Lab Life

Hindsight is 2020: What I Wish I Knew Before Starting My Ph.D.

Marisa Sanders

I’ll never forget what a wise postdoc once told me during my first week of graduate school: “You’ll be ready to start your Ph.D. once you finish your Ph.D.” I don’t think any other statement better summarizes the graduate school experience.

In college, I took great pleasure in studying chemistry—I was inspired by the beauty of the science, and I looked at it as more of an art than anything else. Discovering a pleasure similar to that of deciphering crossword puzzles, I reveled in solving retrosynthesis reactions, un­covering the clever subtlety of periodic trends, and—quite honestly—taking chemistry exams. It was fun for me: a pleasant game, a diversion. As a naïve 21-year-old, at the time I was under the impression that a Ph.D. would simply be an extension of my undergraduate studies. If I concentrated in inorganic chemistry, I could explore my favorite aspects of the science, right? I could take an endless course load in crystal field theory, reactions and mechanisms, and group theory. The prospect of draft­ing complex molecular orbital diagrams with my lab group buddies sounded so alluring. I had an extreme passion for chemistry—pursuing a Ph.D. in the sci­ence simply felt right. Unfortunately, I didn’t have much of a game plan beyond that. One year after having completed my program, I can confirm that there are several matters I wish I had known about before embarking on my Ph.D.

Dearest Readers, I am about to divulge my soul to you. If you’re start­ing graduate school or are perhaps in the early stages of your Ph.D., continue read­ing and heed the following few points:

Understand That Academia Is a Business

Whether you like it or not, “graduate student” is a job and academia is a busi­ness. While academia is not the “real world” and is certainly not the conven­tional corporate world, it still functions like a business, and you must treat it as such. After grasping this concept, I was better able to appreciate my role as a graduate student. In my sheltered early twenties, I expected graduate school to be an “ivory tower,” a learning commu­nity free of politics, monetary concerns, and real-life issues (Figure 1). Quite honestly, this is far from how graduate school functions, and you will be ex­tremely disappointed if you embark on your Ph.D. with this mentality.

Although I am sure they do ex­ist, I have never met an independently wealthy graduate student with the abil­ity to fully cover tuition, living, and re­search expenses. Most of us receive sup­port in the form of fellowships, teaching assistantships, or research assistantships. External organizations, such as the Na­tional Science Foundation (NSF) or the Department of Energy (DOE), provide funding for research assistantships. However, these agencies expect concrete results in exchange for the money they distribute. Professors apply for these organization-sponsored grants, which (if awarded), are used to fund research at their institutions. The professors hire capable individuals, research assistants (you) to fulfill the experimental expecta­tions of each sponsoring organization—essentially, the contract it has placed.

Your job as a research assistant is vital to sustaining the academic busi­ness. Your results help fuel your advis­er’s funding cycle; unfilled expectations or subpar data could terminate support, bringing your adviser’s research pro­gram to a halt. Funding is limited, and the market is competitive. Therefore, you must be diligent. Although at first you may be required to fulfill specific experimental goals from the funding agency, you should eventually gain the flexibility to pursue your own proj­ect. You’ll have to live frugally on your graduate school stipend, but it should be enough to cover all of your necessi­ties. In return, you have the opportunity to perform exciting research among the best and brightest and to learn all you want about an area of science that enthuses you. Just remember your role within the outlandish academic busi­ness; if you do a good job, your adviser does too, and the funding cycle will continue.

You Possess the Privilege to Fail

It dawned on me after my qualifying exam that perhaps nowhere else in my career would I have the privilege to fail (within limits, of course—refer to the above section on the business of academia). Graduate school allows for productive failure. You can perform a reaction dozens of times, and in each attempt modify one variable, but never obtain the desired product. I can recall many instances in my early years as a Ph.D. candidate where I assumed high-risk, high-reward research projects—from generating metastable compounds to growing difficult-to-produce crys­tals—but failed in almost all my at­tempts. At first, I was extremely discour­aged. However, I did learn something from each failed endeavor—whether it be a new chemical technique or perhaps a fresh appreciation for the Laws of Thermodynamics. Within the confines of the so-called graduate school aca­demic enterprise, your creative chemical passions can run freely—here you have the opportunity to ponder new methods to synthesize novel materials and test your craziest experimental ideas. Trust me, you won’t have this freedom and flexibility anywhere else. So, take advan­tage of it. I was often too afraid to take risks in graduate school because I feared failure—but this is where our adventur­ous chemical intuition ignites!

