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095: Should I Finish My PhD Remotely?

A PhD takes years to complete, so it’s no surprise that your situation may change during that time.  Your PI may move to a different University, your spouse may take a job in another town, or you may need to move back home to care for ailing parents.

In these situations, you’re forced to make a difficult choice: “Should I stay with my lab and finish my work, or find a way to finish this PhD remotely?”

That’s exactly the question we got from “Walker” this week.  He and his wife desperately want to move to a new city, but he also wants to finish his degree.

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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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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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088: 15 Transferable Skills PhDs Can Use In Any Career

But I have no skills! At least no skills employers would be interested in!

Melanie Sinche
Melanie Sinche, Director of Education, The Jackson Laboratory for Genomic Medicine

As a career counselor, Melanie Sinche heard grad students and postdocs voice this concern nearly every day.  She looked at these talented scholars and saw the ability to think critically, analyze data, and solve problems. To her eye, these were transferable skills very much in demand outside the research lab.  Why couldn’t the students see it?

“I felt frustrated by that comment, and motivated to conduct a research study around skill development. I would argue that scientific training, by its very nature, lends itself to the development of LOTS of skills.”

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087: How Do I Choose a PhD Program?

Some decisions in life are simple (“Yes, I want cheese on that burger!”) and some are difficult (“Do I want to spend the rest of my life with this person?”).

On that spectrum, choosing a University graduate program sits closer to marriage than it does to your lunch options.

First, grad school takes a long time – usually 4-6 years – and it sets you rather firmly in a career path that can be challenging to change afterward. It’s a life-decision.

Second, once you choose, you’re committing to a series of events and impacts that will be out of your control. You don’t get a “do-over” when the lab you wanted to join moves away or a postdoc picks up the project you learned about during your interview.

Take a cohort of students at any research university in the country, and you’ll find some that graduate with three first-author papers in just four years.  You’ll find others who never make it to the degree, either due to conflicts with their advisors, projects that don’t work out, or personal issues stemming from the stress of graduate studies.

So we know the stakes are high, but how, exactly, are you supposed to choose a PhD program?

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