Ohh, the places you’ll go. Or in my case, come back to. I got my bachelor’s degree from Michigan Tech in 2005, left for a few years to get my master’s in Montana, and then came back. Why? Because I love the UP. I am stoked about my advisor’s research. and I want to pursue a career in academia.
Getting your doctorate isn’t always just lab work and classes, at least not in engineering. It is a lot more than that. I’d like to think, at least for some, its really a coming of age tale. “When I was getting my PhD, I did all sorts of things that really made me grow as a person…”
Of course, I haven’t received my doctorate yet. But while all this is still fresh in my brain (somedays my brain is more fresh than others), I’d like to share with you what I’ve learned over the last X-number of years.
Graduate school is a time in life where your earnings far outweigh the incredible things you do. Wait, scratch that! It’s the complete opposite. Unless you have some awesome fellowship like NSF GRFP or go to a university sponsored with IGERT funding (or have an endowed advisor that can give you lots-o-money), you can make enough … to scrape by. And even with a fellowship like that, $30,000 a year in some places isn’t a whole lot of money to get by (San Francisco has a cost of living 53% greater than Minneapolis ).
On the flip side, some schools have fairly high graduate student stipends (graduate students at Harvard make an average of $31,700/year and Princeton sits at $29,300 ). At Michigan Tech (my school), the minimum graduate student stipend for someone with their master’s degree (and after passing all qualifying exams and their proposal defense) is a little under $19,000 . By any stretch of the imagination, <$20K a year is not really living in the comfort zone, which is why it always amazes me that some graduate students can juggle having a family, and having kids, and getting their PhD. My friend Matt, a fellow grad student with me, just had his first child this year. Kudos to him, and those of you out there that are so gifted to be able to balance life, work, and family. That being said, I supplement my income with student loans that help me have more breathing room (and help me enjoy some things away from school as well, including sports and healthy food).
Anyway, I digress: having no money– that is a definite downside to grad school. Why downgrade to making less than 20K a year when you know (at least as an engineer) you could get a job that pays $50,000 right out of the gate? I know as an undergrad, at least when I was a freshman/sophomore, I was looking forward to getting my degree and getting an engineering job. That’s what I was told: engineering degree = lots of money. Seems logical to choose such a profession. But I changed my mind. All of a sudden, it wasn’t all about the money anymore. When I told my dad (as a senior undergrad) that I wanted to go to grad school, he couldn’t figure out why. Spend more money on school, and for why exactly? Logical questions that needed answers.
OK, so you don’t make any money. In a similar train of thought: It’s interesting to analyze the type of people that come to grad school. Some are very ambitious, hoping to seek an advanced degree in order to advance their field of study, to teach others what they know, or to do better for their family. Some come to grad school because there just isn’t anything else to do. Take the following comic for example:
Yes, I know. It’s a comic. But its based on actual data from the National Science Foundation and the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The comic strip- Piled Higher and Deeper, is written by Jorge Cham, a mechanical engineer turned instructor who now travels and writes comics and helps others with low self esteem (ahem) grad students come to terms with the triumphs and tribulations of grad school. Interestingly enough, I am seeing more folks changing gears and going from industry back into academia, especially around the time of the economic fall out. It’s more difficult, because the graduate student pool is expanding, to secure graduate funding and support such as research and teaching assistantships. I suppose it comes down to ‘what else are we going to do’ but go back to school, when the job market is tough and employers are looking more and more for higher-ed employees. Anyway, it’s interesting. I’ll leave it at that.
Graduate student life is not all that bad. Seriously. It’s one of only a few times in life where you can make-your-own-schedule, kind of. Some advisors require their students to stick to a 9-5 schedule, but for the most part it is generally accepted that, so long as you can get the work done, you can come and go when you please. Depending on culture, teaching responsibilities, and social life, I have seen other grad students come and go from my building at all hours of the day. Yes, there have been times when I have been there at practically all hours of the day (including the 8am-3am shift, or the 4am run to check on an experiment). As an undergrad, I had never pulled an ‘all nighter.’ But as a graduate student, things are different. I mean, my life depends on these experiments. I literally have gone to bed at 9pm, set my alarm for 1am, and went back into work.
As a grad student, I’ve received tests back without grades on them. I’ve learned how to say “I don’t know” as eloquently as possible (I’m sure you’ve heard: “That’s an excellent question and its something we should consider for future investigations“- right?). I’ve learned how to bull..logna my way through a difficult question or two.
I am also learning new stuff every day, whether it pertains directly to my research or not. I’ve learned the ins and outs of all sorts of things, from optimizing quantitative PCR to getting a facility up and running. I’m learning that some situations are less fair than others, and that it’s not really worth arguing or getting upset over (and to just get the job done). Sometimes, all I want to say is: “That is not my job.” Sometimes, I do say that. Quietly and to myself (or my cat). Because even if it isn’t your job, it’s probably something that needs to get done in order to do your job, so it really could be your job, so just do it and shut up. I usually end up stepping back and saying; “That is my job. Being a grad student means anything could be your job.” Need something machined? Learn how to use a mill. Need to figure out your statistical power? Find a stats book. No one is going to hold your hand, at least- no one should have to. Because in reality, being a graduate student means being a sponge, soaking in all that you can for the limited amount of time you have. Being independent. Learning how to be a primary investigator, with the guidance and advising of your P.I., of course.
