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119: Ten Tips to Crush Your First Semester

It’s that time of year again – summer days are growing shorter, your friends are trying to fit in one last trip to the beach, and the backpack aisle at Target is about to be cleared out to make way for the Halloween costumes.

Yes, it’s back-to-school time. From toddlers to teenagers, this time of year instills foreboding about the school-year ahead. But as a first-year graduate student, you may have other feelings.

For most, it’s the start of a new adventure. For the first time, you’re pursuing the one subject in the world you love best, surrounded by other equally brilliant and passionate people.

It’s the end of being told what to learn and how to study, and the beginning of blazing your own academic trail.

It IS a new experience – different from your matriculation in high school or college – and it may be difficult to know what to expect.

This week, we lay out a ten-ish step plan for putting your best-foot-forward in that first semester of your graduate journey.

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116: The 7 Habits of Highly Effective Summer Students

Ten weeks is not a long time. It feels even shorter when you’re tossed into the deep-end of a top-tier research lab.

If you’re spending your summer as a Research Assistant between semesters, or you’ve graduated and want to get some summer experience before grad school, we have ideas to help you hit the ground running.

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114: Grad School Should Have a Time Limit

Here’s a controversial idea: what if graduate school finished on a predictable schedule the way (checks notes) every other academic training program does!

Since kindergarten, your education has had fixed milestones. You knew it would take 12 years to graduate from high school, 4 for college, and 2 for a masters or an associates degree.

Even medical school takes a predictable 4 years, with an additional 3-6 for residency and fellowship, depending on the field.

So why does graduate school take between 4 and 10 years, with a lot of discretion, uncertainty, and mental anguish in between?

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person recycling

108: My Green Lab with Allison Paradise

It’s Monday morning and you arrive in lab a little late. No worries, you drop your tissue culture media into the warming bath, turn on the hood, and head down the hall while things ‘warm up.’

Next stop is the -80 freezer. You dig through the drifting piles of frost and snow, around the boxes of samples with labels that wore off ages ago, and find your quarry. You throw your weight into the door, and manage to get it latched – just barely – and head to the lab.

Once there, you dump yesterday’s gel buffer down the drain and start measuring out agarose and ethidium bromide for today’s experiments. With the gel poured, it’s finally time for coffee. Then maybe you’ll get around to splitting your cells.

It may be an easy morning for a cell biologist, but it was pretty rough on the planet. This week we explore some simple tweaks this busy scientist could make to be greener and more sustainable!

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mad scientist

103: Laboratory of Horrors!

“Hey, I won’t be able to make it over for movies tonight.  I’ve got to finish these timepoints…  Yeah, I know it’s the third time this week, but I promise I’ll leave a early tomorrow…  Okay, sorry.  Goodnight.”

Gary ends the phone call and sighs.  This is not the first time he’s had to cancel a date to finish up an experiment.   He’s starting to detect some resentment in his girlfriend’s voice.

As the minutes tick by on his timer, Gary sees lights flip off in the adjacent laboratory bays.  Even the postdocs have gone home.  Looks like it’ll be another long, lonely night – just him and an incubator full of cells.

He’s scrolling through his phone to find a playlist that can keep him awake for the next few hours when there’s a faint clink of glass somewhere in the darkened part of the lab.

He finds the playlist just as he hears a faint tap, tap, tap coming from the same direction.

“Maybe one of the postdocs left a cage of mice here by accident,” he thinks.  He pops out his ear buds and listens again… tap… tap… tap…

But the sound is too rhythmic to be mice. 

“They really need to fix that faucet.  That thing has been leaking for weeks.”

Tap… tap… tappity tappity tap.  Whatever is dripping seems to be coming faster now.

“Is someone there?” Gary asks, feeling stupid for the uncanny tightness now rising in his chest.  Tap… tappity tap tap… 

The sound that was just dripping is now streaming, a thin drizzle falling onto the soapstone bench.

Gary stands, and keeping his eyes toward the source of the sound, creeps carefully toward the light switch.  That’s when a nauseating wave of stench hits his nostrils.

His pupils constrict as he reaches the switch and the lights flash across a viscous puddle slowly growing larger on the bench to his right.  The pool has spilled over the edge, dripping foul, sticky liquid onto the floor. 

The odor is unmistakable and overpowering. He tears up, each breath a painful struggle to get enough air.

His eyes slowly follow the vile stream to its source…

“Dammit!  Who spilled that bottle of β-mercaptoethanol and didn’t clean it up!?”

Little Lab of Horrors

Life in grad school may not have many horror-movie freak-outs, but there are plenty of harrowing and traumatic experiences to thrill even the most stoic scientist.

In celebration of Halloween, we asked our listeners about their lab and grad school horror stories!

We heard chilling tales of fires, floods, and freezers on the fritz.  There are stories of dissertations delayed, pilfering PIs, and even explosions! Eeeek!

When you tune in, be sure to sample our new favorite pumpkin ale from Rogue Brewing.  It’s the Limited Edition Pumpkin Patch Ale, made from pumpkins they grow themselves!  

And here are a few of the resources we mentioned in the show:

Share your laboratory horror stories with us on Twitter (@hellophd) or via email.  Happy Halloween!