Soon, I will be receiving my PhD in Computational Bioscience. It’s been both rewarding and difficult. I am glad that I did it, but I am also happy it’s almost over.
Many non-academic people don’t understand what getting a PhD means. The US Census reported that about 3% of people have a PhD over the age of 25.
I would like to write about my experiences in graduate school, specifically graduate school for the biomedical sciences. Graduate school for the liberal arts is completely different, and so I do not speak for those experiences. I aim to give an honest depiction of what getting a PhD means.
- Being smart is not enough. Being successful in graduate school takes a lot more than a high IQ. Students must have the motivation in order to attain skills that are necessary to be successful. To obtain a PhD, students must convince experts in the field they have made a meaningful contribution to the current scientific knowledge. As you can imagine, this is incredibly difficult to achieve. You should expect any person with a PhD to be a master communicator and be able to think outside the box.
- You are independent. One of my favorite jokes first year of graduate school is that it felt like they gave us a knife, a roll of toilet paper, and sent us off into the woods with the encouraging words, “Try not to die!” Unless you have previous experience, your first presentations will be cringe-worthy, your first grants will be horrible and your experimental designs are a MESS. Eventually, through humility, determination and the help of faculty you will become something of a wizard.
- Accepting the research roller coaster. Research has its ups and downs. These ups and downs can be a fleeting few hours or a whole year. You are investigating an unknown phenomena that no one knows about, so it working is not within your control. You can design experiments and troubleshoot to make sure you are getting as close to the truth as possible, but if it’s not there, it’s not there. Hopefully you’ll figure out why things are not working and fix it, or you’ll learn something new that’ll put a positive direction to your research. If not, you have a dreaded bad project (explained here).
- Developing mental fortitude. Before entering graduate school, I was fully prepared to be mentally challenged. Never could I have imagined how much emotional energy was involved. You are dealing with criticism day after day, your science sometimes isn’t working, you have little free time and you are struggling to pay your bills. There’s a study at Berkeley on the happiness and well-being of their graduate students, where they found 47% of Berkeley graduate students were depressed at least once during their graduate career. Graduate school puts you at such a high level of stress, if anything bad happens in your personal life it is hard to cope. However, there is a positive aspect to it – you become much better at handling stress. When I feel overwhelmed now, I have a few strategies that I have developed to make sure I complete all my tasks while maintaining a steady and calm attitude.
- Navigating a broken system. The whole concept behind publishing is commendable. Scientists publish in order to contribute their novel findings to the body of knowledge. We read each other’s papers, learn new methods and are inspired by their ideas to make our research better. Unfortunately, there is a growing epidemic of bad science being published. A minor example of these offenses is when scientist “p-hack,” where results are manipulated to find something conclusive. The major offense is falsifying data, which is to change the results to make them publishable. An attempt by scientists at Bayer HealthCare was made to reproduce results from 67 experiments, but they only succeeded in 6. Not all of the irreproducible experiments are because of fraud – it’s possible that a variable was introduced, the experiment was performed in unique conditions or simple scientific error. The silver lining is that scientists are trained to constantly ask questions and to critically analyze each other’s work in order to validate true or false solutions. For this reason, errors in studies have been identified. An example from my field is an algorithm called BLOSUM used by many bioinformaticians, and it was found 14 years later that there was an error in the online tool. This error would never have been identified if researchers out of curiosity didn’t try to implement the BLOSUM algorithm.
- Dolla dolla bills y’all. Academic science is paid through grants that are normally supplied by governmental institutions such as the National Institute of Health (NIH). Faculty are in a perpetual state of writing grants in order to fund their research and pay for graduate students, post-doctorates and technicians. Some of these grants can be up to a million dollars, but about a third goes to the school where the grant was awarded. These resources can still be stretched thin, because funding is necessary for almost every step in the scientific experiment. For most NIH R01 grants, only 10 to 15% of them are accepted and it has become increasingly harder when science funding was cut in 2003. President Obama has made steps to increase NIH funding in 2016, and hopefully this will continue. Submitting a grant is much like giving a business pitch for a start-up; you must sell an idea knowing there’s a high failure rate. While there is a lot of pressure, getting awarded a grant is a sign of success and aptitude which generates admiration from colleagues.
- Getting a PhD will change you, or at least it changed me. I started graduate school in my early 20s when I still was pretty green around the ears. I have learned to be professional, such as how to effectively communicate with colleagues, present my work in a clear and concise manner and reliably perform tasks that were assigned to me. I’ve also become really good at time and stress management. While writing my thesis I was hit by a car, and I look back in shock that I was able to write while dealing with pain and arguing with insurance companies. Most of all, I have learned how to find the explanations of things I don’t know about through critical thinking. This has both increased the quality of my research and my life. While it may be exhausting to my non-PhD friends when I am curious about trivial things, I have achieved a richer understanding of the world. Many people think that we with PhDs are crazy, geniuses, or both, but in reality we chose a path that taught us how to determine answers to hard questions.