August 25, 2011

Eating paleo

by flickr user Stephen Rees
Maybe you've heard of Paleo (paleolithic diet), maybe not. If not I encourage you to check our Robb Wolf's blog (or buy his book, it's informative and entertaining), he has been researching this diet for a long time and knows all the details. I'm a newcomer to it and I'm passionate about it because scientifically it makes sense, and it's given me great, sustainable results in a short amount of time.

What paleo is
Paleo is eating lots of tasty lean meat, a variety of fruits and veggies, and the right kinds of fats. It's a commitment to eating whole foods, not highly processed ones. By eating the foods that humans evolved to eat, you can eliminate many of the 'diseases of affluence": obesity, diabetes, heart disease. Paleo is backed by lots of reproducible studies from several different researchers from around the world. As I scientist I was convinced to try it because not only does Robb Wolf discuss the science behind Paleo in his book and blog, he provides pages and pages of references to the journal articles that document the relevant studies. Besides the diet, the Paleo lifestyle sets a goal of reducing stress and getting adequate sleep every night. There's no counting calories either, when you're eating this way you naturally feel fuller faster and end up eating few calories without even trying.

What paleo isn't
I wanted to start with what you can have, because when I list the things that Paleo restricts you from eating most people I talk to sort of freak out and say "I could never do that!" Strict Paleo says don't eat grains, dairy, or legumes. It's a short list, but when you consider the standard American diet it eliminates most of the foods I grew up on and used to eat every day until 14 weeks ago. No pasta, no bread, bagels, muffins, milk, cheese, beans, peanuts. Why, you ask? Have you ever heard of coeliac disease? (It's ok, go read the wikipedia page, I'll wait.) Coeliac is an intolerance to the protein gluten which is found in wheat, rye, barley, and a similar protein is found in oats. For you geeks out there, gluten is very rich in proline, so it makes it through the stomach and intestines undigested. In the intestines it is able to pass into the blood stream and your body's immune system attacks it as the foreign invader it is. Over time this can worsen and lead to systemic inflammation which has enormous repercussions for the rest of your body. It turns out that many of our native proteins are similar enough to gluten that the antibodies raised against it can start attacking our own tissues, leading to autoimmune diseases. Sounds pretty nasty right? Well guess what, dairy and legumes don't have gluten in them, but both have proteins that act in similar ways to it, not to mention how many people have an intolerance to lactose in milk.

My experience with starting Paleo
Look. I could dedicate post after post to this lifestyle in hopes that you'll believe all the science behind it. In the end, the best proof you can have is just to try it. That's how I started, it sounded good but I wanted to know if it actually worked, so I conducted a little experiment. 30 days, that's it. Go strictly Paleo with your meals for 30 days and see how you look, feel, and perform (Robb even has a 30 day meal plan in the back of his book to get you started). In my first 30 days I lost 8 lbs, my chronic heartburn subsided, I felt more alert and energetic. I felt so good that I haven't looked back. Sure, I'm not perfect and I've given in to having a cookie or some excellent Mexican food complete with beans, rice, and cheese occasionally. But it's my life, and I own my diet...there's not some Paleo police that will come knocking on my door and tell me I've been bad, but my stomach sure was upset after that cookie. Mainly I think it's important to learn what works for you, if you can tolerate dairy occasionally without feeling like crap then go for it! Gluten all around is just a bad idea though...when I indulge I go gluten free and it's still delicious.

Where I'm at now
I'm totally a Paleo girl. After 3 months I've lost 20 lbs effortlessly, just by changing my diet. That's right, I haven't been to the gym once. (Don't get me wrong, my eventual goal is to start working out and get some tone, but drastically changing your diet like this takes some effort, and I want to make sure I get that right.) I've been able to stop taking my acid reflux medication completely, and my heartburn is gone. I wish I could just post this and then it would spread like wildfire and everyone in America would try it out and we'd be a healthier nation. I know that will never happen, but maybe I can change a few lives. My brother helped change mine by introducing me to Robb's book. I was at a point where I knew I needed to make a change, and this has been better than I could have hoped. If you're at that point too, take this as the push you need: get the book and try it for 30 days.

August 23, 2011

There's no PhD in Team

by flickr user sunnehh
One thing I've noticed after transitioning to my new job is that my team is actually a team. People genuinely want to help me when I have questions because our success is really determined more as a team than as individuals. We all have to depend on each other to complete various parts of projects as they come up, and it's nice to have a support system, especially as a new employee.

Contrast this with a typically research group. In most groups it's less a team and more a group of individuals. Yes, in the good groups people behave nicely and will help you out. But how many times have you seen that turn into them jockeying for an authorship spot on your subsequent paper? I've seen it happen a lot, often from people I never expected. As a PhD student you have to prove that YOU have what it takes, not your group as a whole. So you're always looking for ways to distinguish yourself and get as much credit for yourself as you can. I was in a lot of meetings where someone felt very angry and slighted just because the presenter did not give them verbal credit for their help with an experiment or for having given the presenter the idea that got them through their roadblock. They wanted that public pat-on-the-back so their advisor would be aware of how nice and helpful they were (and probably to help make up for their failed experiments or perceived lack of results.) I totally understand why things are this way, but is it still appropriate in today's market? Let's ignore the fact that there are no (maybe a few?) jobs for chemists, isn't there a big push toward collaboration? Most schools are pushing collaborations between researchers and departments and they love to toss around the buzzword "interdisciplinary". So should there be such strong individualism when the culture is moving toward one of teamwork? Aren't today's problems getting harder to solve as a single scientist isolated in a lab somewhere? The problems are bigger and more complex, and it's often impossible for one person to have all of the knowledge required to complete a single project.

I feel like scientists would probably get a lot more meaningful work done if real teamwork was encouraged, but a lot of it probably comes down to the economics of research. You have to prove that you deserve all that money, so you have to have your name on all of those results. Am I wrong?

