The reactions I get from others when I say I’m a graduate student scientist usually go along one or two directions. Often, if I tell someone that I do obesity research, the immediate response is to ask me how they can be thinner (which, by the way, I don’t know because we’re still learning about metabolism)! The other reactions, which usually question my sanity… well, that’s what this blog post is about: Graduate School and why I’m so willing to take such a long journey to do science!
I’m a graduate student in the biomedical sciences, just starting my third year. I’m 26 years old and hope to graduate in the next two to three years. At this stage of my life, it seems like every couple of months, there’s this flood of major life events amongst my friends: new jobs, engagements, marriages, babies, etc. This isn’t the first time I’ve pointed it out to myself, and I’m sure it won’t be the last. It is interesting to me how different the path in life I’ve chosen is compared to other people I know, and I’m sure I’m not the only one in this field that is looking at things from this point of view.
Graduate school doesn’t interfere with these life events for a lot of people, but as a graduate student myself, I’m not rushing into any of them. You can’t “really” decorate and call the place you’re going to school your home because you are likely to not be here in 3-5 years. Most people have to very strictly budget themselves on their graduate student stipend. If you have a significant other, they may be forced to be away from you the majority of the time. I’m reduced to physically being in the same state as my fiancé for less than 3 weeks per year, and even when we are in the same place, it is only a couple of days before I need to get back to the lab. It isn’t easy.
You may even be looked down on for continuing to be a student. I get asked things like this all the time:
How’s it going to feel to be at a 10-year high school class reunion and say, “I’m currently still a student?”
Haven’t you already got a degree?
Why don’t you get a real job?
Are you only going to grad school because you couldn’t get a job?
Why is going to school more important than being with your fiancé and family?
Don’t you feel left out with everyone moving on in their lives?
Don’t you ever do anything but go to lab?
I’ve never had good responses. Normally, I listen to these questions and simply answer that I love science and that I immensely miss my family, which usually elicits eye-rolls or odd looks. That’s normally the end of it, but at the end of my first year of graduate school, when I selected my research lab, I realized that I’ve failed to show people why science is awe-inspiring enough for me to continue this journey.
In biomedical sciences, you do a series of test-runs for a few weeks in different labs, called rotations, where you decide if it is the lab environment you want to complete your PhD in. When I elatedly posted on social media that I had selected my lab, I got a message asking me why it even mattered that I’d picked a place where I wanted to do research. I decided it was time that you all knew what makes it worth it. This is my attempt at answering the most common question of all, “What are you doing and why does it matter?”
Graduate school is magical to me; you’re jumping into something new, exciting, and different. This isn’t like undergrad where you go to classes and then you are done for the day. At the same time, it is also scary. You are pursuing a degree where you’re expected to become the expert in some aspect of the field. The goal is for you to graduate with more knowledge of a particular subject than anyone else in the world. Graduate school literally IS a job. Working on a PhD in the biomedical sciences means that you’re in lab 40+ hours per week plus classes. Evenings are spent reading and studying. All at once, you’re expected to be good at performing experiments, comprehending scientific papers, computer programming, scientific writing, figure generation, and giving presentations. This commitment is why they have to pay us to get this education. If they didn’t, nobody would ever get a PhD in this field, and research would be completed at a snail’s pace. Classes are not the important thing; the things you accomplish as a researcher are. You’re judged based on your contributions to your field from the research you produce. Half of your experiments will fail, and your PhD depends on those that work. It is daunting, and the goals aren’t exactly clear. You may not know where you’re moving for your postdoctoral studies (similar to a 1-3 year apprenticeship) until less than 6 months before graduation. At this point, due to the requirement to move around for postdoctoral studies, I won’t be on track for my dream job, to be a tenured professor, until I’m 32, at the youngest.
I know if you’ve made it this far, you’re thinking, “That just sounds awful!” Here’s the magic: I’m doing exciting research that might actually have an impact on human lives one day, yet I never have to touch a patient. I’m working on questions about the function of proteins in our own cells that nobody knows the answer to. Every time I successfully finish an experiment, I get excited about science. For that very brief moment in time, I’m the only one on earth who knows a piece of the puzzle of how our cells work and how mistakes cause disease. As you can imagine, there are periods of time where I am simply in awe. If that isn’t magical enough, then I get to share that information and teach it to others. What I learn today in the lab may be in textbooks, tomorrow. I’m simultaneously the student and the teacher. The publication of a paper I contributed data to, over 4 years of work, for me, is nearly equivalent to these life events everyone is constantly celebrating… and I’m told it is so very weird for me to put them on the same level. For a young scientist, it is a huge deal; something you worked on may have the potential to make an impact, but it also helps push you forward in your career.
I felt the need to write this because I wanted to share that despite this career that seems so unconventional to many, I am thrilled to be immersed in the world of research. I’m in a city I don’t exactly love, over 1000 miles from my family, and yet I am excited to go to the lab every day. For me, it is just amazing for me to be where I am, despite that it isn’t the norm. It feels right. I don’t feel left out, and I feel normal. I am so lucky. I guess it all goes back to what my dad always says, “Be different. Be good.”
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