Surviving Your Qualifying Exam

 

By Robert Thorn

The qualifying exam is a part of graduate school that everybody has to go through, but nobody is really prepared for. The qualifying exam, also called a comprehensive or preliminary exam depending on the program, is generally a test of a student’s knowledge and expertise. Many programs schedule it towards the end of a student’s 2nd year, but the timing varies with each program. Overall this exam aims to determine that a student is prepared to continue on with their PhD training, and usually marks a transition period in their graduate training. Having just finished my own qualifying exam I thought it would be good to pass along some helpful information I learned along the way.

Ask senior graduate students in your program about their qualifying exam experience

Talking to senior students will help to give insight into how the exam will go in terms of expectations and pacing. In addition to giving you logistical advice, they can give you advice on how to deal with the stress associated with the exam.

Know your committee

If you have to submit your exam to a committee of professors in the department, know what they like and do not like. If you choose a committee member with a certain expertise, make sure to talk about their area of expertise. Talking to senior graduate students will help with this as well as they can give you insight into some of the likes and dislikes of the committee in terms of writing and presentation styles.

Take time for yourself!

This may seem like a silly piece of advice, but in this time of extreme stress it will be very easy to lose yourself in studying. Overloading yourself with stress will just add to anxiety over the exam and can be detrimental in the long run so reward yourself! If you spend a few hours studying take an hour off to do something fun or relaxing.

Edit, edit, edit and more editing

If there is a written component to your exam, finish writing it well before the date and spend time editing it. Your written piece will evolve and become better with every edit. Allow time for other people to read it (if that is allowed) to give you a better chance to succeed and to gain alternate perspectives.

Don’t take criticism too personally

If you are writing about your own project you will receive tons of criticism. From your PI, other students who help proofread and especially from the committee in charge of assessing you. They all are trying to help you succeed and their criticisms will help you become a better scientist. This is also good practice for receiving criticism from grant and paper submissions in the future. Take the criticism as a chance to become better, not as a personal attack.

It’s OK to pass the second time

Finally, if at first you don’t succeed, try again! I know this is very cliché but many people will not pass their exams the first time around and that’s why many programs allow a 2nd, or 3rd Just keep your head up and try not to become discouraged.

5 Tips for Applying to Postdoc Positions

 

By Tara Burke, PhD

 

As you’re rounding home base in your graduate career you have more than a few things on your plate: wrapping up your research and publications, finishing your dissertation, scheduling your defense, and nailing down your next job. More than likely, the last thing on your mind is your next step. If you know that you would like to continue with bench research and pursue a postdoctoral fellowship after graduation, it’s best to get an early start in the application process. Since many labs interview candidates months to even a year before they may need a postdoc, the earlier you start applying the better. Applying to postdoc jobs can be a daunting and lengthy process, especially for graduate students, who have spent several years out of the job market. Fear not! The tips listed below will provide you with some helpful guidelines to get you organized, prepared and make you an attractive postdoc candidate.

 

1)   Make a list of potential labs

Hopefully in the last few years of graduate school you have taken the time to think about what type of research you’d like to pursue, the research environment you prefer as well as where, geographically, you’d like to be located. Ideally, you have a list of labs that interest you or, even better, that you have networked with already. Since funding these days is somewhat volatile, you want to make sure this list is pretty long. Also, you want to have an extensive list because even though you are very interested in the science, it is very difficult to know if a lab is good fit until you visit in person. Although many investigators advertise their open positions, many do not, so take the time to go through the websites of all labs that seem interesting and do not discount them because you do not see that they are currently advertising an open position. I recommend rating the list and apply to the ones that interest you the most first.

 

2)   Perfect your CV

Since there is little structure to how a CV (curriculum vitae) should be constructed, it can be confusing to know what to include and what not to include in your CV. Science Careers has a great post about creating a successful CV with basic dos and don’t along with tips on structuring and styling your CV. Once you have a good draft, it is crucial that you have other people proofread and edit your CV. They will catch mistakes that you miss. Ask to see a colleague’s or your mentor’s CV. Having examples of great CVs on hand will help you create a great one yourself. Seek out the career resources at your university. They have professionals that will be vital in helping you create a CV that is error-free, aesthetically pleasing, and that presents you and your qualifications in the best light. Once you have a great master CV you can use this template to create a CV that is tailored to the postdoc to which you are applying. For example, you may want to highlight a specific method that may be beneficial to the lab you are applying to by placing at the top of a subheading. Also, if you are applying to lab that is not in the same field as your graduate lab, you may need to simplify the scientific language used on your CV for that particular application.

 

 

3)   Master the cover letter

The key to a good cover letter is that it is tailored specifically to the position you are applying. A good cover letter should not be a regurgitation of your CV; it should highlight your accomplishments and emphasize how your expertise would work well in that prospective lab. I cannot stress enough that making one general cover letter for a myriad of different labs is not a good idea. A good outline for academic cover letters is to construct a letter of three short paragraphs. In the first paragraph you should introduce yourself, state your current position including your current department/university name as well as the name of your Principal Investigator. If you haven’t yet completed your Ph.D. you need to mention your predicted or scheduled defense date. You will also want to mention how you came to know about the position. The second paragraph is the most important paragraph and the meat of your letter. Here, you will talk about what interests you about the research of this particular lab and why you think you are a good candidate. You want to accentuate the skills and expertise you have that you can bring to the lab. It also helps to mention specific papers or research talks that compelled you to apply to this lab. In the third paragraph you should state what additional documents you are sending with this cover letter. Also, include a thank-you and how it is best to reach you. Science Careers has an excellent article on cover letters that I highly recommend using a guide.