August 20, 2011

Recovering from grad school

It's been a long time since I've posted, and there have been a lot of changes in my life. New job, new diet (more on that soon), new apartment. No promises on how consistent I will be on posting, but with time comes perspective, and I wanted to share some of that. Just think of it as one of those reality tv shows, where the show goes in and changes someone's life and then a few months later they revisit them. In my revisit, I'd like to talk about what it takes to recover from graduate school.

I think anyone that has been in grad school will agree that it's enormously stressful and that they take solace in knowing that it is a temporary predicament. There's overwhelming pressure to produce either brought down upon you by your advisor or self-imposed by your desire to succeed. Not to mention the physical exhaustion from long hours, and the depression that can come from lack of sleep, poor nutrition, and the fact that your experiment failed yet again and you have no idea what to do next. Throw on top of that the fear of your future career (fear which is experienced by every grad I've ever talked with), and it's easy to end up a mess. For me all of this was pretty easily fixed after I started a new job and no longer had to deal with the daily stresses that come from the grad school environment. This was one of the best rewards for me in my decision to leave, I just feel happier and less stressed.

Did I mention the lack of sleep and poor nutrition? It's easy to succumb to a fast food diet, and I found myself indulging in comfort foods constantly. Sugary coffee drinks, cookies at every seminar, pizza when grading tests, beer at every social event, burgers, chinese, or mexican food for lunch and/or dinner when I felt too tired to cook. (Sounding familiar?) So not only did I put on the freshman 15 in college, I quickly put on another 15 during grad school. (On a side note, kudos to the grads who use some of their few hours of free time to go running or to the gym, I've never liked either and didn't find it a good way to relax.) I also developed acid reflux, which my doctor told me I'd have to deal with for the rest of my life by taking a pill every morning. To sum up, grad school definitely did a number on me, one that I will be recovering from for months if not longer. If you're on your way to or in grad school now, I encourage you to do what you can to eat well and get enough sleep to hopefully make life a little easier for yourself.

On a happier side-note, with my new diet I've already lost 20 lbs and my acid reflux has totally subsided. I'm following a Paleo diet (for a great introduction get Robb Wolf's book The Paleo Solution: The Original Human Diet), which I highly recommend and plan to devote a whole post to later.

It was pretty hard to say goodbye to all of my friends and move into a new circle of people. And let's face it, it's hard to spend time with grad students when you aren't one yourself. I do still see a few occasionally, but not nearly enough. I'm working on making connections at my new job, and that's something that takes time whenever you make a transition like this.

Haha..this one is a joke. Having a real job is AWESOME. My salary nearly doubled and I have no complaints.

Do I have any regrets?
None. I'm as happy and confident in my decision as I was once I had committed to it. I have no desire to go back to the bench and I think the world of IT is a much better fit for me.

May 10, 2011

So I realized why there aren't more blogs by people who leave grad school

So I made a promise about a month ago that I'm finally following through on. Don't worry, my job is going quite well and that's why I've been absent from the blogging scene.

by flickr user Xelcise
Let me elaborate a little on my title. Once I finally left grad school and started my new job, all the fire went out of me. That desire to preach to young graduate students about the perils of their upcoming academic journey and to find reassurance from other Chemistry MS-holders that the road before me would be ok, just didn't seem to matter any more. I think that's why I couldn't find other blogs written by chemistry students who quit grad school with a Masters; once you get out of the grad school bubble you forget about the drama and angst and you just move on.

If you're struggling with the decision, take heart! It does get easier. There's definitely some fear when you're looking for a job or whatever your next move is, but once you start that next journey you forget about the old stuff that used to stress you out. The best thing that's happened for me is that I'm just happier. I don't worry about work, I don't bring any of it home with me. I work hard during the day, I feel like I'm making progress, and I go home to relax and live a little. All in all I know I made the right decision for myself.

April 13, 2011

My apologies...

Wow, sorry about the gaping whole of nothingness that has been this blog as of late. Corporate America has been a lot more demanding than I thought it would be, so I haven't had time to post. I will try to correct that tonight when I will touch on some of my observations of the differences between Corporate America and Academia.

March 31, 2011

Do you have the skills to pay the bills?

by flickr user dulk
Because I am seeking an alternative science career, the skills I've acquired through my education really aren't that useful. I mean, yes, I know a lot about chemistry, but what good is that for a desk job? So which skills are the most valuable in terms of securing employment?  Well, in my humble opinion they happen to be the skills that I developed independently as hobbies. For instance, the computer skills I've developed over a lifetime. I taught myself how to code HTML / CSS and became very comfortable with image manipulation software and office products. Some of those skills were valuable in graduate school, academia tends to greatly value free webdesign in my experience. The hard part is explaining to employers that my hobbies really have trained me in these skills well enough to justify employing me in a job where I do only that.

Luckily, I found an employer willing to take a chance on me. So I'm leaving chemistry for his sexy younger brother: computer science. I will be starting a job with a software company in a few weeks, and while I have mixed feelings about abandoning science, I am excited about the position and hope that I find it enjoyable. Regardless the position pays much better than a grad student stipend, and it allows me to stay near the other half of my two-body problem.

Right now I consider this a hiatus from alternative science careers, but who knows where this journey will take me. I hope to continue writing about topics relevant to the audience I have built, but apologize in advance if I begin to diverge into tangential topics.

March 20, 2011

'Tis the season for recruiting

**Part 2 of the 2-for-1 day!

by flickr user thinboyfatter
All of the prospective graduate students have come and gone from Big U for this year's Chemistry recruiting season. I saw the recruits in a completely new light this time. Granted, my exposure to recruits was limited as I wasn't allowed to host (wouldn't want the "bitter" grad student leaving with a Masters to say anything negative about the department), but I did interact with them at the poster session and a couple of the informal dinners.

