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Category → grad school

I know. Enough with the bad news, already.

Which do you want to hear first, the good news or the bad news?

The bad news, you say?

Okay, here it is. The bad news—wait for it—is that there is no good news. Cue the trombone.

The surplus of scientists at the bachelor’s and doctoral levels has been a hot discussion topic recently, as well as in the past.

Last week, there was an appearance of even more articles focused on how badly the Great Recession has hurt new college graduates, at all levels. The scope of this phenomenon appears to extend beyond science, and beyond North America or the EU. What follows is a quick overview of three articles on various aspects of this topic.

A devalued bachelor’s degree

First, there’s the provocatively titled “It Takes a B.A. to Find a Job as a File Clerk,” a New York Times article by Catherine Rampell. The opening statement provides a startling and depressing premise:

The college degree is becoming the new high school diploma: the new minimum requirement, albeit an expensive one, for getting even the lowest-level job.

An Atlanta law office is presented as a microcosm of what’s being seen more broadly. At this firm, the minimum prerequisite for employment, regardless of position, is a bachelor’s degree. This includes office administrators, file clerks and even their in-office courier.

Evidence is provided that this situation is not unique to this one law firm:

Economists have referred to this phenomenon as “degree inflation,” and it has been steadily infiltrating America’s job market. Across industries and geographic areas, many other jobs that didn’t used to require a diploma — positions like dental hygienists, cargo agents, clerks and claims adjusters — are increasingly requiring one, according to Burning Glass, a company that analyzes job ads from more than 20,000 online sources, including major job boards and small- to midsize-employer sites.

The shortage of scientists is nonexistent

Returning to the sciences—in spite of the data supporting the premise of a glut of newly graduated scientists, there has been chatter bemoaning the opposite.

Continue reading →

Chemistry graduate school and mental well-being

In case you’ve missed it, this week there’s currently a dialogue between Chemjobber and Vinylogous (of Not the Lab and a current chemistry graduate student) on the topic “Is graduate school in chemistry bad for your mental health?” This dialogue began with Chemjobber relating a personal vignette of a low point he remembered from grad school and then posing the premise:

Yes, graduate school in chemistry can be bad for your mental health. Science can lend itself to isolating workers from healthy habits, from friends and from family. For people who see themselves as competent and at least as good as their colleagues, bench research in chemistry can rub failure in their faces and deliver fierce blows to self-confidence. You can see yourself as falling behind, not pulling your own weight, never giving a good group meeting and just simply not up to snuff.

After setting the stage, Chemjobber then asked Vinylogous, “Is graduate school in chemistry (which you’re participating in right now) making you crazy?” Both Chemjobber and Vinylogous were/are, respectively, organic chemistry graduate students (as was I—well, organometallic), so there’s a shared perspective. Of course, this has an inherent danger of describing circumstances not germane to other chemistry disciplines, but that’s probably a minor point.

Vinylogous’ response is now up, and is the second post of what will become a five-part dialogue, alternating between the two blogs. This first response is very thorough, covering a number of aspects which may influence a graduate student’s behavior and their feelings of self-worth. After relating some personal experiences, Vinylogous arrives at a central theme:

I think a question worth exploring is this: what aspects of the system contribute to the inordinate amount of stress and threaten mental health? I’m going to spend some time discussing my observations, and I invite comment on them.

I found a lot of the observations very insightful. There’s a lot of pulling back the curtain going on here to expose activities and behaviors that usually go undiscussed. I particularly liked Vinylogous’ emphasis on the importance of work-life balance:

Overall, discussions of work/life balance are absent from chemistry programs; frankly, a student and PI should establish a mutual understanding of what this means, and it should be open to re-negotiation later on. In our departmental orientation, we were handed a list of university counseling centers in an almost embarrassed manner. But no discussion of how to step beyond the lab. Instead, our area head told us: “You should always have something running in your hood.”

Vinylogous then brings up other important considerations that are worth reading, so, please stay tuned as the rest of this dialogue unfolds in the coming days.

I’m glad to see this topic discussed so frankly. It’s particularly timely in light of last month’s ACS Presidential Commission report and C&EN coverage on the status of graduate school in the chemical sciences and Deirdre’s terrific ensuing guest post here.

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How long does it take to make a chemist?

This guest post was written by Deirdre Lockwood, a chemical oceanography graduate student at the University of Washington, who recently completed an internship with C&EN:

Out in the middle of the ocean, deep in the clanging engine room of a Chinese container ship, I found—broken in two—the PVC joint that connected my sampling hose to the bilge pump. Salt water and heat had done a number on the fitting. I was riding the ship to survey the chemistry of the North Pacific for my Ph.D. in chemical oceanography. The broken joint meant for the moment that I had no way of draining my experimental apparatus, and that meant no data.

