the journal article is better

Things no one tells you about grad school in the life sciences

–at least from my own experience in a cancer bio phd program…

  • lots of public speaking. presentations galore! everything from lab meetings to class presentations to journal club to seminars to posters. it literally never ends. i think i give at least 1 presentation a week (and because of it my public speaking skills have improved immensely.)
  • the amount of creativity involved. pure logic won’t get you anywhere; you need to be just as creative as artists, writers, composers, etc. those who never think outside of the box will never succeed in solving problems posed by science and health.
  • failure is a normal occurrence. be it a 10-day experiment gone wrong, a rejected grant, stinging comments on your presentation skills–you really need unlimited patience, determination, and super thick skin to grow and thrive here. 
  • gossip travels fast and everyone has a reputation. even before the end of my 1st year i already know whose research is going places, whose lab is running out of money; who the smart students are, who the lazy ones are; which professors and students are probably going to be kicked out in a few years, etc. science is a small world, and grad school is an even smaller one. 
  • and speaking of reputations, being known as the “lazy student” is the absolute worst reputation to have. it’s okay if you’re not top of the class, or if your experiments aren’t working. but if you’re not a hard worker then wow… you might as well start looking for a new place to live.
  • your undergraduate grades do matter. oops. but not in the way you think! they’re not a very important deciding factor for getting into grad school, but when you apply for fellowships and grants, the reviewers actually do look at your undergraduate grades to gauge your work ethics. I had a post-doc in a previous lab that got turned down for a grant because he had a C in Hebrew. Hebrew! it wasn’t even related to science! 
  • it’s really difficult to find a thesis lab. this is probably the hardest part. you have to find a lab that’s doing research you enjoy, has people you get along with (especially the PI), and has money/room for you. it’s definitely tougher than it seems, and many labs these days just don’t have the funding necessary for grad students. many academic labs prefer to hire post-docs because they’re cheaper–and have more experience–than grad students. 
  • you have to be a good writer. everything relies on your writing skills: your qualifying exams, your research articles, your grants, etc etc. your success as a scientist is practically 90% dependent on how well you can write scientifically. so, if you hate writing, maybe look for another field. 
  • but! despite all this, grad schools have lots of resources to help you improve your skills, be in public speaking, or writing grants. it’s true that everyone here wants you to succeed and be the best scientist you can be. so there will always be classes and workshops that will help you read and analyze journal articles, or overcome your fear of public speaking, or become a better scientific writer. 
  • not every PhD graduate needs to do a post-doc, and it depends on what field you want to pursue after graduate school. if you want to go into academics and become a professor or head your own research, then yes, a post-doc is practically required for you to build more skills and publish more papers. but if you want to work in industry, they accept masters and PhD’s right out of grad school. it really depends on you and your goals!
  • you must publish papers. this is especially important for PhD’s (and is a requirement to graduate). published research articles are the only way anyone can know you were productive in lab. aim for at least 1 first-author paper. 
  • it helps to be personable. you don’t need to be an extrovert, but you do need to be able to network, be a team player, and in general be able to interact with colleagues, professors, and other scientists. the most successful scientists are the ones who can form useful collaborations with others. no one can work well in a vacuum. 
  • and lastly, it’s not that bad :) I know grad students have the stereotype of being frazzled and frustrated and way too busy all the time, but it’s the life we chose and honestly, we wouldn’t have it any other way. and i’m sure if you’re considering this path, it’s something you’ll be ok with too :)

(dear other colleagues–feel free to add more!)

there are several unanswered questions in my inbox along the lines of, “i really want to be a surgeon, but i got an A minus in social studies when i was in third grade and i only built one orphanage in africa instead of 3 like everyone else i know; is there any hope for me?” i have to say that i really have no interest in answering those questions. i mean, look. if you’re a perfectionist and you really want to get into medical school and you already have your eyes on being a doctor, there’s a pretty good chance that you will, because medical school is full of people like you (they are sometimes pejoratively referred to as “gunners”), and i wish you the best. i don’t mean to come off as salty, but really, if those are the questions you are asking me, you don’t need my help. it’s fine to have ambition, but i think it can be dangerous to have ambition without passion, and vice versa.

my experience, in a nutshell, was that i never had a particular attraction to the medical field throughout most of my undergraduate years, and in fact was somewhat aimless, but happened to stumble upon surgery and with a combination of hard work and luck, was fortunate enough to be given a spot in the profession, and i am thankful for it every day. so i can’t really relate to the questions about wanting to be a doctor for one’s entire life and worrying about one slip-up that will destroy your dream forever.

i can’t and won’t answer every question i receive unless i feel it might be of some benefit to people who are reading this. for those of you who end up in the medical field, and particularly in surgery, you will learn this as you go along, but you cannot help everybody, no matter how badly you want to or how hard you try. part of being a grown-up is knowing who you can help and who you have to say no to. my aim in keeping this blog is not to reveal the magic bullet that will get you into medical school, but instead to share my own journey and hopefully provide some insight to people who may be considering a career in medicine or surgery and help them make the right choices for themselves. the thing is, there IS no magic bullet (unless we are talking smoothies, in which case, it is available at target for $49.99) to getting into medical school. 

and furthermore, it’s not as if earning admission into medical school, or a residency program, or having a job as a practicing doctor, is when it gets easy. it never gets easy. it is being there every single day, starting your work before the sun is up and working until after the sun is down, taking care of your patients and doing all your paperwork, fighting a broken system that seems to make it easier to do the wrong thing and harder to do the right thing when it should be the other way around, trying to learn from but also challenge your superiors and trying to pass on your limited knowledge to the juniors and students, going home at night and using that hour of free time before you pass out to read a book chapter or a journal article so you can be better tomorrow than you were today and learn something that might help a patient; it’s taking overnight call and trying to do the right thing at 2 o’clock in the morning even when nobody is watching you and you’re tired and everybody else is asleep and it would be so much easier to just ignore that lab value or get that CT scan in the morning. there is no quick fix. 

i don’t mean to discourage anybody, but in the few years i have been a resident thus far, there has been at least one person in my class or in the program who has dropped out every year, or transferred to another specialty, for whatever reason, so trust me, it’s better to figure out early that maybe your dream isn’t such a dream when it’s your reality.