I was struck by their naivety. Many expressed their desire to go the academic route, becoming a professor at a small college, and faithful readers will know how I feel about that. As soon as I heard this I wanted to start quoting stats as to the limited number of academic positions, the huge number of applicants, and therefore the low odds of getting that coveted spot. In general I wanted to warn them of the troubling job market for PhD chemists and the possibility that we just have too many PhDs. Did I tell them any of these things? Nope. I knew that my cautionary advice would fall on deaf ears, especially once they heard that I was leaving the program. I was in their shoes once, and I was so confident that I was different that I would have thought that those statistics didn't apply to me. No, instead I kept my mouth shut and hid behind the mask of a graduate student in good standing. I cringed and squirmed a little when they asked about the attrition rate and how many people quit with their Masters. Thankfully one of my close friends fielded the question and answered truthfully that people leave for all sorts of reasons. After all, six people have left from our class, and we all left for distinct reasons.

So readers, did I take the easy way out by staying silent? Do you think they would have heeded my advice? I believe that there really are some things people can only learn through experience, and by documenting my advice here the information will be available if they choose to go looking for it later.

The awkward interim period

**I've been a little too silent lately, so to make up for it today will be a 2-for-1 posting.

Today I wanted to comment on the awkward situation I find myself in after declaring that I will no longer pursue the PhD, but before I have actually left graduate school. This awkward interim period, at least from others in my situation that I have talked to, is fairly common. Many students agree to stick around at least through the end of the semester to wrap up projects. This helps advisors because projects are (hopefully) left in a state where a new grad student could pick them up and continue; it also benefits the student because they can continue earning a paycheck while they look for outside employment.

I was lucky in that I was in-between projects when I decided to leave, and since I explained to my advisor that I am leaving because I strongly dislike benchwork, they agreed to let me continue in other capacities. I have a TA position that pays most of my salary, and I offered to help with writing and editing manuscripts for our group as well as other lab manager-esque duties. This agreement has been satisfactory for both my advisor and myself (although I do find myself frequently bored and scrounging for something productive to do). The awkwardness comes from my labmates.

In the first few weeks after I said I was leaving people were still talkative, asking me how my job applications and interviews were going, but I slowly saw this change into something else. I'm not sure if it was resentment, jealousy, condescension, or just inconsideration, but suddenly whenever there was a tedious crap-job to do my labmates would ask me to do it. It was the way they asked me that really got under my skin: "Why don't you do ______ for me? It's not like you're doing anything else." Some of you will read this and say, "Yes Ms. MSmind, they have a point." They did have a point, but let me break it down for you: 1) Just because I wasn't sweating in lab doesn't mean I wasn't working; at the time I had several writing projects that I was finishing up for my advisor. 2) I was mostly rankled by the underlying assumption that their time was somehow more valuable than mine. I feel that if you take on responsibilities or make commitments to do something you should uphold that, not foist the work onto someone else. 3) Quite honestly, if they had approached me with a more ingratiating attitude and requested that I assist them instead of trying to shove it on me I probably would have helped.

by flickr user bazylek100
Now enough time has passed that I'm essentially forgotten about. With my close friends in the group, nothing has changed and we still chat like we did a year ago, but it seems like the most anyone else can say is "So do you have a job yet?" I understand that they have to move on and have many other things to concern themselves with, it's just strange to feel as though I've already been erased from the group. I knew it would happen eventually, I just didn't realize it would happen while I was still here. I'm sure almost everyone can relate to this, I've seen a similar thing happen to people in their 5th year as they write their thesis. Maybe I'm taking it too hard and trying to see evidence of the stigma where it's not actually being manifested.

March 11, 2011

FYI: Quitting is admirable

That's one of the things I learned from my coworkers when I told them my plans to leave the PhD program. Overall the most terrifying and surprising part of leaving graduate school was the response I received from friends, family, mentors, coworkers, and my advisor. Terrifying because I was worried that I would be disappointing all of the people in my life, and surprising because I found out from them that that wasn't what they were thinking at all. Here's how it all shook out:

My friends (and boyfriend) were all incredibly supportive. It helped that most are also grad students, so they understand the pressures and my reasons for leaving. Some were sad to see me leave, but overall they understood and wished me luck.

My family was the most taken aback and concerned about my announced departure. My parents are baby-boomers and strong believers in the earning power of an education. They were concerned that I was giving up on a career path I had said I wanted for years (professor) and were especially worried about my job prospects in our current economy. Even with their concerns they said the most important thing was that I was happy. My aunt (a very outspoken woman) on the other hand, informed them that I was making the biggest mistake of my life and would regret it forever. This was the only blatant criticism I heard over my decision.

My mentors, chemistry faculty from my undergrad and a couple from Big U, were also overwhelmingly supportive. I was most nervous to tell my mentors because they had encouraged me to go to grad school and believed that I could succeed; if anyone was going to be disappointed I thought it would be them. None of them even hinted at disappointment, instead it was more like: it's not uncommon and you've thought about it carefully, best of luck in your new direction, and we're excited to hear what you do next. (To be fair one tried to convince me to stay in the PhD program, but they also said that they would support me no matter what my decision ended up being.) One comment that really stuck with me was, "This is part of education too, figuring out what you don't want to do."

image from
My coworkers (group members) gave the most interesting responses. It ranged from "I called it" to selfish disappointment to envy to admiration. One person I told immediately said, "Oh yeah, I figured as much. You've been acting differently the past couple weeks and I haven't seen you in lab." One (my only classmate in the group) was selfishly disappointed because I wouldn't be around to remind them of impending deadlines. I often figured out how to do things the hard way and then they would saunter up and I would explain it to them. (I'm guilty of helping because I love feeling knowledgeable when people ask me for advice.) One person seemed envious and said that if it were a year earlier in their career they would think more seriously about leaving too. The last reaction, and the title of the post, surprised me quite a bit. One group member told me I was very courageous for leaving, and they were very impressed and admired the fact that I knew what I wanted and wasn't afraid to make big changes to get it. I heard this echoed about a bit by other people too. I think this is the only time in my life where someone told me it was admirable to quit.