 

4)   Obtain and ask for recommendations

On your CV you should list three references. Before you list these individuals as references you need to ask them first. You want to make sure that these individuals will provide you will positive reviews. If one of your references seems hesitant to give you a review, it is probably a good idea not to pursue it. Also, don’t choose a reference because they are big name in place of a younger faculty member who knows you well. Let your references know the time frame of when you will start applying and talk to them about your process. They may even know some of the labs on your list and can help you get a personalized introduction. Once this entire process is over, don’t forget to thank all your references for their help and time as you may need them to serve as a reference for you in the future!

 

5)   Proofread one last time!

You’ve constructed your email. You have a stellar cover letter and a pristine CV. You are ready to send your application. Wait! Save your email. Walk away from the computer and take a break. Walk your dog that has been patiently sleeping at your feet while you finish this application, or go for a run to clear your mind. Then, after you have taken a mental break from the computer drain, go back to your application and give it one last, slow read. You’d be surprised what you missed. You will be able to find errors that you didn’t see before. This will allow you to confidently send a great application.

 

Good Luck!

 

6 Top Tips For Choosing the Right Lab for You – Part 2

 

By Susan Sheng

Couple of days ago we shared with you the first top 3 tips for choosing the right lab for you, here are the other 3 tips.

 

4. Lab culture

The composition of a lab is always in flux, so it’s hard to say that your relationship with specific people in the lab should influence your decision whether to join or not. For instance, in the year since I officially joined my lab, about half of the members have left and moved on to other positions, and a new group of post-docs are scheduled to join by the end of the year.

 

One thing I did find very important, however, is the culture of the lab and the dynamics between members. I think this is something that stays relatively constant within a lab even as people cycle in and out, since prospective members would evaluate and be evaluated on their fit in the existing culture. By “lab culture” I’m referring to how people interact with each other in the lab. Do people discuss the latest papers (either related to the lab’s research, or just cool science in general) and work together to troubleshoot experiments, or do people tend to work on their projects in isolation? Is the lab generally collaborative or are multiple people working on closely related projects and competing to get data? This can be, although is not necessarily, related to the size of the lab.

 

In all three labs I rotated in, I knew I would have to learn new techniques (i.e. animal behavioral work, primary cell isolation, etc.) for my potential thesis project, so I wanted to be sure that I would be in an environment where I would feel comfortable asking my labmates for help and advice. I also wanted to be somewhere where I would have my own distinct project, but where there would be enough commonalities (either in topic or in approach/technique) where I could get ideas and suggestions from my colleagues.

 

5. Life after graduation…

Although it seems too early to be thinking about post-graduate school life right at the beginning, another thing I considered was the types of positions the lab alumni went to after their tenure in the lab, and the publications they had upon leaving. What I was looking for was whether the lab alumni were going into positions that I may want to follow and how, if at all, the PI helped the students and post-docs prepare for those positions. Initially I wanted to follow the academic track and try to become a professor with my own research lab, so I was mainly looking for PIs who were well-established and well-respected in their fields, in the hopes that their network would help me when I go out on the job market. Additionally I wanted to join a lab where the students graduated with first-author papers in bigger name journals. For those thinking about going into pharmaceuticals or biotech, or into non-traditional PhD paths, it can be helpful if other people in the lab have gone down that route, as they can provide helpful contacts in networking and learning more about those career options.

 

6. The project

Before I started my PhD, I thought the thesis project was going to be the most important factor in choosing a lab. It certainly is important, as graduate school often involves a lot of repetitive and tedious work so you need to find a question or topic that excites you and motivates you to get through those annoying pipetting/wash steps, and through all that troubleshooting you will inevitably have to do. However, I would argue it is less important than the above-mentioned “fit” criteria. Projects are malleable, and often there is a lot that can be explored within a given question, so you’re bound to find something that interests you. If you don’t get along with your mentor though, or are unhappy with the lab environment, even the most interesting topic may become impossible to tackle.

 

Lastly, try new things. Rotations are the best time to explore a new field of study, work on a new model organisms, or learn new techniques and approaches. It’s about the only time in your scientific career you can try something totally new with relatively little risk. My previous lab experience was primarily in the field of learning and memory, but I rotated in a developmental neurobiology lab as well as molecular signaling/transcriptional regulation lab and learned a lot of new techniques and approaches that I am now applying to my thesis work.

