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Nose to the Grindstone

Posted Apr 09 2009 7:16pm

Before I go on my latest disgruntled rant, I’d like to clarify that I really do, deep down, enjoy research and what I am doing. Obviously, I knew (to some extent) what I was getting into by going into a biomedical PhD program. I wouldn’t have taken this path if I wasn’t passionate about my research or if I couldn’t picture myself doing this (with some degree of happiness) for the next forty years of my life (okay, well not THIS, hopefully after several years of a post-doc and then working diligently as an Assistant PI, I will eventually actually get to be a PI and boss around grad students and post-docs of my own). Granted, if you catch me running around the medical center on a typical afternoon trying to do 12 things at once and ask me why I decided to choose the PhD path of life, I will more likely than not answer with something along the lines of, “Because I’m really, really stupid.” But sarcasm aside, I do realize how lucky I am do actually be doing what it was I decided I wanted to do as an undergrad. I was fortunate enough to be accepted to every graduate school to which I applied except one (and that was an entirely disastrous interview day) and had a really tough time deciding between my top two choices. Eventually the decision was made by a coin-toss by my best friend Mark (who also happens to do a lot of reffing in his spare time, thereby making him a coin-tossing professional) and the decision was made (you think I’m joking… but I’m not). Basically, what I’m trying to say is that I do realize how lucky I am to be in my program, and I do ‘enjoy’ parts of it (as much as one can enjoy being an indentured servant of the lab), but being happy to be in a program certainly doesn’t reduce the stress.

That said, I realize that stress is a normal part of every PhD program, particularly those in the sciences, and that it’s basically the weeding-out factor – there are those individuals who can deal with the stress and, provided they do well academically and happen to be competent in the lab and can prove something useful, will get their PhDs. And then there are those who cannot handle the stress, and they are the ones who drop out. I like to think that I will fall into the former category, but I think right now it’s hard enough to focus on getting through the week, let along surviving through six years of this!

Things just keep piling up and it’s reached the point where I don’t even know what should be my focus anymore. As an undergraduate, it was easy. I double majored in biology and political science, minored in math, and was one quantitative analysis class short away from a chemistry minor. On weeks where I was overloaded with work, it was easy to prioritize – I knew I wanted to go into science, so the biology and chemistry classes always came first, and if it meant that I had to half-ass a poly sci paper or not study as much as necessary for a differential equations exam, so be it. But in grad school, everything is important, and everyone tries to convince you that their part is the most important. Is it more important to study for the upcoming Transformed Cell exam or the Biochemistry exam? And what about the Methods exam? Do I put lab work before classes or vice-versa? And as if classes and one lab rotation wasn’t enough, I still have my summer rotation back to haunt me and take up more of my time. The review paper on breast cancer and alcohol epidemiology, on which I am second author, came back from the journal with reviewing comments, and requires a bit of rewriting, by ­ Friday. Somehow, I am supposed to fully prepare for three upcoming exams, work diligently in my current lab and be doing background research on why the assay results are turning out the way they are, and continue editing this paper from the summer. I’m not really sure that it’s possible, without the addition of more hours in the day (although I suppose not writing this and getting back to biochem studying would be a step in the right direction).

On that note, I have used up my allotted 30 minutes of non-science time for the day, and must get back to work. And of course, I would like to wish everyone a Happy National Chemistry Week, direct to you from everybody’s favorite disgruntled biomedical graduate student.

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