My advisor was in total shock at my announcement. It just goes to show the weakness of our relationship that they had no idea I was unhappy. I was asked by a few people whether I would have stuck with the program if I had had a different advisor, and honestly I don't know. I always felt like I was on shaky ground with my advisor, and it stems back to when I was in their class the first semester or grad school. I did poorly on the second exam (which in my defense included a large portion of material that we had not covered yet) and I had to attend a meeting with my advisor to discuss my performance. I thought I would be asked what went wrong, be given a couple suggestions for better studying and be sent on my way since everyone kept telling me how classes don't matter in graduate school. Instead I was told that I needed to study my ass off for the rest of the semester if I hoped to pass. I did the studying and passed the course with an above-average grade, but I don't appreciate scare tactics and the whole scenario started a little itch of resentment toward my advisor that I never shook. (It became clear throughout our relationship that my advisor enjoyed using fear as a motivational tool, and the occasional raving compliments I received from them always seemed fake against that back-drop. I might detail this relationship more in a later post.) Overall, the most praise and appreciation I ever received from my advisor was the day I told them I was going to leave the program. They looked at me dumbfounded and said, "Why? You have all the skills you need to succeed at this and you've done really well so far." They offered to give me a new project and refused to accept my decision until I slept on it for another three days. In the end they were very supportive, offering to pay me through the end of the semester to assist in manuscript writing and other non-lab duties.

I guess the person that had the most difficult time accepting the news was myself, but I feel lucky to have the support of so many people in my life. It's one of those moments where you can look around and really appreciate what you have.

**If you noticed my excessive use of "they" and "them" that's because I was trying to remove any gender identifiers to keep things anonymous.

March 06, 2011

Step-by-step guide to making the BIG decision

Since I announced my departure from graduate school, I have been introduced to several other students also struggling with this decision. When you imagine making this life changing decision you can practically hear the doors slamming shut around you, as one opportunity after another becomes out of reach. The other side of the coin is that you can taste freedom, and if you are really miserable then you're sure that anything (even sitting around unemployed on the couch) would be better than your current situation. That said, before you run around screaming "I quit!" I'd recommend having a battle plan so you can leave with confidence and without burning all of your bridges.

Here's a step-by-step guide through the process I used. You may find it helpful, you may not. This is a very personal decision to make and I'm not saying that this is the only way to think about it, but if you're struggling for a place to start here's my advice:

  1. Why are you unhappy?
    I love lists, so the first thing I did was write up the pros and cons of my grad school life. If the cons are things that can be fixed (problems with coworkers, or if you like research but don't like your project), take a proactive approach and try to make things better for yourself. When I had "the talk" with my advisor they offered to let me change projects if that was the source of my unhappiness. It's dependent on the advisor, but if your pros list is longer than your cons you should probably sit down and have a chat with them. If the cons include things like "I hate working at the bench" or "research sucks" then I would move on to number 2.
  2. What was your goal in coming to grad school? Do a cost/benefit analysis.
    If you're like me and you wanted to be a professor at a school that emphasizes teaching over research, consider whether that dream is worth your continued unhappiness for the next few years. I have friends that say it is, but for me it wasn't. Maybe you like labwork but you don't like the independent nature of PhD research? A Masters wouldn't be a bad way to go. You could work in a lab making more money than a BS, but with more guidance (and less freedom potentially) than a PhD.
  3. What do you enjoy doing and what kind of job do you want?
    You still have to pay the bills, so what do you do now? This was an important question for me since I decided against both teaching and labwork. Do you like writing? Web design? Are you a salesman?
  4. Are there jobs available (where you want to work)?
    It depends on your situation and the type of job you want. Some jobs are harder to find than others and might require you to move to where the opportunities are (ex. most policy jobs would need you to move to D.C.). If you have a significant other you aren't willing to move away from (my situation) then start looking at job listings in your area. Does anything look appealing? I started looking on Monster, and Indeed, and also searched for local job listing sites (many cities have these).
  5. Do you have a plan but you're still unsure about your decision?
    Talk to mentors, family, friends. Lay out your reasons for leaving and your plan for after you leave. Sometimes it helps to hear someone else say "You know, it's clear you've thought through this careful and it sounds like you're making the best decision for yourself." Just be prepared, odds are not everyone will be supportive. (I actually returned to this step multiple times throughout the process.)
  6. The tricky part: Apply for jobs and then tell your advisor or tell your advisor first?
    I struggled with this myself. I thought it would be nice to have a job all lined up before I talked to my advisor, but I worried that employers would be suspicious if I didn't supply my advisor as a reference. I was also worried that the more people I told the higher the chance that my advisor would hear I was leaving from someone that wasn't me. I finally decided to talk to my advisor first, which worked out quite well for me.
  7. The resolution.
    Hopefully you should feel a rushing sense of relief that you've made the decision to leave (then you know it was the right decision for you). I can't tell you what happens next because I don't quite know myself. I tried to be as accommodating as possible to my advisor to ensure a good reference, which lets me benefit because I get to keep earning a paycheck while I continue my job search.
So there's my very analytical analysis of the process, but what else would you expect from a scientist? I'm no authority on the subject, so if you took a different path tell me about it in the comments.

March 02, 2011

Is there a stigma associated with the chemistry MS degree?

As an undergraduate I had little understanding of the differences between a MS and PhD. I understood that both were advanced degrees, and the MS seemed more attainable while the PhD was something that only a super genius could earn. (My belief in PhD = super genius was totally eradicated in grad school by the way.) As a first year graduate student I still didn't know what the difference was other than the PhD took longer and would supposedly raise your earning potential, but another view of the difference between the MS and PhD degrees quickly emerged.