6 Top Tips For Choosing the Right Lab for You – Part 1

 

By Susan Sheng

I’m still somewhat in disbelief that I’ve been in my thesis lab for nearly a year now, we’re halfway through summer, and my qualifying exam is fast approaching (eek!). A good friend of mine is getting ready to move across the country to start a PhD program of her own, and recently she has been asking me lots of questions about how to choose a rotation (and eventually, a thesis) lab. Looking back to my first year, I remember being overwhelmed with the number of rotation options, and worrying about “choosing the right one.” (one may recall the PhD Comic comparing PhD programs to marriage). After much discussion with more senior students and a few post docs, and meeting with potential PI mentors, I finally settled on three labs to rotate through. I was fortunate to have generally good experiences with all three labs, and it came down to weighing the pros and cons of each lab to decide which one I would ultimately be happiest in and do my best work. Below are some of the major factors that swayed my decision, and hopefully this will help incoming students narrow down their rotation/thesis lab options.

 

1. Don’t commit too early

First thing’s first though, don’t feel pressured into committing to three rotation labs right as soon as you arrive in the program. I remember talking to a few classmates on the first day of orientation, and they already had all three rotations lined up! When I started at NYU, I had a list of maybe 10 labs that sounded interesting. During the first month of grad school, I made appointments to meet with the PIs and discuss the possibility of rotating in their labs. From there, I narrowed down that list to about 4-5 labs. I decided my first rotation would be in a learning and memory lab, since it was an area I had worked in previously and thus it would be easier for me to hit the ground running while I adjusted to graduate school life. I told the other PIs that I was interested in possibly doing a second or third rotation with them, but that I would get back in touch with them at a later date to confirm. Luckily those PIs were amenable to this arrangement, and I realize this may not work in labs where there are a lot of other students interested in rotating/joining. However the advantage of not committing early meant that I had the flexibility to see how my interests developed through my work in the first rotation and through classes and seminars I attended in the first semester. I actually ended up doing my third rotation in a lab I had not even heard of prior to arriving at NYU, and in a totally different department (microbiology, instead of neuroscience), and that was based on chatting with a graduate student at a poster session I attended. Keep your options open!

 

2. Funding

As an international student, one major concern I had was funding. Because I’m not a US citizen or permanent resident, I don’t qualify for the vast majority of grants/fellowships in the US (i.e. institutional training grants, NRSA/F31, NSF, etc.). Additionally, I also found myself ineligible for funding from my home country (Canada), so I needed to find a lab that was well-established and well-funded enough that I wouldn’t be expected to bring in my own funding sources. Troubleshooting experiments and collecting good data is hard enough as it is without wondering whether you will have the funding to buy reagents or supplies!

 

When meeting with potential PIs, it’s good to be upfront and ask whether the lab can support a student, and be clear about what grants you are (and are not) eligible for. It seems a bit awkward at first but is a common question that comes up so don’t be afraid to ask! Another resource is NIH RePORTER  which lists active NIH grants held by a PI. Depending on the field, this database will be more or less useful, as it does not give any indication of other funding sources, such as NSF or private foundations, but it can be a good starting point to get a sense of a lab’s financial situation.

 

3. Mentoring style

In terms of mentoring style, PIs can range from micro-managers who want constant updates to very laissez-faire with only occasional check-ins, to everything in between. It’s important to consider your own working style and be honest about what kind of mentor would help you achieve your greatest potential and succeed in your program. For myself, I wanted a mentor who would check-in with me regularly to make sure I was making good progress (and give suggestions if I get really stuck), but would also allow me the freedom to explore my ideas. Too much leeway and I was worried I would either procrastinate horribly, or waste time wandering down paths that are less important or novel. On the other hand, one of my classmates remarked that if she was in my lab she would be too stressed and frustrated with weekly meetings, and instead prefers the greater freedom her PI allows her with monthly check-ins.

 

There is no right answer of course, but it’s important to be honest with yourself, and find the best fit. This is something you should be able to gauge from a lab rotation and from talking to current students in the lab. Generally I found that newer PIs tend to be much more involved with their students’ work (I have friends who are regularly in the lab until the wee hours of the morning, working alongside their PI!) and older PIs tend to be less involved and give more mentoring responsibility to the post-docs in the lab, but this is not always the case.

 

Want to know more? You can find the  other 3 top tips for choosing the right lab for you here!

 

Don't Lose It!

 

By Sally Burn. PhD

 

Last Halloween I wrote a Scizzle piece on lab nightmares; the first terror I dealt with was “Losing your data or samples”. Well, dear reader, I have to report that this nightmare became a reality for me a few weeks ago: I lost all my data. Four years and 400 GB, gone. And it happened with a single click of the mouse button.

Game of Thrones was also involved to an extent. But try as I might to throw blame at Joffrey and co., the main responsibility lies with my human error. Here’s how it happened: I have an external drive onto which I backup all data from my lab PC (via daily automatic backup) and microscopes (manually) into a folder rather unimaginatively called “Data”. There is also a redundant lab meetings folder sat just next to Data. In a rush to finish up what I was working on and free up my laptop for Game of Thrones I deleted what I believed to be the redundant folder, clicked “Yes” when warned it was too big for the recycle bin, briefly wondered why the deletion was taking so long, then finally settled in for some purple wedding action. Next morning, 24 hours before I’m due to give lab meeting, I go to retrieve some images from my drive. Only Data is no longer there. Some mild cold sweats kick in but I know that there’s a straight forward explanation, right? I must have dragged the folder into another folder. Only I can’t spot it anywhere… and that’s when I notice that my drive has 700 GB free instead of the usual 300. Cue draining of all color, mild sicking up in mouth, and incoherent babbling to lab mates.

