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!
075. When Research Sucks (R)
It’s inevitable. At some point in your research career, you’re going to get that sinking feeling.
Your experiments will all fail, your PI will get on your case about finishing that paper, and your graduation date will drift maddeningly out of reach.
So what can you do when your research starts to drag you down?
Coming Up for Air
This week on the show, we share some practical advice from the Academic Mental Health Collective on ways graduate students can get going when the going gets tough.
Stress, anxiety, and depression are inevitable in your graduate training. At least they were for us!
At the same time, these painful emotions can be a valuable signal that it’s time to step back, take stock of your situation, and ask for help. There are resources on, and off, campus to help you through the hard times.
By thinking ahead, you’ll meet your training challenges with a tactical plan and a team of supporters to help you through. It does get better, we promise!
The Check is in the Mail
Science in the News brings us the story of a New York court’s $15 million judgement against Sci Hub, the online research paper pirate ship. We explore the legal and moral implications of the action, and make bold predictions about the future of scientific publishing.
If you’re interested in the history of academic publishing and how we got into this quagmire in the first place, we highly recommend Stephen Buranyi’s Guardian piece titled: Is the staggeringly profitable business of scientific publishing bad for science?
We also celebrate the beginning of summer by breaking our IPA fast. We’re drinking the Nectar IPA from Humboldt Brewing Company. This golden beauty has a sweet start and a bitter finish, sort of like my first marriage!*
(*Yes, this is a total lie, but the setup was perfect and impossible to resist. Sort of like my first marriage!**)
(**Okay, I’m done.)
166. Want to Improve Research Careers? Scientists Have 5,434 Suggestions.
The CACTUS Global Mental Health Survey asked valuable questions about stress, performance, and career goals for scientists.
The data revealed plenty of room for improvement, as researchers struggle with harassment, work-life balance, and limited pay.
But the study’s authors also asked more open-ended questions:
Do you have any suggestions for organizations within academia or other related stakeholders on what they can do to ensure a great work environment for researchers?
The received 5,434 ideas from the 13,000 survey respondents.
This week, we’re joined once again by Andrea Hayward, Senior Associate for Global Community Engagement at Cactus Communications.
We unpack the themes she uncovered from those responses, and identify the many ways in which Academia can foster a more supportive research environment.
Address Bullying and Harassment
Andrea Hayward, Sr. Associate for Global Community Engagement at Cactus Communications
The most prominent theme from survey responses was to implement measures to promote equality and prevent harassment, discrimination, and bullying.
For example, one respondent wrote:
Take people seriously. I experienced harassment and bullying and I was brushed off and not listened to until it got severe. Then the department said “Why didn’t you say anything?” when I had been the entire time. What seems inconsequential to some may be harmful to others. Reputation is too important to some programs.PhD student, Europe
Some researchers talked about sexual harassment that is normalized or explained away. Others described differential treatment or favoritism based on race.
Whatever their experiences, we know that departmental policies regarding bullying and harassment are rare, and consequences for this type of behavior are practically non-existant.
To improve the work environment, Universities should establish written guidelines around inappropriate behavior, and enforce them even when it’s inconvenient.
Improve Job Security and Pay
Wanting a bigger paycheck is not unusual in the working world, but scientists experience unique challenges. Aside from lower pay in academia, they also face contract terms that make their lives unpredictable.
“Fixed-Term Contracts” are just what they sound like – a scientist is hired to work for a certain number of months or years, and then they’re done. Contrast that with most other careers where you are hired to work until you decide to move on.
And what’s truly unusual about fixed term contracts is that they might cover only 8-12 months. After that short period, the funding dries up.
Setting aside the fact that it may be impossible to complete a publishable body of research in 8 months, these short contracts add considerable stress to postdocs and technicians who are supporting themselves and their families. They may have a 12-month lease, but an 8-month job!
Foster a Work-Life Balance
Another common theme was a call for better work-life balance. Students, postdocs, and staff wanted their departments to recognize that 80-hour work weeks take a toll on mental and physical health.
165: A Survey Asked Researchers About Their Mental Health. Here’s What They Said.
Most academics are overwhelmed, even the ones who are successful in terms of being productive researchers, busy teachers and efficient administrators. But, they seem like the norm and everyone who struggles is not, and this needs to be disrupted and changed.Research fellow/post-doctoral researcher, Africa.
I’m worried about sexism in academia in general and this might make me want to leave after finishing my PhD, even though my current work environment is good.PhD scholar, Europe
It’s not about free time, it’s a lack of free energy. Who can do hobbies when you’re physically, mentally, and emotionally drained?Lecturer, North America
Would it surprise you to hear that researchers and scientists around the globe are stressed out? Long hours, competitive labs, and unpredictable funding are just a few of the factors that contribute poor mental health among academics.
Graduate students tend to suffer the most, as they don’t receive the same support as those more advanced in their careers.
This week on the show, we delve into data collected by the Cactus Foundation from their 2020 Mental Health Survey Report.
Andrea Hayward, Sr. Associate for Global Community Engagement at Cactus Communications
We’re joined by Andrea Hayward, Senior Associate for Global Community Engagement at Cactus Communications. She’s a member of the Cactus team who surveyed 13,000 researchers from all career stages around the globe.
The survey report is rich with nuanced data on how scientists are feeling at work, and how that breaks down by career stage and region of the world.
For example, when asked “In the last month, how often have you felt overwhelmed by your situation at work?”, 38% of respondents said they felt overwhelmed ‘fairly often’ or ‘very often’
Thirty-one percent say they’re working more than 50 hours a week, and 13% report working more than 60 hours a week.
A third didn’t believe their organization had strict policies around discrimination, bullying and harassment, and reports of discrimination and harassment were common. This was particularly true among women, people of color, and those identifying as LGBTQ.