The MS is not formally offered by the Chemistry Department at Big U, instead only graduate students pursuing a PhD are admitted. In fact most large research universities have this policy. So where do the MS-holders come from at these schools? The MS is awarded to wash-outs, quitters, people who couldn't quite hack it. At least, that's what I believed as a first year graduate student, and honestly I continued believing it up until I decided to leave. I know I'm not alone as a graduate student in this belief. I think it's something we say to comfort ourselves; as we struggle through difficult classes and adjusting to the responsibilities and pressures of independent research it's comforting to look around and say, "I'm still here so I must be better/smarter/more dedicated than the people who aren't." It's a sentiment that spreads easily in academia, where many elitist attitudes prevail.
by flickr user ohdarling

This attitude, which I held myself, created a feeling of shame and inferiority in me as I struggled with the decision to quit. Statements like "there's no shame in taking a Masters" when spoken by professors leads the listener to believe that at least some must see it as shameful. I finally resolved my feelings, and made the important distinction that I was choosing to leave. There's some truth to the idea that "the MS is awarded to wash-outs", if a student fails any of the PhD requirements after completing their coursework and is asked to leave they will leave with a MS. But people end up leaving for a lot of reasons, and of the people I know that have left, only a couple were due to "wash-out". I chose to leave, with my head held high, knowing that I had the skills to finish. My question is, do employers and potential coworkers understand this distinction?

I only have a (small) view from academia, so if anyone from industry happens to read this I would love to hear your opinion. I'd really love to hear opinions from anyone actually. Maybe this distinction between choosing a MS and being given a MS as a consolation prize is most relevant for research positions and won't impact me in my search for an alternate career?

Anyway, this is why I'm always very careful to say "leaving with my masters" instead of "quitting". It's probably all in my head, but it makes me feel better.

**UPDATE (3/3/11, 10:30 pm)
I reached out to Chemjobber to provide an industry perspective, here's what he had to say:

Ms MS-mind: Is the opinion that the MS is a "wash-out" degree held by chemists in industry?

Chemjobber: I'd say, well, no and yes. No, I've never heard anyone make the statement that M.S. degree holders are washouts or that they are less capable scientists. Most Ph.D. chemists that I've seen treat the M.S.-level chemists with a good deal of respect and willingness to listen and follow their advice.

At the same time, it is well known that (in the pharma world) Ph.D. chemists have an easier time rising through the ranks than M.S. chemists. Is this because M.S. chemists are viewed as somehow less intelligent or worse scientists? No, I'd say that this is mostly about Ph.D. chemists thinking that leadership of other scientists is somehow best done by Ph.D. holders. While that doesn't really hold true, I think it's safe to say that it's conventional wisdom.

Ms MS-mind: Could this MS stigma be one reason why there are so few positions advertised for MS-degree holders? (My personal observation is that the vast majority of positions that mention the MS say PhD-preferred.)

Chemjobber: Tough to say, really, but I don't think it can be attributed to that theory.

Here's a couple of quick theories of my own: 1) there is a glut of Ph.D. chemists right now. Why not get a Ph.D. chemist for slightly higher than a M.S. chemist's salary? 2) the nature of the chemical/pharmaceutical business has sent tasks typically done by M.S. chemists overseas or 3) we're at a point in the R&D cycle in the US where more innovation is required, so more Ph.D.s are being hired, rather than M.S. chemists. All of those, of course, are fairly half-baked theories.

Ms MS-mind here again, thanks for the correspondence CJ! If you'd like to read more about this topic, I found a relevant post while digging through the Chemjobber archive. It references a comment thread with some passionate debate about the "wash-out" stigma.

February 25, 2011

Job Advice: Your university might be the answer

by flickr user dullhunk
The problem with looking for alternative science careers is that there's no consistent way they are advertised. So far the most promising opportunities I've found have come from browsing through job listings by category instead of searching for a specific job title. Some good advice I've received recently is to search as broadly as possible, and your University just might provide the opportunity you seek.

Many departments in large universities hire administrative staff that deal with science and research issues, but aren't involved in the lab. For example, a Research Grants Administrator assists PIs in developing and submitting grant applications. If you enjoy science and writing this could be a great position. I actually applied for just such a position at Big University, and they were only asking for a BS degree and some research experience. As an MS holder with 3 years of graduate level research experience I feel I am well qualified for the position. Now I'm keeping my fingers crossed and hoping for a response.

To find this position I went to the University's Department of Human Resources and browsed through their job listings. I suggest looking through all of the relevant categories as sometimes jobs might end up where you least expect. There were also a few IT positions that my tech savvy could qualify me for. I guess the key is to leave no stone unturned when looking for an alternative science career, especially in this economy.

