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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.

Continue reading →

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.”

Continue reading →

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!

Do what you are: A recipe for your dream job

My mind went daydreaming today and I got this crazy idea I want to share. 

I want everyone reading this blog post, particularly those trying to figure out what to do with their lives, to just take ten minutes to forget about the failing economy, the saturation of the chemistry job market, and all the worries that arise when you wonder how you will support yourself and pay off your loans after you graduate. 

Take the next ten minutes to dream— I’m going to guide you through it. 

Take a few minutes to dream-- What are you passionate about? Could you find a way to get paid to do that? Photo credit: Flickr user Alaska Young

Before you navigate away from this page thinking I’m some kind of nut, please let me explain. I’m going to give you the recipe for figuring out what job you were made for. 

In other words, I’m going to help you figure out what kind of job will let you do what you are

Take a piece of paper and draw lines to create four sections. Or type it out, whatever works. 

  1. Causes I am passionate about
  2. Activities that get me excited
  3. Work environments I thrive in
  4. My dream job(s)

For sections a through c, write out anything that comes to mind. Be honest and just let it flow. 

Now, here is the recipe for your dream job: Think of ways you can work for the causes you’re passionate about by doing the activities you love in a work environment you thrive in. 

What’s the idea behind all of this? As you learn more about who you are, you can start figuring out what you were made to do. 

Here’s the awesome part: You are free to add and remove items from your list as you go through life and learn new things about yourself. Your dream job may change many times as you yourself change and grow. That’s okay, that’s all part of it. 

Now, what does this all have to do with alternative careers in science

A lot, in fact. For example, you might think you’re passion is research because you’re in grad school and that’s what you do and, for the most part, you enjoy it. But as you dig deeper to figure out what drives you, you may find that your root passion is problem solving, or perhaps project management, mentoring, or on a broader scale, working for a noble cause. While you once thought you were limited to a research career, you might find that you could be happy doing anything that allows you to fulfill that inner longing. 

So be creative and don’t be afraid to think outside the box. As you open yourself up to careers off the beaten path, you might find that you have more options than you ever knew. Peruse previous blog posts for ideas.

This is all, of course, contingent on finding a job that allows you to do what you want and get paid for it, preferably well. Here’s the thing: People tend to work hard at things they care deeply about. If you have a passion and you work to develop the skill set you need to do it well, there’s almost certainly a market out there for it. Your job is to find out where and how. 

Easier said than done, for certain. And in today’s economy, not everyone has the luxury of finding a job that let’s them do what they love. There are bills to pay and mouths to feed. But I feel that people should never let the reality of a non-ideal situation squelch their passions and dreams for what they want to get out of life and what they want to give back to the world. Continue reading →

The value of internships for non-traditional science careers

One way to find out about internships is through job and internship fairs, such as the one hosted by AAAS every spring. Photo credit: flickr user IPFW.

So I want to be a science writer. But I’m a grad student who has been working in a lab doing research for the past four years. Will I be qualified for a job in my non-traditional science career of choice when I graduate? How can I poise myself to be competitive and market myself as a science writer when the reality is that I’m a bench chemist who has been dabbling in writing here and there?

Bingo. An internship. A real hands-on experience doing the work I want to do. An opportunity to make connections with people in the field. And last but not least, a little breather and some time away from the lab doing the job I can’t wait to do once I’m out of school.

Since the time I started considering science writing as a future career, I have been connecting with science writers—learning about their career paths and asking for advice. I have gleaned all sorts of useful information through these “informational interviews.” Every science writer I’ve talked to seems to have taken a slightly different path to arrive at the same destination. But there was one piece of advice that nearly every science writer gave me: Take an internship.

Internship— sounds great! Now just let me go ask my adviser for three months off. Many advisers, I believe, would not be thrilled. My adviser was supportive, perhaps hesitantly. But in the end he wanted me to do what I needed to do.

So I applied for science writing internships earlier this year and I landed the science writing internship at a high-energy physics lab. I’ve been working full-time as a science writer for nearly a month now. And I LOVE it.

I’m growing as a writer and reporter, I’m learning about all the awesome physics that the lab is up to and I’m exploring the world of web interfaces as I manage the daily news site.

One particularly satisfying aspect of taking this internship has been that every day I wake up and my job is to be a science writer. No more late nights spent writing my stories after a long day in the lab (except for when I’m blogging for JAEP!). It’s awesome.

I could easily spend the rest of this post gushing about how much I love my internship, and how awesome internships are, and how everyone should do them.

But I decided to seek some input from other science writers and hear what they had to say on the topic. After all, everyone’s experience is different. And internships are really competitive—so I wanted to gather advice from different people on how to land one.

I posted a few questions to the NASW listserv and a handful of responses poured in. Granted, these answers are all specific to science writing internships, but I’m fairly certain that many of the principles apply to other non-traditional careers in science. If anyone else out there on a different non-traditional career path wants to chime in, please feel free to leave a comment! Continue reading →