How could this possibly happen, especially to me – a known anal retentive? It’s at this juncture I should point out that everything seems to be okay now and the situation was not as dire as it could have been – thanks in no small part to my anxious nature. Three weeks prior to Datageddon I’d taken a flight. Obviously this meant there was a strong chance of me dying in an aviation incident, plus being out of the lab somehow also increased the likelihood of there being a fire or maybe even just the building falling down. So I did one of my not-quite-routine backups to my home drive. The loss was therefore only three weeks’ worth of data. There was no new raw data generated in those three weeks but I had spent an inordinate amount of time converting the data into images, movies, and reconstructions – it was these that were lost.

It was beyond awful. So in an attempt to save my fellow scientists from a similar fate, here is a rundown of what I have learned and what you can do to protect your data:

 

You lost your data… now what?

My data loss was followed by the most mind-numbing two weeks of my life. I downloaded file retrieval software and retrieved 550 GB of deleted files. The retrieval took two days, recovering 300,000 files… which were all placed in the same folder, all details of their original location lost. Now I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to open a folder containing 300,000 files, ranging from 1kb to 35 GB in size, but let me tell you: it takes a LONG time and the average PC cannot handle ordering the files by date. I transferred operations to the fastest microscope PC and so began a week in a darkened ‘scope room, waiting hours for the folder to open and then slowly, laboriously attempting to transfer large handfuls of files (many duplicates or partial copies) into more manageable sub folders, such that I could look at and order the files by date. I got there in the end, retrieving the relatively few files I needed to, but ultimately it ended up taking me longer than it would have done to just reprocess the data from scratch.

As tedious as it was, file recovery software is your friend in this situation. If your files were too big for the recycle bin and you did an outright delete, this is your only option. I used Recuva, a free and easy to use program. You will need a second drive to write the retrieved files to. Try not to access (write to) the deleted disk before you start the recovery – the files are probably still in there somewhere but this may not be the case if you write fresh data to the drive. The process was slow on my geriatric PC and manual sorting through the files was even slower; I cannot even comprehend how long it would have taken me to sift through the retrieved data had I needed it all back. Which is why I cannot emphasize enough: prevention is better than cure – BACKUP!

 

Backup

There are a number of methods you can use to backup your data. Here is a rundown of a few, in order of reliability, starting with the least dependable:

 

Manual backup:

My hitherto method of choice; this also seems to be a popular choice among my peers. This technique relies on you arbitrarily remembering to bring another drive into the lab to backup to. It’s better than nothing, but barely, like fighting an angry tiger with only a spoon for protection.

 

Automatic backup software:

OK, now we’re getting a little more reliable. Most external drives come with backup software installed. I have automatic backup from my lab PC to my external drive; unfortunately my PC data constitutes an insignificant subset of my overall data footprint. My take-home message from my experience is that you need to backup up all the drives you use, including microscope computers. Which raises the question: who pays for that? It would make sense that the PI or department arranges for multi-user drives to be backed up automatically; unfortunately this is not the case in the labs of a number of scientists I quizzed. It seems that “each person for themselves” is an unfortunately common tenet in academia.

 

Cloud storage

At the suggestion of my PI, post-Datageddon, I paid $100 out of my own pocket for cloud storage. He recommended Carbonite, which offers unlimited storage. There are obviously other systems available, but thus far I have no issues with Carbonite. The $99.99/year plan allows for backup of all the internal drives plus one external drive; you can also create a mirror image of your system in case your computer needs totally reinstalling. The initial upload of my approximately 500GB of data took a week (possibly due to my subpar PC and internet connection) but since then it’s been ticking along nicely, backing up any changes in the background. If I delete a file and then realize I need it I have a 30 day window in which to retrieve it before the deleted file is removed from their server. If you work with clinical data and need HIPAA-compliant data storage there is also a package for that, retailing at $269.99/year. Data can be accessed from anywhere in the world, which could be a great benefit when away at conferences.

 

Server

As I mentioned earlier, a common experience among those I talked to was that there was no central backup provided by their PI or department. Whether this is the norm in universities, the USA, or just in the labs of scientists I talked to is unclear. In my previous lab, in a research institute in the UK, all data drives and microscope computers were backed up to an on-site server every night; copies were maintained for a set time period and off-site backups were also regularly performed. The combined on-site and off-site server approach seems to be the gold standard as far as I can see, protecting even against loss due to building damage. However, even a single on-site server is a great idea. So perhaps float the idea next time your PI has grant money earmarked for purchasing equipment. Don’t think they’ll accept it as a reasonable expense? Try working out how much it will cost to repeat your experiments and replace lost data. As a ballpark figure, I calculated what it costs for me, a fourth year postdoc, to run an overnight live imaging organ culture on a multiphoton confocal microscope. My calculation takes into account my wages for time setting up, running, and analyzing this experiment; it also includes the cost of breeding and maintaining transgenic mice for three months leading up to the experiment in order to get the tissues I need, plus lab consumables (culture media, plates, etc.). To run this experiment and hopefully generate a single movie for use in the supplementary material of a paper, I’ve calculated that my PI pays around $2,431. No, really. Maybe that server doesn’t look so pricey now…?

