked in a setting where teamwork was the standard? Leave a comment below,
162. Get More Done with LabScrum w/ Dr. Lisa May
It’s 8PM on a Wednesday night, and you’re sitting in a quiet lab all alone. It’s your turn to present during lab meeting on Friday, and that familiar sense of panic starts to set in.
What HAVE you been doing with your time? You flip back through the lab notebook and remember how you spent the first week waiting on reagents. The second week is a blur, and the third week, every dish in the incubator got contaminated for reasons no one will admit.
Now you have a day to try to come up with something… anything… to show for yourself.
Of course, it didn’t have to be this way, and with some techniques from the tech industry, you’ll never have to fret over a ‘missing month’ again.
A Failure to Plan…
It’s no secret that PhDs take a long time. We often lament the frequent failed experiments, but is that really where all of our time is going?
In truth, even when they make concrete plans, many trainees lose months or years to some common lab dysfunctions.
Do you wait weeks to hear back from your PI on a manuscript review or experiment question? Have you lost time waiting for reagents to ship when someone else used them up? How often do you prepare an experiment, then vie for time on a common piece of equipment like microscopes or the mass spec?
Even if you had a plan, these failures in lab-communication can slow or stop your progress.
Make it Agile
Luckily, labs aren’t the only organizations in the world that need to plan and communicate across a team. In fact, industry has developed myriad ways to organize a project based on unique resources and constraints.
In the tech industry, companies often use a process called “Agile” or “Scrum.” It’s an organizational framework focused on producing things customers want (apps, services, products) in less time and for less money.
Traditional planning might include a two year development schedule with detailed steps and checkpoints. But in a field like software where entire sectors might rises and fall in a matter of months, a two-year plan is worthless. Companies that can quickly change strategy and adapt their plan have more chances to succeed.
That’s where Scrum comes in. Named for the huddle behavior in a rugby match, Scrum is marked by frequent team ‘huddles’ to organize the work. The team, facilitated by its ‘ScrumMaster’ or ‘Scrum Leader’, breaks down the work into week-long chunks called ‘Sprints.’
During the sprint, the team gets together daily for a very brief ‘stand-up’ meeting where each member answers three questions:
* What did I accomplish yesterday?* What do I intend to work on today?* What is blocking my progress?
The stand-up meeting may only last 15 minutes, but by the end, each team member will know what the others are doing, and how they can help.
Scrum for Labs
Lisa May was completing her PhD when the dinner conversation with her husband turned to lab. She lamented that there didn’t seem to always be a clear research plan, that lab members were competing for resources, and that there were multiple external forces blocking her progress.
Her husband, a software developer, suggested she look into the planning practices he used at work.
She did, and LabScrum was born.
161. Career Development is NOT a Waste of Time. We Have Proof.
All those feelings of excitement and possibility screech to a halt when you walk back into the lab to see your PI glaring over her reading glasses.
She looks at her watch. “Hey, good to see you. So glad you could join us,” she drips with sarcasm.
After missing a beat, you rally. “Yeah, sorry about being a little late. I heard about an information session on internships for grad students and wanted to check it out. It seems like a really great opportunity for me to…”
She cuts you off there. “Well, I’m not sure you have time for internships or information sessions if you aren’t making progress on that paper.”
And just like that, the hope dies within you and you slump back on your lab bench.
No Time To Lose
Sure, the interaction above is fictional, but it plays out in many forms every day. A student, looking for inspiration or skill development in a future career meets an advisor who believes that all time outside of the lab is wasted.
Because of the power dynamic, many students will either stop attending career development events, or they’ll do so quietly and surreptitiously.
Wouldn’t it be nice if you could convince your advisor that, in fact, building career skills doesn’t slow down your progress in the lab?
What if you had the data to show that students who spend time on skill development graduate on time and publish just as much as those who don’t?
Well, your wish has come true. A new paper published in PLOS Biology followed thousands of students across 10 universities over a decade. The researchers asked: does participation in career development events impact the time-to-degree or publication quality and volume?
This week, we talk to Beka Layton, PhD, one of the lead authors on the study, and the Director of Professional Development Programs at UNC Chapel Hill’s Biological and Biomedical Sciences Program. She walks us through the research design, results, and talks about which conclusions are well supported and which were just suggestive.