February 14, 2011

A sea of possibilities lay before me

I dealt with a lot of anxiety and emotional turmoil as I made my decision to leave graduate school (more on that in a separate post), but the single most frightening and exhilarating question was "What do I do now?" I knew that I didn't want to work at a bench anymore, so that ruled out any lab positions. I also decided that at this point I was not interested in staying in academia, neither as a lecturer or high school teacher.  I had been casually looking into alternative science careers for some time, but I still felt like I didn't know of very many options. Here are a few I considered:
  • Patent Agent / Law
  • I didn't consider it for very long, but I was aware of it as an option. To be a patent agent you just need to pass that part of the bar, and can learn the necessary info by studying on your own. See this JAEP post for more on Patent Law.
  • Policy: Congressional Legislative Assistant
  • I learned about this from a post at JAEP, and looked into the mentioned fellowships (AAAS, ACS). Unfortunately, these positions seemed more competitive than I originally thought and required political experience that I lacked. (The AAAS also requires a PhD.)
  • Scientific Publishing
  • I enjoy writing and learning new science, so I thought this might be a good fit. Unfortunately to be an editor they expect you have a PhD. I could apply to be a publications assistant, and I did see a few openings with PLoS and Nature Publishing Group.
  • Hollywood Science Advisor
  • This sounds like the coolest job ever. You read over scripts and answer questions to assure the accurate portrayal of science in TV and movies. I learned about this from ScriptPhD, but was nervous about the "make your own way" aspect of it.
  • Science Librarian
  • I sat down and talked with the chemistry librarian in our department to understand her position. It sounds like a nice blend of education/communication and resource management, but it would a MS in library science and I didn't feel up to immediately starting a two year commitment. JAEP also did a profile of this position.
  • Technical Writer
  • This could combine my interest in writing and communication with my technical knowledge and skills. I learned at a job fair that most scientific companies hire or contract with technical writers (someone has to write all those manuals and online help pages).
Technical writing is the career path I've decided to follow for now. I realize that it's not the most glamorous position, but since I learned most of my new skills in graduate school by reading through product documentation, I understand the value in friendly, informative literature about a program or product. Also factoring into my new career path is the dreaded two-body problem; I want to stay in the area of Big University at least until my boyfriend finishes his degree.

So there we are. I'm starting to send out applications and since I'm so poignantly aware of how awesome I am, I naively believe that my time from now until the beginning of a new career will be short. I hope you enjoy my continued reflections on graduate school and forthcoming contemplations on the alternative chemistry/science job market.

February 07, 2011

Zombies inspired me to blog

Feed by Mira Grant
For the past few years I have had a growing fascination in post-apocalyptic survival stories, and they are all over the place. TV shows (Survivors, The Colony), movies (28 Days Later, The Book of Eli), video games (Fallout 3, Fallout New Vegas) and books (World War Z) most of them recent provide intriguing examples of how survivors would cope after a major disaster. I find this survival and ultimately the rebuilding of society fascinating. And, of course, if you throw in zombies it's even more amazing (World War Z and Fallout 3 were the real initiators for all of this).

My interest in both post-apocalyptic survival and zombies led me to pick up the book Feed by Mira Grant at the end of last year. In it the world was exposed to two viruses, one that cured the common cold and one that cured all cancers, unfortunately the combination of these two viruses causes the recently deceased to reanimate. In this new world where most average people stay at home in their well-controlled secure neighborhoods, journalists have become the brave adventurers. And in this new world, it is not the large syndicated newspapers or TV channels of main stream media that people trust, but bloggers. Bloggers have risen as the authoritative voice of this new society because they were the first to take the zombie threat seriously and provide practical advice and help to get people through the first outbreaks. The mainstream media on the other hand tried to placate the public and assure them that everything was fine, even as deaths from zombie attacks were rising.

by flickr user antigone78
So the funny thing is that out of this whole back-story I found the idea of reanimated corpses attacking people more plausible than bloggers taking over from mainstream media. I started to give the idea more credence as I delved more into the world of science writing. I had a blog during my freshman year of college and used it as a place to broadcast my youthful sarcasm and wit, that's probably why I associate blogs with teenagers trying to be clever. Still, I've run across many very serious blogs in recent weeks. Professional scientists discussing both the science and business aspects of their companies and careers. It's also easy to find critiques of recently published work and speculation of the current scientific job market. As I start to gather more of my news from blogs instead of mainstream media I realize that this futuristic idea of a blogging news media might not be so far off.

Then I ran across a conference called ScienceOnline 2011, that invites anyone interested in discussing how web and social media can be used to promote science to register and attend. Unfortunately I came across this conference just as it was ending, but I look forward to the chance to attend next year's Science Online. For now I'll continue blogging and maybe it will lead to a career, if nothing else I'll be prepared to offer advice if zombies start rising up.

February 04, 2011

Waking up from the "Dream Job"

In earlier posts I have touched on the general sense of unhappiness I felt during the first two years of my graduate program. Each time doubts rose as to whether graduate school was the right place for me, the desire to attain that dream job -- being a professor at a small liberal arts college -- would keep me hanging on.

by flickr user StuartWebster
So why did I want to be a professor so badly? Several reasons: 1) I loved the chemistry faculty at my undergraduate institution. They were charming, friendly, enthusiastic, and very encouraging. Any of them would let me sit down in their offices for hours to chat about classes, science, life. I only realized after coming to graduate school how different professors must behave at large schools. 2) I loved teaching, and I still do! TAing the organic chemistry lab is what got me through my first year of graduate school. I enjoyed my students and I felt a great sense of pride and accomplishment when I was able to communicate science to them and see them understand it. I also put a great deal of effort into including stories in my lecture that would relate that day's lab experiment to something in real life. When we did distillations for the first time I talked about liquor and gave them an understanding of Smirnoff's claim to being triply distilled. I always tried to find ways to highlight chemistry in action in the "real world" and many of the students thanked me for it. 3) From my observations as an undergraduate, it seemed like the best job you could have. You interact with and inspire students, you spend some time grading, you get time off in the summer (sort of, most schools expect you to carry on a small research program). Perfect.....right?

