Biomedical and Life Sciences Graduate School Guide

I am currently a graduate student in biomedical sciences nearing the end of my PhD training and looking back over my 5+ years I have made a number of mistakes. I've had to deal with a significant amount of misinformation and just plain bad advice. In order to prevent you from going through the same headaches as I've had to deal with I've prepared this article. At least this way you can't say 'no one warned me.' My experiences are in biomedical sciences so it is to those people that this information is targeted, however I do believe that almost any grad student, regardless of where they are in their training, can take something away from my experiences.

Before Applying
Don't fill out any grad school applications until you can produce concrete answers to the following questions. Going to grad school because you aren't sure what you really want to do is a bad idea. So is going to grad school in the hopes that you can delay your entry into the real world. Going to grad school without being aware of the rest of your options is, you guessed it, a bad idea. Grad school is a long and painful journey so you better have some idea why you're doing it. Now, onto the questions.

  • Why do you want to go? Fundamentally, this may be the single most important question here. Grad school is a huge time commitment (5+ years normally, 4 years at the minimum), so you'd better have a good idea why you want to go. Think about it. Think real hard about it, then proceed in reading the rest of this article. Its OK, I'll wait for you.
  • What do you want to do when you finish grad school? This question is almost as important as the last. Hopefully, as you were considering the answer to the previous question, you answered this one as well. If not, now is the time to figure out what you want to do once you've gotten your nice shiny PhD. Don't wait until you're almost finished with your PhD to start considering your career options.
  • What else could you be doing? Forget about grad school for a second. What else could you be doing with your life? What kinds of jobs are you qualified for? Do you even know? Have you looked? Would any of these jobs make you happy or be a good start to your career?
  • What will you do if you don't get in? Assume you get rejected, what would you do with your life? How happy would these options make you? Could you follow any of these routes to your desired career?
  • What else does your current degree allow you to do? Depending on what you want to do with your life there is a good chance that you may be able to do it with your existing degree. Professional degrees (PharmD, MD, etc.) especially, open up a myriad of possibilities to their holders. Most of these possibilities aren't overtly advertised but they are there. Start looking, you may not need the PhD at all.
  • What are your life goals? Planning on saving for retirement? Buying a nice big TV? Starting a family? Buying a house and settling down? If so, don't expect to make any progress on any of those goals while in grad school, especially not if you're single and aren't still sponging off your parents. If you aren't ready or willing to delay these, perhaps you should rethink the idea of grad school.
  • Do you like doing research? Grad school is all about doing research, Sitting at a bench and getting experiments to work. You can still make it through grad school if you're lukewarm about doing research, but you'll have a lot better experience if you are truly passionate about it.
  • Would another degree suit you better? Suppose you've concluded that your existing degree hasn't a snowball's chance in hell of getting you where you want to go. That's fine. But do you need a PhD to get there? What about a masters degree? MBA? PharmD? MD? Some other degree? You may be able to reach the same goal with a lot less work.

Made it through the first set of questions already? Still want to apply to grad school? Grad schools get tons of applications so you're going to have to stand out and look competitive. To help you out, here's some advice on getting through the application process.

  • Consider working first. Graduate schools love people with research experience, the more the better. Try getting a job as a research technician at a lab somewhere and working for a couple of years. The experience gained doing research will allow you to better determine how serious you are about going to grad school, help you get into grad school and just as importantly help you get through grad school. Can't find a research job? That's fine, maybe you could look into other jobs (particularly if they pay decently). Finally, save your money up. Grad student stipends are a joke, a total joke. It's unlikely that you'll be able to live off the stipend alone, so if you've got money saved up it will help you immensely.
  • Apply to a lot of places. Like so much else in life, grad school admission is a numbers game. The more places you apply to, the better your chances of getting in.
  • Research experience helps a lot. I said it before, and I'll say it again. Grad schools like people with research experience. The more you have the better you look. Think of research experience as proof to the school that you can make it through the program, produce publications and make your mentor and the institution look good.
  • If you don't get in, apply again. For some reason admissions committees turn a sympathetic ear to those individuals who are applying for a second or third time. So if you don't get in, don't be discouraged, just apply again next year.
  • On interviewing. Be able to explain what your research was about and why it was important. Put it in context. What questions were you asking, how could your work have helped people? Do not rattle off a list of techniques. "I did some PCR to clone gene X" is not a good answer in an interview. Try this: "Gene X is thought to be important in disease Y because of its role in regulating Z physiologic mechanisms. Therefore my research over the summer focused on cloning gene X so our lab could use it in A, B & C models." See the difference?