Whatever data protection route you choose, remember that good anti-virus software is also a necessity for protecting your data. Talk to your PI/department to see if there are any provided backup resources. And if you yourself are a PI, come up with a data protection plan and make sure your employees know about it. It may save you a lot of stress and money further down the line.

How I Nailed My Lab Rotation and Got in the Lab I Wanted

 

By Evelyn Litwinoff

From the first time I met with my now PI to discuss a possible rotation, I knew I wanted to end up in her lab. She took me seriously even as a lowly first year grad student, and valued my thoughts and input on the rotation project we discussed. I left that meeting super excited about the rotation to be, and I couldn’t wait to get started.

 

Arguably the best part about this rotation was that I made and had my very own project as a rotation student that had the possibility to become a thesis project if – I mean when – I joined the lab. And the project was all about autophagy – a topic I had been introduced to in undergrad, found super exciting, and wanted to learn all about. (A quick refresher: Autophagy is a cellular recycling mechanism used to degrade large proteins, organelles, aggregates, and other substrates. It is essential for cellular health, especially in times of starvation. As Bill Nye the Science Guy would say,Now you know!”)

 

Step #1: Taking initiative

 

I came in on day one ready to generate tons of data, eager to become friends with everyone in the lab, and “wow” them all with my super science skills. Then I hit roadblock #1: the person in the lab I was assigned to work under wouldn’t let me do anything myself. I would watch her as she plated the cells, changed the media, dissected the mice, etc, and all I was able to do was label tubes. Not exactly how I imagined this rotation would be. But instead of sulking around wishing things would be different – ok after doing that for 2 weeks and spending time looking up other labs to rotate in – I spoke with another post-doc in the lab, and she agreed to have me work with her instead. Later after I joined the lab, I found out from this post-doc that by taking charge of my situation and changing it for the better, I showed her (and therefore my PI) that I really wanted to be a part of the lab and I could take initiative with my own project.

 

Step #2: Learning and mastering new skills – Evelyn vs. the Western Blot

 

My undergrad research was all about Caenorhabditis elegans (C. elegans) genetics, so most of my science skills before grad school consisted of PCR, running DNA gels, sequencing, and C. elegans specific handling. Hence, I had never done a western blot myself before this rotation. But by the end of my 3 months in the lab, I was a western blot master! One of the main ways to assess if autophagy is upregulated is to look for increases in the autophagy specific protein, LC3. So the end points of all my cell culture experiments were western blots for LC3 and another autophagy specific protein, Beclin. I worked my butt off doing western blot after western blot, sometimes staying in lab until 1am, and was able to have new results at almost every meeting with the PI. At the end of my rotation, one of the research associates came up to me and said, “I can’t believe how much data you generated in such a short period of time.” I was very proud of how much data I was able to produce, but more importantly, I was happy I learned this new skill quickly enough that I didn’t have to take up a lot of my post-doc’s time when running my own experiments.

 

Step #3: Being a good labmate

 

When I used up my post-doc’s stocks and buffers, I always asked her for the recipe to make more, and I replaced whatever I took. Same thing goes for refilling the pipettes in the cell culture room, emptying the vacuum, etc. Doing these types of lab chores goes a long way in showing your commitment to the lab, and in convincing everyone that they want you to stick around. I didn’t realized how important these small things were until I joined the lab and saw everyone’s reactions to the, let’s say “absent-minded” summer students.

 

Step #4: Admitting mistakes

 

At one point in my rotation, I left some antibodies on the bench overnight. Major whoops. I apologized profusely to my post-doc. Although she was not happy with me, she understood it sometimes happens to everyone and appreciated my straightforwardness in telling her.

 

Step #5: The big finish!

 

One of the things my PI from undergrad engrained into my head was how to make a good presentation. She would never be happy with my slides until they were mostly pictures with very very very few words underneath. I used these skills to put together a presentation for the end of my rotation. In my now PI’s words, “Evelyn, these slides are gorgeous!” Cue the inner Cheshire cat grin. I left that rotation with good impressions on the lab and the PI, and I kept in touch with the post-doc I worked closely with. Sometime in the middle of my next rotation, I emailed this PI and asked to join her lab. To my delight, she said yes!

 

The Biomedical Research Crisis

 

By Neeley Remmers, PhD

 

Call it “woman’s intuition” if you will, but all throughout my graduate career I had this persistent voice in the back of my head trying to tell me something. It started as a gentle, lulling whisper in my first year that gradually grew into full-blown fire alarm screeching in my head. What was this alarm? My own growing concern over the sustainability of biomedical science and its job market. I had been exposed, to some degree, of the decline and volatility of research jobs in industry prior to attending graduate school and knew of the ever increasing influx of graduate students entering the biomedical field despite the fact that the number of available faculty and research positions had remained constant. My concerns were fully realized when I went to a career development conference in my 4th year, right about the time I needed to start making more concrete plans as to where I wanted to take my career. The recent article published in PNAS co-authored by Bruce Alberts, Marc W. Kirschner, Shirley Tilghman, and Harold Varmus eloquently highlights some of the concerns I have myself as well as additional faults of the current system used by the biomedical field and gives insightful recommendations as to how to remedy the situation to prevent our field from imploding.