The fact that I am leaving the PhD program with my MS means something about my aspirations must have changed. What happened is that I got a wake-up call in the form of experience. I was allowed to co-teach a course, and really got knee deep into what it's like to be a professor. I think I had to deal with a little bit of everything in that one course. I felt under-prepared for lectures and had trouble getting the timing right, seeming to always go faster or slower than I had planned. Toward the end of the course I had worked out that issue, but I also began to see just how repetitive lectures would become as I taught the same course year after year. Between preparing for class and grading (and having a life) there's not a lot of time to revamp and revolutionize a course.

by flickr user rocknroll_guitar
I also struggled somewhat with the students. Previously as a TA I was responsible for grading lab reports and quizzes but the students understood that I was just an underling and they seemed mostly appreciative of my help. In this new experience, as a co-instructor for the course, many of the students seemed to think I owed them explanations and advice. I had the clingy students who were constantly by my side and in my office hours, asking questions about things I had already explained to them three or four times. I had the students who just seemed to go through the motions, --average scores on homework and exams-- never or rarely asking questions. And then I caught one student cheating. He fully copied one of the lab write-ups from a student who took the class two years earlier, data, graphs, everything. After looking back through old records we found the original lab report, but when we confronted the cheater he adamantly denied it. He even went so far as to blame us, saying if we knew him better we would know that he wasn't the type of student who would cheat. Overall I truly enjoyed interacting with the students, but the experiences highlighted here also took away from the rosy hue I had always had when viewing academia. I realized that not all students would approach their studies as actively as I had, and many of them would not respond to my most earnest efforts to educate them. Basically, I realized that professorship isn't the rose garden I thought it was.

Finally, I was surprised by the number of committees and non-teaching responsibilities that faculty have to attend to on a daily basis. Faculty meetings, department meetings, committee on committee meetings. I had the opportunity to attend some of these meetings and I realized how politics are intimately involved in academia. Each faculty member, each department have their own strong opinions on how the college should be run and their own agenda on how to accomplish this.

My disillusionment complete, I realized that even though I would enjoy teaching I wasn't sure it would be the perfect job I once thought it was. I also started reading more blogs and hearing stories from older grad students and post docs that the job market (even when the economy wasn't in the toilet) for academic positions is ├╝ber competitive. To be considered for a professorship at some institutions you have to have a remarkable publication track record as a graduate student AND complete one or two (maybe more?) post docs. So not only was the light at the end of my tunnel (perfect professor job) getting dimmer, the road was getting longer and longer (now I have to do a post doc too?).

Now what? I don't like research, being a professor seems less exciting. What are my options? Come back later for the next part of the saga.

February 03, 2011

Blast from the past: Personal Statement

Since I've made my decision to leave I have been actively seeking employment. In preparation for applications and interviews I have been going through old resumes and documents. I took a moment to read through the personal statement I used when applying to grad schools. I chuckled at my naivety and idealism and cringed a little at the cuteness of my closing paragraph. Here it is for your enjoyment, with a few minor alternations (*) to preserve my anonymity.

Science has captivated me for as long as I can remember, and I fondly recall watching “Bill Nye the Science Guy” in Mrs. Jones'* fourth grade classroom. Nye's joy and wonder jump-started my own passion for math and science. Upon discovering chemistry, I found the complexity of intrigue and challenge that could sate my ever-growing curiosity. The satisfaction felt when I gain a deeper understanding of chemistry matches only my desire to learn more. Not just an intellectual exercise or potential source of income, chemistry is one of my greatest passions.

Last year I participated in the National Meeting of the American Chemical Society in Chicago, IL. It was inspiring to see 14,605 people disclosing new developments in areas like nanotechnology and sustainability. I made a small contribution by presenting a poster on the ACS Student Affiliates Chapter from Little College*. Back in Smallville*, I contribute to the field by organizing and performing chemical demonstrations with the other student affiliates for the local fifth grade class. The kids cheer while we spray methanol-salt solutions into a flame to see their blue, green, yellow, or purple emission spectra, and we explain that the same compounds are found in the fireworks they watch on the Fourth of July. I hope the excitement I provide them during these moments stays with them, just as Bill Nye's stayed with me.

I believe that the true value of science is in the lives it can benefit. My favorite presentation at the ACS National Meeting was by Arup SenGupta, who developed economically feasible, renewable filters to remove arsenic from drinking water in Bangladesh. Norman Borlaug, one of my personal heroes, fed millions through his development of several semi-dwarf, high-yield, disease-resistant wheat varieties. SenGupta and Borlaug both reinforce my belief that a scientist should not hide away in the lab; a scientist should take her research where it will be of the most use in the world.

I am interested in conducting any research that has a clear benefit for humanity. Discovering the intricacies of protein structure and activity in relation to Alzheimer's, Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, or cancer is appealing both for the science and its application. Similarly, I am interested in medicinal chemistry; synthesizing analogs of natural products that have potential therapeutic value or attempting to design a new drug from scratch would be an exciting challenge. After earning a PhD in biological or organic chemistry, I hope to join the faculty at a small liberal arts college where I can be an involved mentor for my students and continue health-related research.

Ultimately what you get out of life depends on the effort you put into it. Thomas Edison said it simply, “Opportunity is missed by most people because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.” I know the key to my current success is a strong work ethic and the determination to finish what I start. Graduate school may be the greasiest pair of overalls I have ever seen, but getting a little dirty is a tiny sacrifice in exchange for the ability to improve the world.
Have any of you current graduate students looked back at your personal statement? Do you also see it in a new, skeptical light?

February 01, 2011

Cautionary tales for those considering a PhD in chemistry

As I began considering leaving graduate school more seriously, I started looking around online to see what sorts of jobs were available to holders of a PhD versus a MS. I ran into a fascinating debate that has continued to grow in popularity on whether or not we (as a society) are producing too many PhDs in the sciences.

by flickr user srqpix
If you are an undergraduate currently considering attending a chemistry graduate program, you should definitely read these articles. It's important to understand that the job market won't be easy when you complete your degree. In fact some people are predicting that it will continue to worsen as Pharma consolidates and continues to announce lay-offs.

If you are currently a first or second year in a chemistry PhD program you should also read these articles. The are very sobering and provide important facts for your consideration as you advance in your education and consider your future career.
  • Doctoral Dilemma: Is chemistry facing a glut of Ph.D.s? by Bethany Halford at C&EN
The most recent article I've come across. This one is excellent because it provides a lot of relevant statistics to support some of their speculation.
The link goes to the summary page for the four part roundtable, and links to the individual articles are in the first paragraph. 
The first article I read on this issue. It discusses science PhDs in general and not just those in chemistry. I didn't agree with everything, but it raises some good points.
The blogosphere seems to be running with this story. Have you noticed any other well-supported arguments either for or against this idea of "too many PhDs"?