The study concludes:
Using quantitative data collected from 10 institutions, our current study shows that participation in career exploration and professional development programming did not adversely affect time to degree or numbers of manuscripts published, and, in select cases, even correlated with more productive outcomes. We hope that the data presented herein will assuage concerns of faculty and trainees alike and will lead institutions to incorporate more experiential learning activities into PhD training programs (such as programs described in references
Full disclosure: both Josh and Dan are (very minor) co-authors on the study. We’re not just podcasters, we sometimes do science!
If you’d like to connect with training and development resources near you, check out the NIH’s Office of Intramural Training & Education or the Graduate Career Consortium.
Alternatively, you can start a club or networking group with a few peers at your own university. And when your PI asks why you’re ‘wasting so much time’, you can lay down the facts to support your cause!
160. Mailbag – Finding A Postdoc Overseas, Lab Equipment at Home, et al!
You know it. You love it. It’s mailbag time! We answer real listener questions, plus a few questions no one is asking!
Make it Meaningful
The first question comes from Lexi, who is trying to choose between a PhD program that is ‘pure fun’, and one that will have broader impacts:
I will be applying to Ph.D. programs this fall. On one hand, I could apply to applied math or mathematically-oriented Earth science Ph.D. programs where I could work on solving some of the biggest environmental problems we’re facing today. This type of work would entail some more boring daily aspects (like checking for errors in code etc.). On the other hand, I could apply to pure math programs where I know I’d enjoy every minute of the day to day, but my research would feel much less connected from the real world.
Tough, right? Boiling it down: is it more important to enjoy your day-to-day work, or to look back over a career and feel like you made an impact?
We refer back to Episode 144, where we spoke with Marlys Hanson about identifying your ‘motivated abilities. As a refresher, a motivated ability is a skill that you do well and enjoy doing. It’s a fundamental part of your personality, and when combined with your motivated subject matter, operating relationships, and payoff, defines a sort of ‘career fingerprint’ unique to you. When you define those features, you can identify careers in which you’ll excel and be happy.
For Lexi, the day-to-day work will matter a lot, and finding something that aligns with her motivated abilities is key. Finding that alignment in a career is kind of like riding a high-end, carbon fiber, well oiled bicycle. You’ll coast through most days, and have no trouble facing the few up-hill challenges.
When you DO face a longer, steeper challenge on the job, it’s nice to have a broader motivation to help you over the rise.
For example, PhD students may run into failed experiments, cantankerous PIs, or difficult classes. If your passion for human health or environmental impact can help you push through those challenges rather than quitting, then all the better!
But a desire for long-term impact is no substitute for day-to-day proficiency. No matter how much you want to save the Earth or save a life, if your daily work routine grinds against your motivational profile, you’ll quickly burn out.
Our next question comes from Srijani, who is thinking ahead:
I’m a PhD candidate in India and after much deliberation, I’ve now decided to go for a postdoc either in the US or Europe. I was wondering if you could talk about the postdoc opportunities that can potentially work for me. I plan to submit my thesis in 2023.
Though at the time of this writing, 2023 seems like a long way off, we’re actually really happy that Srijani is actively planning the next phase. Landing a postdoc on another continent is not easy, and starting early is key.
One challenge is that most prospective PI’s receive hundreds of emails that start with “Dear Esteemed Scientist, I am interested in…” If your missive lands in that pile, you’ll have a hard time breaking through.
Instead, take the time to research the labs you’re interested in working in, and be specific about why you want to work there. If your email gives even a hint of sounding like a form letter, your chances of getting a reply go way down.
159. Cultivating Resilience w/ Adina Glickman
Imagine a tennis ball dropped on cement – it immediately bounces back to your hand.
Now imagine dropping that same ball on a sandy beach.
The bounce of a tennis ball on pavement is a form of resilience, but it’s important to note that resilience is not just an inherent property of the ball.
Context matters just as much.
The Origin of Resilience
This week on the show, we talk with Adina Glickman. She served as the Director of Learning Strategy Programs at Stanford University for 18 years, where she founded The Stanford Resilience Project. She co-founded and is currently a co-director of The Academic Resilience Consortium. She’s the author of The Resilient Learner: Eight Pillars of Student Success among other works, and is the CEO, Founder, and Academic Coach at Affinity Coaching.