 

The authors adequately identify the root cause of the looming implosion of biomedical research – the assumption that there will be continual, rapid growth in the field creating job security for those already established and creating a job market rich with opportunity for new scientists. This assumption had been frequently used as bait to persuade me into joining the field even though the NIH budget had already begun to diminish after experiencing a decade of growth by the time I entered college. This decline in available federal funds (thanks to recent economic hardships felt everywhere) has fully opened our eyes to our current situation of having a supply of highly-qualified scientists that surpasses the number of available research positions, more specifically academic research positions. This influx of skilled scientists was the catalyst needed to synthesize a number of other problems that have recently surfaced in biomedical research that hurt everyone in the field, particularly new investigators. I won’t spend time going into detail on these additional problems highlighted by the authors, but I do want to spend a few moments touching on a subject they missed that I feel could also be adding to our current dilemma.

 

One cause of our problem outlined by the authors is there being too heavy a focus on conducting “translational research.” First, neither the authors nor I are trying to downplay the importance of translational research. After all, for a many of us, advancing medicine is the main reason we decided to enter research. However, it does seem like these days many are over-looking the importance of basic research and that you need solid, basic foundation before you can jump into translational research. By doing quality basic research first, you can gain a firm grasp on the mechanisms that dictate whichever physiological process you are studying and can be more successful in translating that knowledge into clinically relevant studies. Part of the push towards doing more translational research, though, comes from Congress and support from the general public. In this day and age, people like to see immediate results, and translational research can provide the public with results that have a more direct correlation to patient care as opposed to basic science. These results may not always be positive, but even the negative results give a better appearance to the public that something worthwhile is being done with the money they have given us. The problem here is that the general public does not understand the scientific process and the time and effort that goes into discovering new, efficient therapies; a problem easily remedied by educating the public about the research process. Once they realize how important the basic science is to translational research, we can bring some focus back towards awarding investigators who propose long-term, high-quality science rather than on those who propose short-term, translational projects.

 

Back to the article, the authors give their recommendations for how to rescue biomedical research. I will refrain from commenting too much on how we might remedy the grants review process, selecting review panels, and such as addressed by the authors as I do not have much experience or knowledge in these areas. What I can comment on is their recommendations for altering the way we train new scientists. As mentioned earlier, there has been an inflation of graduate students and post-doctoral researchers in recent years that far surpasses the number of available jobs. This is in part due to the fact that it is cheaper for senior scientists to bring students and post-docs into their labs rather than hire staff scientists and restructuring grant guidelines in terms of salaries, as outlined in the article, could certainly help this. The authors suggest that by prohibiting payment of students from grants and increasing pay of post-docs will help to reduce the numbers of incoming graduate students, promote career advancement of post-docs, and encourage hiring staff scientists all of which can be beneficial in the long-run.

 

Aside from simply limiting the number of incoming graduate students, I feel it is necessary that graduate programs start implementing career development programs into student training. In the past, one’s career path in science was pretty clear and the apprenticeship scheme used to train current graduate students worked well. However, in today’s world only about 25% of current graduate students will be able to obtain a faculty position leaving the other 75% of current graduate students to find employment elsewhere rendering the apprenticeship scheme no longer a valid training model. Instead, we need to increase efforts to introduce students early on to the many other career options available to them in science by giving them opportunities to meet with professionals in these areas. Students can then begin to make valuable connections to establish relationships with a secondary mentor that can help them get into the fields of patents, policy, scientific writing, etc.

 

Change in the structure of the biomedical science enterprise is desperately needed to prevent it from collapsing. The reality is that the model currently in use may have worked well in the past but is severely out-of-date for today’s economy. Serious changes are warranted in order to get back to the days of exciting scientific discovery rather than living in the days of scientific survival.

How I Chose a Lab in 3 Easy Steps

 

By Lauren Larkin

 

There are four big decisions one has to make when deciding to pursue a graduate education: 1) to actually pursue a graduate education, 2) at which institution, 3) working on what, and 4) in whose lab. Once you have answered for yourself that yes, you do want to go for your Masters and/or Ph.D., you have some control in determining where, but once you have submitted your grades and gone on your interviews, whether or not an institution accepts you is largely out of your control. What you do have more control over, and what I personally found more daunting, is deciding what you want to work on, and for whom. Your lab is not only is it where you will spend a considerable portion of your time for the upcoming years, but it is your first foray into Science as a career and can follow after your graduation.
In my last post, I wrote about how I approached graduate school a little more nonchalantly than I should have and therefore struggled to hit my stride. One of the ways this manifested was when I was tasked with choosing three labs in which to rotate and to finally choose one in which to complete my thesis. I knew I wanted to study molecular/cell biology most preferably in the context of cancer or immunology. This was not a very helpful way to narrow down labs at a major medical research institution with an umbrella graduate program.