Of course, as a seagoing scientist, I had packed backups. I was sure I had, until I rummaged around in the action packer that held my supplies and found joints of all shapes and sizes, but none like the one that had broken.

After a few minutes of banging my head against the hull and wishing for a mid-Pacific Home Depot, I started constructing a labyrinthine patch with the fittings and pieces of tubing I had on hand. It was a fearsome looking thing, and I knew the NOAA engineer who had helped me plumb the system would disapprove. But the thing drained, and I was back in business.

I thought of this moment—and other, more scientifically thorny experiences in graduate school—when I saw the recent ACS Presidential Commission report “Advancing Graduate Education in the Chemical Sciences” (and C&EN’s coverage here). They’ve done well to call out the elephant in the room: US graduate students who spend years toiling through chemistry Ph.D.s are finding it increasingly hard to find work as chemists when they finish.

And they’ve made several recommendations for how to make things better. Some of them would help, I think: making sure programs don’t take on more students than there will be opportunities for after graduation, and creating a grant system that would fund graduate students directly rather than through their advisors.

But the recommendation that jumped out at me involves limiting the time for finishing a Ph.D. “Five, six, seven, or more years is far too long for completion of a Ph.D.,” commission member Gary Calabrese said. “Four years should be the target, with the departmental median being absolutely no more than five years.”

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Is Grad School Really a Stupid, Stupid Decision?

This book seemed like a good read. Turns out, it wasn’t. Credit: amazon.com

Hello JAEP readers! I have to apologize for things being pretty quiet around here recently. I, and my co-pusher Glen, will be picking up the pace again with electron pusher goodness in the weeks to come.

But to start, I wanted to let you all know about a book I recently finished. The title caught my eye, so I had to check it out:

Surviving Your Stupid Stupid Decision to go to Grad School, by Adam Ruben (PhD!).

In a nutshell, this book is not worth your time. If you want to know more, keep reading!

I can summarize each chapter in a single sentence and spare you from having to read the entire book yourself.

Chapter One walks the reader through the decision process: Do you want to ruin your life? If so, go to grad school.

Chapter Two explains how to choose the right grad program. There are tradeoffs based on geographic location, cost of living, academic rank, but no matter what you choose it will be a bad decision.

Chapter Three is all about grad student life: You will live in squalor with no time to sleep or tend to personal hygiene, and will need to depend on the free seminar donuts for daily sustenance.

Chapter Four gives you awful advice on how to fudge your way through your research: Tips for choosing an adviser, writing grants, and how to cherry-pick your data to look more impressive than it actually is. Continue reading →

Electron Pusher, PhD: Reflections on the Final Defense

The final defense is the last hoop you have to jump through in grad school! Photo credit: flick user Palma Co Test.

It is finished. My final defense was last Wednesday—and I passed!

This is a milestone, and milestones are to be blogged about, right? The thing is, I don’t know exactly what I have to say about it. Perhaps it just hasn’t been long enough for it to sink in yet.

It’s interesting, this whole final defense thing. For years, you’re going, going, jumping through each hoop that’s presented along the way. From the very start, you’re anticipating the end, which will one day come. You survive classes, give numerous presentations, pass your prelim. Years pass by, then the long-awaited final defense comes… and goes.

And then… you’re done.

Done? Huh… Okay, awesome, I’m done! That’s it, I guess… I have a Ph.D.

Meanwhile, you proceed to announce on facebook that you passed your final defense and everyone can call you doctor now. Friends and family shower you with congratulatory remarks. It’s wonderful.

But somehow it still hasn’t quite hit that I really do have a Ph.D. For real. I guess I thought I would feel a greater sense of relief and finality. Of course, I’m happy. But it’s a bit anti-climactic when all is said and done.

Overall, I’ve had a wonderful time in grad school. Perhaps this is easy to say now that it’s all over. But really… I’ve lucked out. Sure, I’ve worked hard, but anyone who’s gone through grad school knows that there are a number of factors that are just outside of your control. Many of those things fell into place really nicely for me. I’m really thankful for that. Continue reading →

2012: Looking forward to major transitions, fun adventures

A New Year for new adventures! Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons, Ondrejk.

For the past four years, I’ve kicked off the New Year knowing more or less what the next year was going to hold: I’ll be in the lab, working on my project, hoping for good data that will lead to papers that will lead me one step closer to graduation.