As you can tell, Adina Glickman has spent a lot of time thinking, teaching, and mentoring around resilience. We start our conversation by trying to understand just what resilience means and how it applies in academic settings like graduate school.
“As human beings, we are hard-wired to be resilient. We are born resilient,” Glickman says. She describes how a baby falls many times while learning to walk, but with each attempt, learns something new about muscle movement, the position of the feet, and balance in the inner ear.
Ultimately, the baby’s resilience pays off and she can walk a few steps, then a few more.
And that’s a key component of resilience; it’s not enough to keep trying – you need to learn from the failure.
It Takes Two
But Glickman cautions us not to see resilience as a trait confined to an individual. It’s not enough to expect each person to develop a set of skills.
Instead, resilience comes from the interaction between the individual and his environment – the context in which he fails.
She uses the example of the rubber ball bouncing on pavement or thudding onto a mattress to show that our ability to rebound has everything to do with our environment.
And that’s why she’s worked and written so extensively about how academic institutions, families, and society at large can foster the individual’s ability to bounce back.
This all becomes painfully relevant for graduate students, who are guaranteed to meet failure as they design and run experiments, submit papers for review, and apply for grants. Failure is unavoidable, and so resilience is central to success.
Unfortunately, some students have never had to exercise their resilience. They enrolled in graduate school because perhaps they excelled in their high school and undergraduate training. The failure they face as a grad student may be the first real challenge of their training.
At the same time, many academic institutions aren’t set up to provide a good resilient surface to learn and rebound. The rules and expectations may not be explicit, and impostor syndrome can chip away at our desire to get back up when we fall.
Glickman encourages students, faculty and administrators to talk about their failures in an effort to normalize the experience. She recommends “sharing your own story, sharing your own struggles on a human level.”
027. The Road More Traveled: Stepping Off of the Tenure Track (R)
In 2011, a whopping 36,000 science and technology grad students earned their PhDs. That same year, about 3,000 faculty positions were created. So why did you feel like a failure when you decided to step off the tenure track?
Taking the high road
Scientists aren’t always as rational as we seem. A rational person would look at the disparity between faculty positions and new PhDs and realize we need to support students and postdocs who choose careers outside of academia.
But there remains a stigma. If you go to industry, you’re ‘selling out.’ If you find a job in policy or outreach, you’re ‘throwing away your training.’ And heaven forbid you take time off to raise your kids! What gives?
Dara Wilson-Grant, Licensed Professional Counselor
This week on the show, we talk with Dara Wilson-Grant about an article she wrote titled Standing at the Crossroads: When PhDs Abandon the Tenure Track Career Path. Dara is a licensed professional counselor and associate director of the office of postdoctoral affairs and career counselor at UNC Chapel Hill, and she’s seen the struggle as postdocs come to terms with their “alternative” career plans.
Her article is unique, because it addresses the deeply emotional issues of changing careers. We’ve trained for years to be ‘scientists,’ so what do we become when we take a job in analysis, accounting, or administration? How do you know when it’s just a rough couple of months in lab, and when it’s really time to reassess your life goals? Dara answers all.
Read her blog and get in touch at careersinbloom.com
for keeping my ears company at the bench. You’ve been a brilliant source of both entertainment and information for a new doctoral student trying to navigate life in the lab during a pandemic. If you wouldn’t mind, I’d appreciate more discussion on how to choose the right lab based on rotations under the current restrictions.
Broaden your field
I generally enjoy this podcast, I find it very helpful. It would be great if you could broaden your narrow focus of biomedical into general STEM. For example, if you don’t get into grad school in your first attempt a post bac is a great option. But they don’t exist in every field. Bridge programs are generally available only to minority students. So how do you get more lab experience? Especially if you’re changing fields from undergrad to grad?
Anyway, keeping topics more general would be helpful to those outside of the biomedical fields.
Good but get to the point
They waste so much time (sometimes 15+ minutes) before getting to the point of the episode. Only downside, otherwise I really enjoy the content that actually relates to the episode.