My Thoughts on Graduate School

I have neglected this blog for some time, so I will first provide some context on where I am in my education.  I am currently in my sixth semester as a Ph.D. student at Kansas State University in the Division of Biology, program of Ecological Genomics. I study age-related change in cold stress tolerance in the model system Drosophila melanogaster.  At this point in my graduate career, I consider myself to be “nearly finished with data collection,” and “seriously considering my future” in terms of post-doc positions and other job opportunities.  Official estimated time of graduation:  May 2017.

There are a lot of blogs on the Internet offering opinions on how one should approach applying to graduate school.  I am going to offer my thoughts on the subject and contribute to this pool.  One thing is certain–every graduate student has had a unique experience, and some experiences are better than others.  The content below is not meant to be advice per se; it is just a reflection on my own experience.

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The decision to apply to graduate programs wasn’t difficult for me.  I really enjoyed my undergraduate experience in research (see other parts of this blog for background), and I didn’t mind the long hours and tedium that is often associated with doing research. I still feel the same way.  At the end of my junior year of undergrad, I knew that I wanted to do research in conservation, population genetics, evolution, and ecology.  This is an important list, and I will come back to it briefly.  My list of graduate programs was similarly focused.  The list of criteria I used for picking the programs I would eventually apply to was:

  1. The program included a PI (Principle Investigator) who led research on conservation, population genetics, evolution, and/or ecology.
  2. The lab I was interested in would build on my current education, expanding to genomics research.
  3. The lab studied amphibians or reptiles.

I ultimately picked out four schools with labs that satisfied one or more of my criteria.  At the time, I had had a few conversations (I think literally 3) with faculty and graduate students about how to go about finding a good program.  The one piece of advice that I still remember was that I should contact the PI to find out if they were interested in taking on a new graduate student.  I took that advice to heart and clung to it like my entire future depended on it.  I emailed the people at my four chosen schools and initiated these conversations. This began my filtering process. One PI was concerned that our interests didn’t match up well. The second PI welcomed my application. The third PI mentioned that I was welcome to apply, but was concerned that I hadn’t taken my GRE yet (this was sometime in the fall of my senior year).  He told me to keep in touch.  The fourth PI never replied.  This essentially narrowed my already small list of grad schools to 2. Concerned that 2 schools wasn’t enough, I threw in one more school. I also realized at that point that I was running out of time to take the GRE.

The GRE is one of those tests that academia clings to as if it is the source of all knowledge and will tell you everything you need to know about the person you are considering hiring.  Some PIs hold this opinion, and others don’t.  It just so happened that, of the 3 schools I ended up applying to, 2 PIs thought my GRE scores were too low.  The only acceptance letter I received was from Kansas State University.

As you know, I decided to join the program at KSU.  After discussing my interests and goals with my PI, we decided that I should skip a Master’s and do a Ph.D. out of undergraduate.  I don’t regret this decision in some ways.  For example, I didn’t miss a beat with the research material and the coursework.  My undergraduate experience and education, coupled with an REU, made the transition to Ph.D. work relatively painless.  However, as an “almost ready to start finishing up” graduate student, I am worried about my ability to get back into conservation research with amphibians and reptiles.  While still within the realm of population genetics, evolution, and ecology, my current research really has very little to do with conservation.  And I study fruit flies.  With regard to my original list of research interests, I still have a ways to go. My hope is that I will be able to redirect through a post-doc position.

As much as I hate to admit it, there is more to graduate school than research. As an undergraduate, I was told, “Oh, you’re going to love graduate school,” on more than one occasion. Reasons cited include: You won’t have to take classes that have nothing to do with your major, you can really dive into your research and immerse yourself in science in a way that you couldn’t before, you will have officemates and lab mates that are interested in similar topics, and you will want to discuss papers and ideas with them, your work on your primary research might inspire cool side-projects that you can publish along the way. The list goes on. Like I mentioned above, everyone’s experience in graduate school is different. I have had a slightly different (and less rosy) experience.

If I were to spew out some sweeping statements about grad school to contemplative students, here is what I would tell them: You will probably have to sit through courses that go over everything you learned (and probably still remember) from undergrad. The only reliable way to come by new information in graduate school is to educate yourself through primary literature and by discovering it through your research. Some programs might require you to take classes that are not actually related to what you are studying (mine did). The first two or so years of your program will be crammed with classes and homework and take home exams, making it surprisingly difficult to dive into your research and immerse yourself in your science. If you have officemates like mine, one will drop out during her second semester, the person who replaces her will be fired, and the third person the department tries to cram into your closet-sized space will decide to work in her own lab space. In other words, you may not actually have officemates. As far as lab mates are concerned, you might find that they become infinitely friendlier after they graduate. If you happen upon the opportunity for a side-project, make sure to fully work out the logistical aspects of the project before you commit to it. These logistical aspects include, but are not limited to experimental design, costs of carrying out the project, funds for covering the costs of the project, and authorship on any resulting papers. Side-projects can turn into hairy monsters if these aspects are ignored. As a last piece of advice, make friends. Don’t do what I did and turn down most of the invitations to hang out with people. They will stop asking you to hang out. Trust me. Even if you are antisocial, it’s good practice for when you need to interview for your next position.

I don’t dislike grad school, but my experience so far isn’t one that I will daydream about down the road. You might read this post as whinny or regretful, but I want to make this clear: I don’t regret coming to KSU and working on my current research project. I do believe that my resulting education in genomics of complex traits will be very useful in the future, and I am up for the challenge of applying what I have learned at KSU to the conservation of amphibians and reptiles.

Things I think I should have done differently:

  1. I should have applied to more than 3 grad schools, even if I hadn’t talked with any specific PIs. Rotations are nearly always an option. I started out with a list of grad schools that was too short, and ended up with no choices when it came to committing to a program (and I’m the type who was afraid to not commit).
  2. I only took the GRE once and I took it too late.  This is a test that can be taken repeatedly.  I didn’t have time to take it again and meet the application deadlines for the schools I was interested in. If schools insist on using this “tool” to filter through students, you might as well work the system to its full advantage.
  3. I was afraid that taking a year off of school and reapplying for the next term would reduce my chances of getting into grad school, and so I took the only opportunity offered.  Looking back, this option (of taking a year off) is probably not as dire as it seemed at the time.
  4. I didn’t discuss the process of applying to graduate schools much with my undergraduate adviser.  I don’t remember if it even ever occurred to me.  One of my attributes is that I am pretty independent.  One of my faults is that I am pretty independent.  I wish I had asked for help.
  5. I went straight into a Ph.D. program instead of starting with a Master’s.  Let me be clear about this:  I wanted to study conservation genetics of amphibians and reptiles.  I currently study the evolution of complex traits in a model organism.  I am worried I won’t be able to transition back to conservation (and herps) in my future research.

 

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