But this year is different. My defense date is almost scheduled in March (waiting for one last professor to confirm), and in May, I will walk across a stage and receive my Ph.D. diploma.

While this makes me extremely excited, it’s also bittersweet.

It’s exciting, well, because the end of grad school means the start of something new—finally!

But it’s also a tiny bit sad because, as much as I’ve complained about it, I’ve enjoyed being a grad student and have made some really great friends who I’m going to miss.

I know those who are in the thick of grad school will beg to differ, but it’s a pretty sweet deal, being paid to get a degree and all. I’ve learned a ton, and although day to day I haven’t noticed it, I’ve grown a lot in five years.

It can also be a bit frightening, if I let it be. When several years of your life are spent doing one thing, and one thing only (or mostly), it’s a little unsettling to not know what you’ll be doing in five months time. Continue reading →

The light at the end of the tunnel

There's no greater feeling than finally seeing the light at the end of the grad school tunnel! Photo credit: flickr user SamBoyd Photography.

I’ve been a bit spotty with blogging recently, so I apologize. I’ve been pretty tied up with collecting and analyzing data for what will be the last (I repeat, last) chapter of my dissertation.

It is a wonderful feeling to be close to the end— I can’t overstate that!!

Anyone who has gone through grad school can probably relate to the feeling of utter elation you get when you realize that you will in fact graduate with your Ph.D. in the forseeable future. The end is near!

For those fledgling graduate students out there, you may be a bit jealous of this feeling I have. But I just have to say— stick it out and soon enough you too will know what it feels like to be almost done!

Wow, there are a lot of exclamation marks in this post. Not to be overly dramatic, but throughout the first several years of grad school, it often feels like it’s never going to end. There are ups and downs and more downs (see earlier post about how I fell out of love with research).

The thing about a Ph.D. program is it’s so nebulous when you will finish. It’s not like undergrad where you check off all the boxes, pass all your classes and walk across the stage to get your diploma. It’s hard to explain that to relatives who assume you’ll have a month-long Christmas break since you’re still a student. No, it doesn’t quite work like that actually…

So when it finally hits you that the end is near, it’s an incredible feeling. Especially, I feel, for someone like me, for whom the end of grad school is the end of research, once and for all, and the beginning of doing what I really love. Continue reading →

Take what you can from where you are

I’m back in the lab!

I just got back from a 3-month science writing internship and am back to my research gig as a fifth-year chemistry graduate student (yikes!).

My internship was like a pit stop-- now I feel recharged and ready to finish strong. Photo credit: Bristol Motor Speedway & Dragway

It actually feels good to be back.

Don’t get me wrong: I loved my internship. It was a fantastic experience and I learned a ton. And I’m still looking forward to moving onto a career that doesn’t involve working at the bench.

But I’m excited about finishing what I started here in grad school, and finishing strong.

A much-needed break

The internship came at a really good time. Earlier this year I felt I was on the verge of burning out. My relationship with my research project was feeling pretty strained.

The internship provided a much-needed break from research, while giving me some really valuable training for my future career. Having some time away from research helped me step back and breathe a little.

Now I feel refreshed and ready to push through the last leg of my graduate training before moving on to becoming a full-fledged science writer.

While I was away from the lab, I even worked a bit on my dissertation, which I’m really proud of myself for. Looking at a document with more than 90 pages of text and figures assures me that the light at the end of the tunnel is getting closer!

A new attitude

As I look ahead to what will hopefully be my last year in grad school, I’m realizing that I could really use an attitude adjustment.

Apparently changing your shoes can help change your 'tude. Another excuse to go shoe shopping! Photo credit: ShirleyRC

Formerly, I couldn’t stop thinking about how much longer I would have to endure being dissatisfied with my job. And that made every day feel like drudgery.

This sentiment led me to go on several rants in the past few months all centered around the idea that people should never feel like they need to settle for a job they don’t love.

While I still am on-par with this line of thinking, I’m becoming more aware that there is another side to that coin:

There is something that can be taken away from every experience you have, even (and perhaps especially) the most challenging and difficult ones.

That’s the attitude I’ve decided to hold onto as I brace myself for another year of research.

It’s been about a week, and so far, so good.

To give myself little reminders of my new approach to grad school, I’ve put post-its around my desk.

One of them reads, Make the most of every opportunity.

I’ve also taped up a Dove chocolate wrapper, you know, the ones with those cutesy messages on the inside. It reads: Failure is only the opportunity to begin again more intelligently.

I resolve to make the most of my last leg of grad school before moving on to pursuing a science writing career… wish me luck!