January 31, 2011

It's called re-search for a reason

by flickr user Okko Pyykkö
I hope no one misunderstands my rantings against graduate school. I believe that scientific research is incredibly valuable and immeasurably necessary for the advancement of our society. I just wish students were better prepared for it and that the support system was something better than "sink or swim". Research can be shockingly frustrating for young graduate students, even if they have been exposed to it as an undergraduate at their institution or through REU programs. The most difficult part of research for a young scientist is the way it assaults your ego. You pour yourself into a problem, taking what has already been reported in the literature and trying to extrapolate it in the hopes of reporting a new insight. It's hard not to take it personally when your best effort fails and you have to start over from square one.

At first I struggled with my damaged ego, but I came to accept that I couldn't know everything and every result, whether positive or negative, could tell me a little bit more about my system. I joined a chemical biology research group, and was excited to learn new techniques and strategies since I had little prior biochemical experience. This excitement lasted through the first year and a half until I started to feel that regardless of what I discovered it wouldn't do much to change the world. (In my personal statement for my grad school application I was sure that I could change the world, cure cancer and world hunger, all in the course of a 5 year graduate program.) This is also a difficult realization. As young students and even as a member of the general public, we view science from the leaps it takes and we rarely hear about the baby steps that constitute the majority of research efforts.

As I became comfortable with the new biochemical techniques and the literature surrounding my project, my enthusiasm started to wane. I liked discussing my work with people, I just didn't like doing the work at my bench. I found myself again questioning whether grad school was the right place for me, just as I had when classes were the most difficult my first year. In the end I quieted my doubts and persevered onward. I felt like leaving graduate school would be an admission of defeat, and I had never quit anything in my life. I just had to suck it up and hang in there a few more years, then I could have my dream job as a professor at a small liberal art school....

January 30, 2011

The problems began

by flickr user david55king
The first year of graduate school is difficult, I think that's something that crosses disciplines. You move to a new city where you don't know anyone, you're intimidated by the other students in your incoming class (obviously they have everything figured out and are 10 times more prepared for classes than you are, probably have higher IQs), and you quickly learn that the mentor-student relationships you had with faculty as an undergrad (if you came from a small school) just won't happen here. In the chemistry PhD program at Big Deal U during your first semester you will be thrown into tough courses, TAing, and you will have to pick a research advisor and convince them to take you on as a student. Under the crushing weight of all of these responsibilities you should also try to make some friends so you can try to preserve your sanity together. Is it any surprise that many graduate students take up drinking as a hobby? Most often during our first year when we needed to blow off steam, like after an especially difficult exam, my class would be found sharing pitchers at a local bar.

There are the over-achievers who spend every waking moment studying and manage to get 80% on an exam where the class average is 50%, and still think they aren't doing well enough. And the students who get 50% on the exam struggle with depression and identity crises; once the superstars of their courses as an undergrad they have become average. Despite the low exam score everyone in the course will get a "B" because "B's get degrees". You have to maintain at least a 3.0 average in most graduate programs.

Then there's the courtship involved in finding a research advisor. Be prepared to spend lots of time in meetings with senior graduate students and make sure you convince the advisor that they are your first choice to take to the prom. Hopefully you put in enough face-time to convince them and their group that you would be an excellent addition, but professors have their own agendas and they want to make sure they get the best students. I quickly became frustrated with the politics of this situation, and hated that I felt the need to carefully guard my opinions and feelings from everyone.

I spent a lot of time that first year feeling angry and depressed. (Based on conversations with my friends and classmates I was not a unique case.) Once classes were over and I engaged more fully in the new challenge of research in my new research group, I started to feel a little better. I told myself that the hardest part was over and things would be easier. I was one step closer to my dream of being a chemistry professor...

January 29, 2011

How I got here

by flickr user Schl├╝sselbein2007
As I mulled over the decision on whether to leave grad school or not, I started thinking about what led me to grad school in the first place. During my senior year of college, as I prepared to graduate with a BA in Chemistry, I knew two things: 1) I didn't want to be stuck at a bench doing menial labwork and 2) being a professor was the only other option I knew about. I enjoyed teaching, and I wanted to teach the more "mature" students at the college level as opposed to high school students.

The chemistry faculty at my small liberal arts college had been impressed by my teaching ability and the research I had done for them over the summers, and they strongly encouraged me to attend graduate school. I was completely naive as to what graduate school entailed, but when I learned I would be paid a salary to get an education I thought it would be foolish not to go.

Now, as I look back it's easy to wish that someone would have advised me better, that if they'd only warned me of the daunting task before me I could have saved myself a lot of grief. But I know that I was also incredibly determined and stubborn, and I would not have heeded the warning. In the end I learned a lot about myself, and I don't think I would have learned it any other way. Still I hope that through this blog I can give courage to other students who find themselves depressed and miserable in graduate school so they know that they can make a change for themselves too.

January 21, 2011

A new journey

by flickr user Taras Kalapun
As I advanced through graduate school assailed by doubts, I turned to the blog-o-sphere for advice and accounts of people in the same situation. I saw many blogs written by other PhD students in the sciences, detailing their daily frustrations with graduate school life and it helped me realize I was not alone.

After carefully weighing the evidence in my own life, I have decided to leave graduate school with my MS degree. I realized that I had not come across a single blog by someone in my current situation and thought this viewpoint, of someone who chose to leave, was just as vital as those who completed their PhD studies.

In this blog I hope to describe what led me to graduate school, what I learned while I was there, why I decided to leave, and the variety of alternative science careers that are available. I hope you will join me on this journey.