In the end, I am grateful for being given the opportunity to learn and follow and interact. I’ve taken some really cool courses. I have sat in on some really interesting talks. I have attended conferences where faculty from all over the world would stop and chat with me about my research. In a world so big, you learn in grad school just how tightly-knit any one area of science really is. I get excited when I find a journal paper that touches on my research hypotheses, and I am critical about the research I review. And I don’t care that I will have over $30K in loans to repay when I am done with school (the longer you’re in school, the longer the time period before you have to pay them back! OK, maybe don’t follow my lead on that one…)
Thanks to Piled Higher and Deeper for letting me share their comics in this post! For more hilarity (and some learning experiences), check out PhD Comics here.
1. Payscale.com Cost of Living calculator: http://www.payscale.com/cost-of-living-calculator
2. Glassdoor.com, See what employees are saying. Online search database for company salaries, reviews, and interviews.
3. Michigan Technological University, Minimum Stipend Levels
A grad-school friend of mine encouraged me to listen to WNYC‘s Radiolab on our Union Break one summer morning. I got hooked, and found that listening to the latest Radiolab got me through lonely runs and labtime and writing in my office. It inspires me to think about different things than my typical research stuff. Plus, I really enjoy learning. So on this sunny, Sunday morning, I decided to listen to the recently released Radiolab instead of saving it for my drive downstate. It was quite possibly the best motivator to get me out of the funk and out the door on my bike.
Earlier this week, Jad and Robert hosted an episode entitled “Limits.” It starts off with an interview of Julie Moss and Wendy Ingraham, women who are infamous for their determination in the Ironman. Julie, who competed in the fourth Ironman, went into the race with very little endurance training, just sort of on a whim, and almost won the race. She had no real goals before starting the race, but when she found that she was second off the bike, she started to want it. She caught the lead woman within eight miles of the run, and wanted the win more and more. Here’s a recap of the run portion of that infamous race:
Julie and the Radiolab gang discuss the limits she faced in that fateful day. She refers to it as watching “a train wreck”- The limits of human physiology, moreso than psychological limits, are what forced Julie to crawl. Her muscles cramped, her legs slowed, and she collapsed. Her legs just didn’t work. Julie’s determination got her across the line that day – this little voice telling her to “get up” – forced her to crawl across the line.
Robert brings up a good point, in that the voice she heard didn’t tell her to stop, to give up. Julie interjects, that voice would be her ego, and that voice was overpowered by this other voice that changed her life.
“I made a deal with myself- A deal was struck. I don’t care if it hurts. I don’t care if its messy. I don’t care how it looks, I will finish.” – Julie Moss
So according to Julie Moss: Psychologically– there are no limits.
What about physiologically? David Jones joins the show, a retired physiologist that had performed a study on cyclists and energy intake. The hosts discuss the Central Governor Theory, which is basically the “limiting” signal generator that allows your body to maintain its energy reserves for emergencies. It tells your body “HEY! I am done! No more energy, no more activity, stop what you are doing because I ain’t got anymore juice!”- but really, the body probably has a little bit of reserves left. Basically, it governs your energy expenditure just like an engine governor (like on a school bus) limits speed. And just like an engine governor, it’s thought that it can be turned off.
So how far can you take your body? People race the Race Across America, Ultramans, ultramarathons, and all other sorts of incredibly tough endurance activities. How do they do it? What is going on in their brain and their body that makes them able to do this?
Find out! I encourage you to head over to WNYC and NPR to listen to the latest Radiolab podcast! While it won’t answer all the questions (and it will probably raise even more questions than what it starts with), Radiolab is science + entertainment, and it definitely makes learning more fun.
The blogosphere is quite entertaining sometimes. It really surprises me how small a world it really is, and it’s really encouraging to find “others like me” in a world that I once thought was so big.
I started this thing as a means to connect with my family in a well-rounded package. I could post photos and words and “my day today was (blank)”- and it satisfied my mom, my dad, my grandparents, etc. Eventually, the internet worked its magic and some folks I didn’t know in person started following my blog. I started to find people that liked to run, liked to bike, liked to learn, liked to teach. I found grad students, engineers, professionals, athletes, and the like. I even found my teammates before they were my teammates (Jamie and Sonja in particular)
In the mix, and I’m not exactly sure how, I found Frayed Laces. She is a grad student (like me), a runner (like me), and a fairly-newbie triathlete (ok, I think you get the point). No, we’re not the same person. She’s definitely not on a gluten free diet, and she lives in Hawaii. And she studies different stuff (but she does junky on the Matlab every once in a while).
Recently, she put the word out on the interwebs about a grad student/gal discussion she wanted to host. She sent me an email and I was quick to respond. The topic– Balancing Graduate School and Training: A Female Perspective.
Who could pass that up? Check out our dialogue on her blog at Frayed Laces. Here’s hoping I didn’t say anything incriminating, because I know my advisor reads this (ohh, interwebs).
