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.