Choosing a School
Once you've made it through the application process and gotten accepted this is the next step. Here are just a few of the important things for you to consider when picking a school.

  • The area you are moving to. How is the whether? The people? How far from home? Is the town lively or boring? Where you live makes a difference.
    The cost of living. I'll say it again, grad school stipends are frequently too low to live on so the cost of living should warrant serious consideration. Living in a more boring town might actually be better if you can make it out in the black.
    School prestige. A PhD from Harvard sounds better than one from Alabama, regardless of how good or bad the student getting it is.
    How flexible the program is. The more flexibility a program provides its students, the easier it is for a student to recover from a mistake in picking a project, mentor or field of study.

Classes and Exams
So you made it in. Usually in biomedical and life science programs you get a couple years of coursework to do. Here are some of my observations.

  • Classes, overall, matter less than in undergrad. Do the minimum and get done. Keep in mind that your GPA is somewhat important as some grants and scholarships will care about it. Also, you will need to maintain a B average (in most schools) to stay in the program. Classes in grad school are like classes in undergrad, some are great others suck.
  • Qualifying exams are scary. Develop a study plan and pace yourself. You'll probably need a few months to review all the pertinent material. Try your best to get advice from older students who have already taken theirs. Slow and steady definitely wins the race when it comes to qualifying exams.
  • Do practice runs. When it comes time for your oral exam and thesis proposal try to get other students or faculty members to give you a practice run. These will help take some of the edge off when it comes time for the real deal.
  • Anticipate your oral exam results in advance. Ask around and see how many people pass, fail and conditionally pass. This will give you a good idea of how you are going to do. Many programs like to give the bulk of their students a 'conditional pass,' since by some twisted logic making students suffer makes them better people.

Once in grad school, you'll be expected to rotate in a few different labs. Each rotation will take about two months (your school may vary). The purpose of rotations is for you to get a feel for the lab environment and find a lab you like. That being said there are plenty of pitfalls in the world of rotations. Your main objective while rotating should not be doing experiments. It should be finding out as much about the lab environment as possible so that you can determine if you want to spend the next few years of your existence working there.

  • Pre-screen. Don't jump into rotations right away. Ask around to find out which professors are total jerks. Don't waste your time rotating in their labs. Next, go and talk to a bunch of professors whose work interests you. After you've done all that talking, then you can start rotating.
  • Have direct contact with your rotation mentor. Make sure that you have frequent direct interaction with your prospective mentor. Don't get pawned off onto a technician or post-doc. Its cool for a technician or post-doc to supervise you during a rotation, but remember if you aren't interacting with the mentor, there is no way for you to determine if you will work well with that person. You don't have to be rude or bossy, just ask up front if you can schedule short weekly meetings with them so you can see what its like working for them. If they won't accommodate you, perhaps you shouldn't bother rotating there.
  • Rotating to learn a technique. This is crap. If you need to learn a technique go and learn it, don't institutionalize it by doing a rotation.
  • Doing extra rotations. Sometimes its a good idea, sometimes it isn't. If you haven't found any place you like, I'd recommend doing an extra rotation. Just remember, the more rotations you do the longer away graduation gets.
  • Doing super long rotations. This is crap. Usually what happens is that the lab dangles the prospect of a publication in front of you if you stay there for a few more months. What happens next is you wasting your time and not winding up on a publication. You are better off finishing your rotations. If you like a lab and go back to it, chances are that publication is still being worked on and they'll be happy to put you back to work.
  • Things to look for while rotating. If these aren't obvious ask about them. If people don't give you straight answers, that's a good sign you shouldn't pick that lab to do your thesis work.

o Does your rotation adviser communicate with you?
o Is your rotation adviser around?
o Is your rotation adviser upfront with you? Does he/she tell you things like 'I'm taking a month long vacation.' before you agree to rotate?
o Does your adviser offer useful advice to you?
o How many students has a given adviser had?
o How many of them graduated?
o How long to graduation?
o How many of them dropped out of the program?

