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students celebrating good grades

094: Do Grades Matter in Grad School?

We got an email from a first-year student who seems to love everything about grad school… except the tests.  He’s wondering: Do grades matter?

Dear Josh and Daniel,

I am a first year chemical engineering PhD student and am currently working through a class-filled semester. For two of my classes, my midterm grades were much less than desirable for me. Now, I’m not the quickest when it comes to math, so a lower score in classes like transport compared to other students has been the norm, but these scores are even lower than what I usually expect.

Nerves have been a typical part of my exam state of mind, but past experience has shown I can usually overcome them. I feel like I understand the concepts, and my homework and quiz grades for the class would seem to indicate that. However, the tests have gotten the best of me both times.

I have to maintain a certain GPA and while I don’t know what the final grades will be yet, I feel like I should be doing better.

I guess my real question is, are class grades indicative of whether or not a PhD is right for me?

I have a master’s and have done research for more than 3 years, so I feel that the actual research portion of the program will not be the issue. And every time I get to talk research with my lab group and new advisor, I love it. For now, it just seems like my grades aren’t indicating that I’m a good enough student for the program, and I really don’t want that to be the case. I plan on talking to my advisor about it all soon as well as older grad students.

Thanks for listening and thanks for your show,

Sincerely,

Zachary

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093: The Grad School Mental Health Crisis, and What You Can Do About It

Susanna was experiencing insomnia that began to interfere with her work and life.  She visited the campus health clinic, and they referred her to mental health resources on campus.

There, the doctor recommended medication for depression and anxiety, and therapy to work through the issues that were interfering with her sleep.

“We’re actually really worried that you’re severely depressed,” the doctor explained.   Susanna’s reply: “No, I’m just in grad school!”

There’s no question that graduate training is stressful.  Rotations, qualifying exams, committee meetings, and the constant struggle to make experiments work can push every student toward the boiling point.

But lurking under Susanna’s protest is a dangerous assumption many of us share.  We believe that anxiety, depression, sleeplessness and other symptoms of mental illness are a required and normal side effect of graduate training.

And we’re not wrong.  A recent study published in Nature Biotechnology (summary here) found roughly 40% of graduate trainees measured in the ‘moderate to severe’ range for depression and anxiety.  The authors  surveyed over 2,200 trainees in 26 countries, in fields ranging from the humanities to the biological and physical sciences.

Rates of anxiety and depression in graduate trainees.
Evans et al. Nature Biotechnology 36, 282–284 (2018)

In contrast, moderate-to-severe depression affects just 6% of the general population when measured with the same inventory.

“Our results show that graduate students are more than six times as likely to experience depression and anxiety as compared to the general population,” the study says.

These alarming numbers reveal a latent mental health crisis brewing in our classrooms, labs and libraries. But what can we do about it?

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Mónica Feliú-Mójer

092: Making Time for Science Communication with Mónica Feliú-Mójer

“Things are not progressing as they should. You’re having a hard time focusing on the research, and we know that you don’t want to be in academia anyway.  Do you want to quit?”

The question landed like a punch, and Mónica’s committee meeting took a turn she hadn’t expected. She was in the fourth year of her PhD training at Harvard, and her committee had just asked her if she wanted to leave the program.

“That was incredibly devastating to have these four people that you respect, and that their main role is supposed to be supporting you and helping you, and to have them ask you, “Do you want to leave?” It was devastating. But I somehow found the strength to say, ‘I don’t want to quit!'”

Mónica Feliú-Mójer finished her PhD and went on to a dream job doing science outreach and communication, but that committee meeting was a turning point.

Her story holds a valuable lesson for any graduate student considering a career outside of the academic tenure track.

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091: Cross-Train for the Faculty Track with the Academic Pathways Postdoctoral Fellowship

Think about your training as a grad student and postdoc – you spend countless hours at the bench, running experiments and reading papers to finish your personal research project.

Now think about your PI or faculty advisor.

Does she spend time at the bench?  Or are you more likely to find her in her office, writing grants, attending departmental meetings, and managing people, projects, and money?

If you’re noticing a mismatch between academic training and the actual work of a faculty member, you’re not alone.  The skills and traits that make us successful students may not translate into making us successful professors and PIs.

That’s where a unique postdoctoral fellowship steps in to bridge the gap: it’s the Academic Pathways program at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. Their goal is to prepare postdocs for entry-level faculty jobs, with a special focus on increasing diversity at the highest levels of academia.

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011: The 8.5 Fixes That Will Save Biomedical Science (R)

Josh and Daniel are on the road this week, so we decided to bring you some goodies from the archive.  An 8-ish step plan to save science!  

Biomedical science is broken.  Funding is unpredictable, training programs drag on indefinitely, and some of our best scientists are drawn to careers outside of the university or drowned in paperwork if they stay.  Can anything be done to support research staff and boost lab productivity?

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