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177. Mailbag: Is Academia Lonely? And, Lab Tech vs. Med Tech

You send questions to podcast@hellophd.com, and we answer them on the show!

Is research always this lonely?

This week, we hear from “Foobar”, a computer science PhD student in Germany, who is wondering whether academia is always as lonely as she is feeling right now.

She writes:

Just like every other student, I had to find a teeny-tiny problem which lies in a sub-field of a sub-field and make it the topic of my PhD studies. The group that I am in counts five people, me included, and everybody studies different problems in different sub-fields. Each student has their own experiments, which are not related, to the point where I am not familiar with the technical details of their work, and they are also not familiar with my experiments.

Collaborations are not really encouraged, as we need first-author publications, and there is no immediate incentive for them to discuss any detail of my day-to-day experiments with me (let’s not even mention helping). People come in and are polite, but there’s not much to talk about, and our PI is incredibly busy — we get one hour a week to discuss whatever we need and that’s it.

Am I under the wrong impression that PhD students / academics may work more closely? Is it normal to be 100% on your own? Most of my friends are outside the university, and they are not computer scientists, thus it happens often that I cannot discuss my everyday work life with anybody.

“Foobar” is in a tough situation. She finds herself in a lab where collaboration is not only difficult because of disparate subjects, but it’s actively discouraged in favor of first-author papers.

The good news is, academic research ISN’T always so siloed. Not only have we experienced great scientific collaborations, we’ve also enjoyed the camaraderie working in a lab with some truly wonderful people.

Our advice for “Foobar” is to make collegiality one of her criteria as she graduates and looks for a new lab. She can also find ‘research buddies’ within the department, on Science Twitter, and at conferences.

Will a medical lab technician job help me get into grad school?

Next, we have a question from Grant, who is wondering whether getting a job running medical lab tests will help prepare him for a PhD program.

Thanks for your inspiring pod! I have a BS and want to get research experience in order to attend grad school, and like the recommendation to become a lab tech first. I am considering a two-year program that would make me a Medical Lab Technician, but am not sure this is the kind of lab tech experience grad schools would value; I don’t think it would count as research experience. What are your thoughts?

As an avid listener, Grant has heard us say time and time again that a great way to get experience for your grad school application is to work as a lab tech for a year or two.

But what he points out is that we use the term ‘lab tech’ pretty loosely, and never really define it!

First, we encourage Grant to think a bit about his career goals. There ARE jobs for which a Medical Lab Technician role can be a stepping stone to a career he’d love.

But for a PhD program doing basic, exploratory scientific research, that medical lab tech role might not be as helpful.

Basic research is dedicated to answering questions no one has ever asked before. It’s tied intimately to the Scientific Method that starts with a hypothesis, tests that through a series of experiments, and reaches a conclusion.

A medical lab technician is developing many skills that overlap with a research lab technician (think: measuring and mixing reagents, running assays, managing data, etc.) but it’s likely missing that central focus on novel inquiry.

In a medical testing lab, you probably won’t be asked to uncover any new findings. Your time will be focused on processing samples so that the doctor and patient have more information for making treatment decisions.

As a research lab tech, on the other hand, you’ll be actively participating in that scientific method. Sure, you might start by washing dishes and preparing reagents, but as you build experience and trust, you’ll be running experiments that help to answer some of those brand-new questions.

And that’s the type of experience that will reflect well on your application to a research graduate program. We wish Grant, and all of you who are building experience for the future, best of luck and happy pipetting!

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