Engage in New Experiences

Are you curious about what exists be­yond academia? Many students obtain their Ph.D.s without having had any experience beyond the academic lab environment (myself included). From the summer of my freshman year of college through my last semester of graduate school, I was fully engrossed in some sort of university research program all the time. However, I al­ways had a deep desire to survey other career possibilities.

It was grad student guilt that pre­vented me from trying new things. The prospect of taking off a summer from my Ph.D. research—to intern in indus­try, take a swing at life sciences consult­ing, or apply for a science policy fellow­ship—seemed incredibly risky. Imagine all the (unlikely) scenarios: What if I stumbled upon something brilliant right before I left? I’d want to stay and work! Or perhaps the opposite: What if my research took a horribly wrong turn? I’d still want to stay and work!

There were also plenty of op­portunities during the semester to try something new. I signed up for exciting history classes, only to drop them after the reading and writing assignments started encroaching on my evening lab work. Even attending informative and fun symposia in other departments was a challenge (I almost missed a Stephen King reading because I was too en­grossed in glovebox sample prep).

Toward the end of my Ph.D., I discovered my university’s administra­tive fellowship program. This fellowship gives Ph.D. students an opportunity to work in nearly any administrative capacity at the university for several hours a week. As someone interested in intellectual property, I felt so enthu­siastic when I heard that there were fellowships available in the technology transfer office. I just wish I had learned of them earlier! Be sure to inquire about on-campus opportunities for graduate students. I partook of many informa­tional interviews with alumni and ACS career coaches during my Ph.D., but I never thought to ask about flexible fel­lowships at my university. Well, now you know—ask questions early on and see what resources will be available to you down the road.

Take Your Time

I’ve heard many people compare pur­suing a Ph.D. to running a marathon. In order to reach the finish line, it’s necessary to pace yourself and maintain focus. Many students, however, find themselves on something more like a doctoral sprint. This rarely ends well. While at first you may feel unstoppable, your productivity may plummet due to unhealthy eating habits, lack of exer­cise, and burnout. It’s relatively easy to get lost in this cycle (I did). I realized at the end of my second year that in order to maximize my efficiency for the long haul, I needed to set aside time to recharge every week. To reduce stress, I started running every day, leading a graduate student coloring circle, and baking. Figure out what works for you.

Don’t Accept Just Any Job Offer

I know how it feels. You’re sick and tired of living on a meager graduate student stipend. You just want a job, any job! Although it might be tempting, I advise you to not simply accept any job offer. Ask questions, negotiate, and make sure you know what you’re getting into. (Sounds a bit like starting a Ph.D., eh?) Discuss with human resources your hours, how you’ll be trained, whether you can work from home, to whom you’ll report, etc. Be sure to peruse the company reviews on websites like Glass­door to scope out the lowdown on your prospective employer. You’ve worked so hard to obtain your Ph.D.! Even though perhaps you’ve been beaten down by critical journal reviews, keep your head up. Don’t sell yourself short. Explore your options and continue to do your research!

To the wise postdoc who assured me I would be ready to start my Ph.D. once I completed it: You were correct. I essentially embarked on my degree without having any prior knowledge of my dissertation topic. (Frustrated magnetism, what’s that?!) Not only did I gain the technical skills and knowl­edge to perform good research, but I also gained insight along the way—from an understanding of how the academic business functions to an appreciation for (learning from) failed experiments. Although it may sometimes feel like the converse, graduate school imparts a great deal of flexibility to study what truly interests you. The key to conquer­ing your Ph.D. is to take your time, give yourself the credit you deserve, and re­member that you have what it takes!

Alright, now that it’s over, I’m fi­nally ready to tackle this Ph.D.!

This article was originally published in the August 2018 edition.