But the news was not all bad – 77% agreed or strongly agreed that their work gives them a sense of fulfillment. Sixty percent look forward to their work and the creative challenges each day.
We discuss these topics, and so much more. How do academics view their job prospects? When they feel overwhelmed, are they comfortable asking for help? How many suffer feelings of impostor syndrome?
To learn more, check out the CACTUS Mental Health Survey page, or follow them on Twitter.
They also have a powerful 4-part video series following researchers as they deal with mental health issues called “Some Days Are Better Than Others”.
164. The Essential Guide to Grad School Applications
Do you hear it? It’s the sound of hopeful scientists frantically typing out their grad school applications!
They’re pondering the best format for a CV, scouring University websites to learn more about each graduate program, and begging their research advisors to PLEASE make the time to write that letter of recommendation!
The silence you hear is the sound of trepidation as they sit down to write their personal statements….
This week on the show, we unpack the essential elements of a grad school application, and what you need to know before you begin.
During application season, you might be short on time and long on things to do. We get it.
That’s why we’ve condensed our application advice into one, easy to listen, episode. Here are the essentials:
Where to Apply?
Grad school applications are expensive: they cost both money AND time.
Even if you happen to have enough money to apply to 20 or 30 schools, you probably don’t have the time.
And we recommend that you limit your applications to places you’d actually like to go. Graduate school is a multi-year commitment, and you shouldn’t apply to schools that can’t teach you what you want to know.
It’s better to apply to the few programs you really want to attend than to get into a school that doesn’t match your interests. Even if you get in, you’ll be stuck in a research track you never really wanted.
For more on this important subject, see Episode 101: HelloPhD Guide to Grad School Applications – Knowing When, and Where, to Apply with Dr. Beth Bowman
Applications will require your CV. It should be composed in reverse-chronological order, with your education and most recent research experiences first.
Remember: any lab experience you list in your CV should have a matching letter of recommendation later in the application.
And if you happen to have publications or presentations at major conferences, be sure to list those with your own name in bold font so that the reviewer can quickly spot your name in the longer list of contributors.
Here’s some good news: biomedical PhD programs are less focused on your GPA than other programs might be. Reviewers are MORE interested in whether you have experience doing research in a lab or in the field.
That said, they want to see that you’ve gained the background you need to succeed. That usually means coursework in advanced sciences like molecular biology, biochemistry, and organic chemistry.
If you don’t have this experience, or your GPA is lower than you’d like, it’s not the end of the road. Use the Personal Statement to make a case for your readiness, in spite of some gaps in your transcript.
For more, check out Episode 152. How Do I Explain the Bad Grades On My Transcript?
This is the trickiest section for most students. How do you describe your interest in research and affinity for the program without resorting to flowery language or flattery?
We recommend describing the overarching theme your prior research lab has fo...
163. The 3 T’s of Successful Field Research
The only thing harder than hiking for three hours into a remote boreal forest is realizing you forgot your sample kit back in the lab.
For many researchers, running out of a reagent means walking down the hall to borrow more from a neighboring lab, but field researchers don’t have that luxury. They may be hours away from their labs, and miles away from the van.
That’s why planning is so important.
This week, we learn the three T’s you should remember to pack on EVERY trip.
Dr. Sara Vero, PhD is a researcher and lecturer in agricultural and environmental science at The Waterford Institute of Technology in Ireland.
Dr. Vero has worked extensively in soil science, water quality, plant nutrition, and land management, and this week, she condenses some of her experience into three topics you’ll need to prepare for your next successful trip.
The first T stands for Tools – the equipment you’ll need to bring along to complete your observation or experiments.
As you plan your trip, Dr. Vero recommends that you think through the specific tasks you’ll need to accomplish – sampling, field treatments, assays – and compile a checklist of items required for each.
Typically, you’ll need three types of tools:
* Task-specific tools – these are the reagents and equipment you’ll use in your research, like core samplers, chemicals, or metering equipment.* Consumables – the items that get used once and packed out. Think gloves, bags, pipettes, and bottles.* Everyday Carry – personal items and equipment that have multiple uses, like a multi-tool, flashlight, or duct tape.
Make a spreadsheet or checklist, and pack common items in advance. Dr. Vero recommends having clothing and your everyday carry items in a duffel bag in the closet. When it’s time to hit the road, you won’t have to think about (or forget) any of these essential items.
It’s rare for a researcher to go out into the field alone. There’s too much to do, and there’s safety in numbers.
That’s why Dr. Vero recommends thinking through those tasks one more time to identify the right team. She recommends assessing the following considerations:
* Skills – do you have people who are skilled to complete the experiments or observations? Can you learn a new technique, or teach a junior member of the group to expand the skill base of your team?* Labor Requirements – Do you have enough people to complete the tasks on time? In cases where time is limited but the observations are simple, consider recruiting more people from the department to multiply your force.* Availability of Personnel – grad students and postdocs are busy people. Be aware that you may need to give plenty of notice, or scale down your planned experiments based on their availability.
Allowing for enough time to complete the work is a common point of failure for field research. Even if you have a good idea about how long your observations may take, it’s easy to underestimate all of the other time sinks of a trip.
Dr. Vero uses the following equation to estimate the time needed:
Travel Time + Setup + Measurements + Rest + “The Unexpected” = Time Needed
Researchers often forget the latter two items.
Scheduling rest time is important,
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,
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.
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.
Fantastic for scientists of all career stages!
This podcast does a great job of explaining all aspects of academia! It can be so hard for first generation PhD students to navigate the “boy’s club” that academia sometimes appears to be. These men seem so nice and approachable. Great speaking voices as well!