As I wonder and plunder through my third year of grad school, I get a breath of confidence every once in a while that I may graduate in the near future (and then proceed to be hammered back to shore by the waves of reality). Last spring, I focused my efforts to get to research-only mode so that my advisor could save money on tuition and I could make an extra $250 a semester in stipend. Trust me, that $250 was significant. Recently, however, I started thinking about the next step: the Post Doc.
Currently, I’m putting the pieces of my doctoral puzzle together, in the form of a dissertation (it’s in its initial stages, known as The Outline). It gets me starting to wonder what lies ahead. Seriously, I know that jobs are few and far between, and being in school for so long might put me in a position to be “over-educated and underpaid”. So the best strategy to tackle my next-phase step is to ask: What is it that I want to do with my life? Since I ask myself this question every time I fill out a fellowship application or write an essay entitled “What it is that I want to do with my life”- I should really know the answer. But the truth is, what exactly I want to do with my life next is dependent on what exact opportunities are available when I defend my dissertation and move on from the graduate school lifestyle. Having flexibility, exploring new areas of science, and continuing to learn and expand my horizons, now that is what I want to do with my life!
Since I know that I want to go into academia, the next step is to look for a post-doc or a teaching position. I know that I love doing research and I love learning, so let’s say my next step is the Post-Doc.
I’ve recently discovered RePORTER from the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Formerly known as CRISP, RePORTER is a new and updated version, used to find out who has been awarded a grant (or grants) from the NIH recently (updated weekly), what research they were awarded money for, and how long their grant money will be there. Want to know how much the faculty in your department were awarded last year? Type in their name. For me, I’m planning on scoping out potential laboratories that sound cool and checking if the PI (primary investigator) have money to support research. If you are a pre-doctoral life sciences student and you want to try and get funded without a graduate teaching fellowship, one option is to apply for the Ruth Kirschtein-NRSA Pre-Doctoral Fellowship through the NIH. In order to be awarded this, one must first establish a relationship with an NIH-funded faculty (ding ding ding! Use RePORTER to find these faculty). It beats going door-to-door and asking.
RePORTER is really neat, too. I tried searching for PI’s in Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin who have received money from NIAMS (National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases). It was really interesting to see who was doing what research in my region! RePORTER can be used to navigate through all different search procedures, like Funding Mechanism (training grant, SBIR, research projects, etc), Award Type, State, and organization (such as university). Now you can find out who has what kind of money, because it will list the award cost, too!
Every researcher in bio-based science should know about PubMed. It’s an online database for compiling manuscripts that have been accepted to peer-reviewed journals. Depending on your university or library, you may not be able to access all the manuscripts listed on PubMed without paying a fee, but most medical schools and universities have Free-Access permissions (and if that doesn’t work, try to Interlibrary-Loan an article you can’t seem to access). The most important thing about research is knowing what has already been done, and what needs to be done next. Reading about what others are doing, and staying on top of the literature, is key! I use PubMed practically every day to try and find new articles or articles I may have missed, especially while preparing manuscripts for submission (and preparing my dissertation, too!).
Remember when you had to write papers for school, and you had to use references and form a bibliography at the end?
EndNote is a really awesome tool that helps make writing papers a whole heck-of-a-lot easier. First, take all those journal articles you have stacked up on your desk. Second, enter in the title, author, journal name, etc. into EndNote. Hit save. Type your paper like you normally would, and when it comes time to enter a citation, click on the paper in your EndNote database, click insert, and voila! You have an automated bibliography. If you are planning on submitting the paper to a peer reviewed journal, you can change the format of the citations and bibliography even after you drafted the entire paper. Simply change the reference format and it automatically changes all your citations. Sooo much easier than going in one-by-one on your paper. Plus, you don’t have to worry if you are using annotated, alphabetized, or numbered citations. It’s all automatic. Makes grad school survivable, anyway!!
And for a fun tool that I like to play around with on the interwebs sometimes, I bring you Wolfram|Alpha. It’s a pretty slick resource, from the makers of Mathematica, that compiles data and interprets user-input search cues to get results. It’s much more advanced than Google (in fact, its not really like Google at all), and more dense with information than an encyclopedia. For a little bit of fun, you can try this game: Type in your birthday (day, month, year), and see what other important things in history happened on that day. Or, type in your name, and see something like this:”]
Other cool (and more useful) tools with Wolfram|Alpha are:
- job/degree searches (This is especially useful for high schoolers and college kids trying to decide what it is exactly they want to study; compare occupations and see the growth/decline of the jobs of interest)
- compare cities (looking at jobs all over the US? type in the cities of interest and compare population, temperature, elevation, surrounding areas)
- find a gene or protein sequence (ok, maybe a little too nerd-core for some people, but I got really geeked when I typed in “aggrecan” and got back the protein sequence, 3-D image, and atomic structure of the backbone of proteoglycans! Goooh!)
- find out about a material and its properties (I retrieved the Young’s Modulus and density of aluminum just like that! Useful for all those kiddies in Mechanics of Materials! *snap*)