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058: How to Be Truly Unhappy in Grad School

On those days when you manage to take a break from bench-work and call home, you will almost certainly get ‘The Question:’

“So, how is your research going?”

If you’re new to grad school, you might make the mistake of telling your parent or loved one exactly how your research is going.

“Well, I was up until 3 AM doing time points but then one of the buffers was contaminated so I had to throw out my last two weeks of work and start over.”

To which your parent will reply, “That sounds awful!  You must be so upset.  Are you sure a career in science will make you happy?”

And you’ll stop and ponder that last question.  Will a career in science make you happy?

Will you prance from bench to bench giggling to yourself, high on the sheer exhilaration of learning?

Or is it much more likely that you’ll face roadblocks, confounding data, experiments that only sometimes work, and that every once in awhile, you’ll push the boundary of your knowledge into new territory.  In those moments, you might feel proud or relieved or curious, but not exactly ‘happy.’

Does that mean you should leave science to find a career that can make you happier?

Or is Mom asking you the wrong question entirely?

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Queen Christina and Descartes team up

056: Team Up for Speedier Science – #modernPhD Part 3

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.

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055: Four Ideas to Modernize Mentorship – #modernPhD Part 2

Today, a graduate student will make a terrible mistake.

He’ll blindly commit to a long-term relationship that will make him miserable.  He’ll be too shy to ask his partner the painfully awkward questions that could predict their ultimate failure as a team.

Does this person have time for me?  Is she enthusiastic about helping me succeed?  Do our goals align?

Of course, this is not a romantic relationship: it’s the commitment formed between a grad student and his advisor.  And though it’s not a marriage, it can cover some of the same emotional ground.  When it’s healthy, you’ll both grow as people and you’ll achieve more than you would alone.

When it’s unhealthy, you might bear the emotional scars for the rest of your life.

With just a few simple changes to the graduate-advisor relationship, we can make sure more students, and their mentors, reach their full potential.  Why leave it to chance?

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041: Make a Difference in Your Lab with Peer Support

Spoiler Alert: Working in a lab is tough.

Yes, there’s the academic challenge, but it can also be an emotional roller-coaster when experiments fail, colleagues conflict, and you push yourself past the normal limits.

When someone in your lab has a bad day, does it sound like this?

Grad Student: (despondent sigh) “I can’t believe that PCR failed again.  I’m never going to graduate.”

Lab Mate: (in a rush) “Yeah, that sucks.  Check your primers again.”

Instead of finding support among peers and co-workers – the very people who understand how difficult lab can be – we often find indifference, dismissal, or half-hearted pity.

But it doesn’t have to be that way.

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scoring bad advisors

038: Why aren’t bad research advisors held accountable?

You’ve either heard the stories, or worse, you’ve lived them.

They’re stories of the research advisors who scream at their students in front of the whole department.

The PIs who put two or three postdocs on the same project, expecting only one to succeed.

The ‘mentor’ who makes you feel like you’re not even qualified to wash the glassware.

So why do academic institutions allow such bad behavior to continue year in, and year out?  Why aren’t bad PIs accountable?

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