 

I was overwhelmed by the sheer number of potential labs so I sort of panicked and made rash decisions. Luckily, I wised up enough by the end of my first year and ended up in a lab I am happy with and am enjoying my research. From this experience (as well as watching others go through the rotation/choosing process), I’d offer the following advice that I wish I had taken:

 

Clearly decide what you want to study and how you want to study it


I alluded to this in my last post that this was an important decision to make even before choosing to go to graduate school. Some people enter into an institution already knowing exactly whose lab they want to enter into, but for those who don’t it is good to have as distinct a focus as possible be it a disease, cellular process, or technique. Doing so will help narrow down your choices to make the most out of your first year. It will also afford you the opportunity to learn more deeply about your particular field. With the multiple perspectives you can learn how different labs approach the same problem, learn different ways to ask questions, and rotations are a good opportunity to try new methods.

What goes along with this is deciding the approach you want to take to what it is that you want to study. For example, my background is in biology and chemistry, therefore I’m most interested in asking questions from a biochemical and molecular point of view. But if I someone asked me to think deeply about genetics or systems biology, my head would just about explode, which would be unfortunate for everyone involved.

 

Consider lab dynamics and your potential relationship with your mentor

Would you prefer to work in a big lab or little lab? Social or quiet? More closely managed or more flexible? These factors will be important when you are late into your third year and the newness of your graduate career has worn off and you see how long the road is ahead of you.

Also important to take into consideration is your relationship with your mentor. As much as scientists would like to think of the world as a logical and fair place, we are human beings first and how you interact with your boss can and will affect your graduate career and the science you do. However, because we are all different snowflakes, this is a highly personal preference. Some people know they need their boss to be a little bit of a hardass to push them. If that were me, on the other hand, would constantly be on the edge of a mental breakdown. Personally, I like a good balance of pushing versus flexibility. I know I learn best by trying on my own (usually followed by failing a lot on my own), then asking for help.

 

Your mentor is also just about the only constant in the lab. Other lab members will come and go, you could move your lab, even move to another institution, and your project is definitely not constant, but your mentor will remain. Make sure that it is someone you can stand, and ideally even enjoy, working for.

 

Assess longer term funding capabilities

My first two pieces of advice are the parts of choosing a lab that depends on you and your preferences, but this is the practical one. Although I think it is within everyone’s preference to join a lab that can, you know, buy things. With the uncertain funding climate, choosing a stable lab can be vital to your success as a graduate student. Stable does not mean that the lab will be able to afford all of your whims for kits and antibodies, but that it will be able to sustain you through your Masters or Ph.D. Having said that, I think it is a good idea during your stay in the lab to apply for outside funding if for no other reason than the education and to take pressure off of your PI. Regardless, choosing a financially stable lab will take ease stress throughout your stay.

If I had to do my first year over again, I’m confident I would wind up in the same lab, but I would have chosen my rotations differently and with more intention. For the first 6 months of my first year I felt like I was flapping around in the wind. In the end, choosing a lab is a personal choice. There’s no such thing as a perfect lab or an inherently bad lab. You will want to cry in lab (or desperately feel like it) if you chose what you think is an awesome lab, and you will have victorious science data days if you feel like you wound up in a bad lab. What matters is that you make the best decision for yourself that you can with what you have available.

Till Science Do Us Part

 

By Celine Cammarata

The two-body problem is no secret in academia; indeed, prominent voices such as Nature Blogs have written numerous excellent resources on the issue and how to avoid separation (see below for a taste of these).  But as a graduate student or post doc, you might not have the same kinds of bargaining chips that PIs do in negotiating dual placements, not to mention that at these career stages you and your significant other are likely somewhat reliant on working with the right mentors – which might not be in the same location. Most of us were well aware getting into it that our scientific careers would be demanding, but for many this is where the dual-career rubber meets the road.  So what do you do?

This was the situation I found myself in at the start of graduate school, as I headed to Johns Hopkins in Baltimore, MD and my then fiancé pack off to Cambridge, England.  Yes, it was stressful and difficult, but over time we did find ways to make it easier.  So, if you are facing a scientific separation, here are a few suggestions to make the experience as smooth as possible.

 

The Groundwork – basic tips for a good foundation

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  • Know the Plan. Don’t underestimate the power if good planning. Knowing when you’ll see each other again relieves stress, gives you something to look forward to, and makes parting more bearable.
  • You’re Not Alone (In Being Alone). Chances are many of your peers and colleagues are going through they same thing – in my lab every lab member but the PI was in a long distance relationship! This creates a valuable support network; not only will these people understand the emotional strain you might be under, but you can help one another in concrete ways too, like taking turns with lab chores so everyone has some free time to visit his or her partner.
  • A Warm Welcome.  Many universities have tight-knit communities – and as the live-in-another-country partner to someone if one of these communities, it’s hard not to feel like an outsider when you visit.  Making an effort to include your significant other in your group when he or she is present can go a long way in relieving tension and making your visits more enjoyable.

