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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?

Start the Clock

This week on the show, we explore the strange, but sticky, notion that graduate training should be open-ended with no fixed program of development.

If we could sacrifice that sacred cow, we might be able to design some requirements and milestones that feel less arbitrary and can consistently churn out bright, capable scientists.

Imagine a world in which your PhD program was limited to 5 years.  What type of training would build your research skills and make you ready for the workplace?

The fact is, our current system is extremely variable – each student has a unique project with individual successes and failures.  One student might sail through in 3 years, while another is forced to change labs and stays through year 9.

Is the first student smarter? Better equipped to succeed?  

Or is the second student better trained by the additional time?

The reality is that ‘time to PhD’ is not synonymous with skill or training.  And if time isn’t correlated with success, then there’s an opportunity to tighten up the training schedule without sacrificing pedagogical quality.

We share a handful of ideas and concerns about a fixed-term PhD, but we’d love to hear what you think!  Is it worth standardizing scientific training, and where should we start?

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Breakfast of Champions

Fry up some bacon, pull down a coffee mug, and pour yourself a glass of breakfast. It’s the Morning Smack Imperial Milk Stout from Three Taverns Craft Brewery in Decatur, GA.

With maple-notes and a solid sweetness, this stout drinks like a dessert. And at 8% ABV, it’s probably wiser to save it for after dinner.

You can still sip it from a mug, though!

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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!

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086: Five Resolutions for Happier, Healthier Scientists

Turning over the last page of the calendar seems to naturally invite some reflection on the previous 365 days. When you look back at 2017, what went well? And what do you wish you could change in the coming year?

This week, we take the opportunity to reflect back much farther – to our days in graduate and postdoctoral training!  With years of hindsight, we offer advice and perspective to the scientists we were, and devise some resolutions you can adopt in your scientific training.

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077: Google Discovers Five Keys to a Productive Lab

Google is data-obsessed, so it should come as no surprise that the company sought to apply its analytical expertise inside the organization.

In an endeavor dubbed “Project Aristotle,” Google sought to answer a vexing question: What factors are important for a successful, productive team?

Their findings may have profound impacts not just at Google, but in a lab near you…

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