Thursday, November 23, 2006

Sorry this is late- blame Blogger.

Blogger's been intermittently down and very slow this week, so I apologize for the delay on this one.

I agree with the person who posted and said don't try to cram in too much studying, but working hard for a specific goal can be empowering, too, some some studying can be good.

As you'll see from my original response, I also agree with that person because they said they wouldn't do grad school over again if they had another chance to choose. Every hurdle you face in grad school is a chance to say to yourself, "Leaving now is not quitting, but right now I can make a choice whether to stay or to go." I still say if you're having a lot of doubts about whether this is the lifestyle for you, getting out sooner is a lot easier than getting out later.


Hello- I have been following your blog for some time now and I just wanted to thank you for sharing your experiences. I am currently a phd student in biomedical science. I often wonder how i ended up here as my undergrad degree was in psychology. I don't go to a very well known university but it's in the midwest. I am weeks away from taking my PhD qualifying exam. Do you have any recommendations? Or would you be willing to share your own experience? I am really scared that I will fail being from a psychology background my basics aren't very strong and I've really just done ok in my classes while I have been here.


You sound terrified. The best medicine for exam fear is preparation.

1. Since this is not your first language, as it were, it might help to Study. Get some textbooks and some friends who know this stuff and review the basics. Don't be shy about asking for help from other grad students, older grad students, or postdocs.

2. It doesn't matter how you do as long they don't kick you out. Even if they fail you, most schools will let you try again (at least once).

I say you should study because I think knowing the 'basics' affects everything we do - what is DNA, what is RNA, and how they are made, what are the amino acids, why does it matter that there are 20 and they're different, etc. There's no area of biomedical science where you don't need to know chemistry- pH, for example, influences everything we do in the lab, but sometimes a small pH difference doesn't matter, and sometimes it's the only things that matters. Even if you're doing nothing at the bench and you're injecting mice with a drug, you need to know basic physiology and pharmacology. Or maybe you're growing plants, then you need to know the anatomy of a plant.

Knowledge is power, in more ways than one. With that in mind:

Find out what your school's policy is. How well do you have to do? Can you get an extension and take it later? If you do poorly, can you take it again?

Do you do an oral exam component in front of a committee? Who's on your committee? Go talk to each of them in person, one on one. Try to get them to tell you what sorts of things they want you to know. And make a good impression, if you haven't met with them before. If they like you, they'll go easier on you. But don't let them know you're scared, just say you want to be thorough in your preparation. Ask for clarifications, but don't expect them to be sympathetic. Most scientists are not!

Having said all that, remember that it's not the end of the world if you fail.

But if you're this stressed out now, are you sure this is what you want to do?

If the answer is yes and you fail anyway, you can always go to the Chair or Dean in your department/program and try to work out some kind of probation. You're not the first, nor will you be the last, scientist who doesn't enjoy or excel at taking tests.

It's a stupid hurdle and doesn't measure much of relevance, if you ask me, but it does serve the purpose of being a filter. For example:

If you're this stressed out now, how well will you handle the other stressful things we do professionally? Public speaking? Grant deadlines? Grant rejections? Nasty paper reviews?

It's a stressful profession pretty much all the time, and people will always be looking at you to see how much you know, whether it's in a formal sense of being in the audience when you give a talk, or just from afar when they read your papers. Will it drive you crazy to worry what people are thinking about you and your work? Having studied psychology, I'm sure you've thought about this.

To be more positive, I can tell you from experience that everyone's confidence rises as you go through grad school and postdoc. At first you're asking all the dumb questions, and after a few years, everyone is asking you the same questions you asked a few years before. And then you have to say, hey! I must be making progress here!

Set your sights on what you want. Can you envision your future lab? What you want to study when it's up to you to do something no one's ever done before? Treat the exams as a stepping stone on the way to getting what you want. Sure, it's probably not all that related to what you're going to do later, but look at it this way: after you finish grad school, you'll never have to take another test, ever again.


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At 5:56 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Failing your qualifying exams is not the end of the world, even if it does come to that. It's not great fun (I speak from experience here), but I needed that kick to face up to the fact that there were some things I loved about academia, but others that I hated - and I would have to keep doing more of those hateful things if I kept going. And it wasn't worth it to me to invest the 3-4 years in it in order to come out the other side. I'm still figuring out what the post-grad school world holds for me, but so far it's better, and better-compensated, than the past 1.5 years would have been if I had passed the exams.

At 10:02 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you MsPhD. Your comments are valued! My research work deals with hypertension and using rat models. I am submitting my written portion this friday. Wish me lucK! There is an oral component which will be in another 3 weeks so I will definitely usee that time to brush up on my basics. Talking to my committee members is a great idea. Thanks!

At 7:07 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Stressful profession? How do you know? You're a post-doc. How can you give this advice? Is this a made up question?

Too many people forge ahead in grad school to get their PhD because it's easier to do the same old than making decision and finishing and getting a job. A job with a MS can be just as rewarding, less stressful and won't result in overly narrow professional placement. Doubts about whether a PhD is the right move or not should be taken seriously. You can always go back and finish the degree, you can't go the other way.

At 6:09 PM, Blogger Ms.PhD said...

Dear Anonymous #2,

In order:

1. Yes.
2. Do you read this blog? I already do a lot of things PIs do, I just don't get the credit or salary of a PI. I've watched several PIs go off the deep-end from the stress.
3. This advice is free. You get what you pay for.
4. This was not a made-up question, someone actually sent it to me.

I agree with the rest of what you said, but not the part about 'you can always go back and finish the degree'. You'd essentially have to start over from scratch if you left, even with an MS if you only take a few years off, in our business, it's too late. Things change really fast. Whatever you were going to work on for your thesis project will probably have been published by someone else by the time you come back. Or we could, you know, be at war in the Middle East and everyone will cut back their grad programs because they don't have enough funding. Who knows.

At 4:24 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Anon again,

1. Every grunt in and out of academics does what his or her boss does, often better. The difference however is profound. It is responsibility. If you really did everything your PI does, you'd be one. Herb Brown hasn't got off his ass in 20 years, his post-docs do it all. He's a Nobel Laureate and they're ... I'm not sure, who are they.

2. Don't get me wrong. I'm a Ph.D. but a sellout. I just got a job. Other things in life became more interesting and the 9-5 thing is a reasonable accomodation for my lifestyle. I'm infinitely impressed at anyone who becomes the PI; I wish I had the passion.

3. Anyone CAN go back and do a Ph.D. As you indicated, you cannot start where you left off and you will start over, but it can be done. You CANNOT go back. Simply saying you have a lower degree on you resume is unethical and can get you fired. I'm a classic case of someone who lost my passion during grad school and looking back, I should've stopped with a MS; I would have had more opportunities, I just would've made a few pennies less.

Thanks for acknowledging my comment, didn't mean to be mean.

I watched a loved one go from postdoc to PI and she went through immense pain in the transition. She likened it to removing the training wheels. You have guts.


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