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Beyond Skype  – some concrete suggestions to stay connected

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  • Can You Picture That?  The typical “how was your day” conversation ca get tiresome very quickly, but somehow seeing pictures of someone’s day never does (if you need proof just look to Instagram).  Setting up a joint online photo album with your significant other can be a great way to share and compile images to capture all the little things in your day and keep one another feeling present and involved.
  • Long-Distance Teamwork.  If you were together and one of you wanted to start eating better, the other probably would try to help out, right?  Well, the same holds in a long-distance relationship.  Setting shared goals – whether it’s to read one paper every day or go to the gym – then checking in with one another on how you’re progressing can be both very motivating and a great way to feel like a team despite the distance.
  • Take on Projects.  Believe it or not, this can be a great time to learn something new together.  For instance, my husband and I set up a “cooking challenge” – every week we each prepared a meal from a specific category, then Skyped to compare our results.  The challenge was not only fun and excellent protection against the notorious “running out of things to say” problem, but we both came away with a new skill.
  • How Puzzling.  After a while it gets to you – being able to talk to one another is important, but it’s not the same as being able to actually do something together.  Though it sounds a bit silly, simple puzzles and games can be a great way to break this tension.  We routinely played MadLibs and an assortment of goofy two-player online games, which were always sure to lighten the mood.

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Terrific posts on the two-body problem and related challenges in academia:

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8 Ways to Get the Best out of Networking Events

 

By Jesica Levingston Mac leod, PhD

Para la traduccion en espanol mirar  mas abajo.

When you are attending a networking event, it doesn’t matter if you are hiring, searching for a job or just increasing your LinkedIn connections, there are some simple ideas that would make you go home with a smile on your face and a lot of business cards in your pocket.

 

1. Know what are you looking for, as always in life

You must have your aim or goal in mind, so you can transmit it to the other people. Prepare a short introduction about yourself and your expectations in advance, and when I say short, I mean it. Nothing is more boring than a stranger giving you a dissertation on a topic that you do not care about. Therefore focus your short introductory speech according to your goal for the event. On the other hand, the “hit and run” strategy is a highway to failure. For example if you are job hunting, it is important to sell yourself to the correct people… which brings me to the next topic..

 

2. Connect smart!

If you start a conversation and it does not look very productive for you, do not be afraid and just say “thanks, bye” and move on, no harm done. Normally the networking events don’t last more than 2 hours and you have to take advantage of every available second.

 

3. Know the attendants

So try to get a list of the attendants before hand, and “Google” them in order to know if they’re important connections for you and which kind of conversations or common interest you can discuss. This is not stalking, but sometimes it is good to check out photos of people you want to talk to so you can recognize them. Moreover, leave your mark, tell then something that will make then remember you, and if you can: find a reason to keep in touch.

 

4. Have an ice breaker

Some tips for those shy souls: just go and say, “Hi, how are you?” and honestly wait to get an answer. You can follow it with “I am John Doe, I work in Awesome-land, what are you doing?”. Or you can ask questions such as, “do you work in….?” or “What are you drinking?” “What advice would you give to someone who wants to break into this field?” “Would you recommend with who I should speak? May I use your name as a reference?” I know it is kind of a cheesy icebreaker but it is the best shot. Everybody is there to meet people, and if you just stand around staring at the empty space the probabilities of you meeting another interesting human being are very low.

 

5. Dress to impress, but not too much

About the look: dress your best according with the type of event you are attending, but always let your own style show through. It’s your personality that makes you special and different, and that can be reflected in your outfit.

 

6. Be special

Write your name on the tag in big, clear letters (young people forget that old people can’t read small writing) and put it on the right side of your chest. Why? Because when you shake someone’s hand your right shoulder will be pointing directly at them. Also most of the people you will meet are right handed and the easier for them is to put the sticker on their left side, so you might have a possible conversation starter.

[box style=”rounded”]What about a “wing man”? Personally, I love this strategy because I team up really well with my friends, but it can be contra productive as the people can feel it overwhelming to have a crowd “attacking” them.[/box]


7.
Be brave

The most important advice is to just go. Event if you are afraid of putting yourself thorough this wild networking event world, just do it. I was searching for a job when a friend convinced me to attend a biotech event at a bar. The event was not looking very successful when we had first arrived and I was regretting my decision. But, eventually a handsome man walked over to me and mentioned in a very friendly way that he was working for a company that was looking for a chemist, which I am not. I literally moonwalked far away from him as I didn’t want to waste my time. But before leaving he came back again and handed me his card, which I added to the pile. Two weeks later I updated my LinkedIn connections adding all the professionals that I met in these events and to my surprise a message came back from this handsome man inviting me for a coffee. Long story short: I met my boyfriend in a networking event. So you never know what can came out of these gatherings. One thing is sure, only positive things are born from networking. Sharing you experience, knowledge, needs and future goals with other professionals is always rewarding.

 

8. Let’s listen to professional advice by recruiter Nick Corcodilos

[quote style=”boxed”]True networking is when you spend time with people who do the work you want to do, talking shop. Good networking involves working with other active professionals, even if it’s on a volunteer project, or to learn something new. Good networking is rubbing elbows and enjoying talk and activities related to the work you want to do. Here’s the thing that confuses people and frustrates them: They think we network to get our next job. That’s absolutely wrong. We network to get smarter, to make new friends, to build our value and our credibility in our professional community, to help others, and to enjoy our work outside of the job. Job opportunities arise out of networking; they are not the reason to do it.[/quote]

References:

Nick Corcodilos, in Ask The Headhunter newsletter, “Too late to network?” March 18, 2008.

Where to start:

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