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124: Demystifying the Research Institute

Most PhD students attend traditional academic institutions of higher educations. It’s the world of classes, campuses, and mortarboards you probably think of when you think about a University.

But there’s a less-traveled path to a PhD that may actually hold some benefits for certain students, including those coming back to school after working for awhile, or those with families.

We’re talking about research institutes, and it’s possible you’ve never even heard about this alternative path to a PhD.

Research on the Brink

Research institutes may not be on every student’s radar. Though there are several varieties, most research institutes exist as hybrids – not quite academic, but not quite industry. Not quite public, but not quite private either.

Of the 10,000-15,000 research institutes in the United States, many were formed either to explore specific topics (agriculture, defense, or energy) or to bridge the gap between the lab and the wider world. These bridge-focused institutes can be industry partnerships or organizations that interface directly with patients through hospitals or clinical trials.

This hybrid approach appeals to many scientists who want to see the tangible effects of their science out in the world. Instead of waiting for basic research to wind its way through publications, they can work directly on technologies that benefit patients.

And happily, many institutes will actually train students and grant PhDs. This may be in collaboration with a traditional university (like the Max Planck Research Institutes), or a PhD may be granted by the institute itself (like Scripps).

Voices from Beyond

We talked with Kaylee Helfrich, a fourth-year PhD student at the UNC-Chapel Hill Nutrition Research Institute. The Institute is located about 2 hours away from the Chapel Hill campus in Kannapolis, NC, and that gave Kaylee a different experience from her campus-centric peers.

This week on the show, she shares the challenges and benefits of doing research at an institute. We learn about classwork, how she finds collaborators and mentors, and tips for staying in touch with other students.

We also learn about how the lifestyle differences could be either a blessing or a curse, depending on the student. Because most of the employees of the institute are career scientists and administrators, there are fewer students with whom to socialize after hours.

On the plus side, those hours tend to follow a standard office work day from 9 AM to 5 PM with weekends off. For some PhD students, that may sound too good to be true!

Leave a comment below and tell us about YOUR experience at a research institute. Was it the right choice for you? How does it differ from Kaylee’s experience?

The King of (Pumpkin) Beers

We nearly missed it this year, but we managed to sneak it in under the wire – it’s our annual tasting of the seasonal pumpkin beer!

This time, we taste-test the Pumking Imperial Ale from Southern Tier Brewing.

Curious what we thought?

Let’s just say, the best thing about this beer is the mascot.

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