On Teaching Assistantships
Each grad school will have different teaching requirements. Chances are you may have to do one. Here are some thoughts on them.

  • Teach less as you progress. The further you get in your research, the more time you'll need to spend on it to get it done. So try to cut your teaching down. There is one important caveat you should be aware of. If you are interested in a teaching job after graduation, teach as much as possible. Having lots of teaching experience on your resume will help you land a job.
  • Teaching is valuable experience. Teaching will allow you to determine if you actually enjoy it or not. This will be important as you begin to plan for your post grad school career.
  • Resume padding. At the very least having, teaching experience is valuable resume padding.

Choosing a Mentor and Committee
There are three critical factors for getting out of grad school. Those are mentor, project and committee. If you F*^& up on picking these then you will be seriously F*^&ed; up in grad school. No pressure or anything.

  • The right mentor flavor. There is endless talk about what to look for in a mentor. These are some of the things you should be looking for.

o Find a mentor whose personality works well with yours. Example: aggressive type A mentors and a passive student is a bad mix.
o Find a mentor who is willing to offer doable advice. "You got to get mad at it" and "Work longer hours" are not useful advice when the project is stalled.
o Find a mentor who is committed to working with you to get the project done.
o Find a mentor who wants you to graduate in a reasonable amount of time (4-5 years). If they have no qualms about you being a seven year student, run.
o Understand the mentor's work requirements. If working 60+ hour weeks doesn't appeal to you, make sure your mentor doesn't expect that from his students.

  • The three-month rule. If you are not on a data-generating project within 3 months of joining a lab, consider changing projects or leaving and finding a new lab. Bad advice warning: "Don't worry if you aren't making any progress. No one gets anything accomplished in their first three years of grad school." This is terrible advice. Don't buy into it.
  • The committee should be all about fluffy love. Some people tell you to put 'challenging' individuals on your committee. These people are full of crap. The last thing you want is to be 'challenged' when you're five years into the program and desperate to be done. Stack your committee with as many friendly individuals as you can. You can always make friends with the 'challenging' individuals and ask for their input without having them on your committee.
  • Be upfront with your mentor about your goals. If you want to be done in under 5 years or be a community college teacher, make that clear to your mentor. If your mentor tells you that your goals are misguided or stupid, you should consider picking another lab.

Your Project
Your objective is to get done with grad school. In order to do that, you need a project. But not just any project, a project that generates data. There are tons of dead end projects out there, but if you take my advice to heart, hopefully you'll be able to avoid many of them.

  • Get to work as soon as you can. Make sure you are on a project and getting data as soon as you can. It doesn't matter if you are on your own project or helping someone else, just start getting data. Once you have data all kinds of avenues will open up for a project.
  • "I'm making tools." That's great, go get a job at Craftsman. If you are smart you will start by using the tools that are already available. You can make some new ones at the same time, but try to focus on producing data with what you already have. That's called being efficient. Also, don't design your project so that it revolves around tools you haven't made and tested yet. Just because you make a new tool, doesn't mean it's going to work.
  • Learn what the lab is good at and design your project around those boundaries. Example: Going to a cancer cell biology lab and trying to do neuroscience is a dumb idea. Going to a cancer cell biology lab and doing cancer cell biology is a better idea. While your mentor may be fired up about expanding into the realm of neuroscience, just who in that lab is going to be able to help you? No one, because no one there does neuroscience.
  • Understand what gets you out. To graduate you need some publications. To get publications you need data. In order to get data you need a working project. Basically, if you aren't getting data, get help. Ask people, ask faculty, ask other students. Suck up your pride and get help to get your experiments on track.
  • Do more with less. Use as few techniques as you can to answer as many questions as you can. Once you get good at a technique, milk it for all its worth.
  • "Excitement" is for chumps. Every time someone stresses how you should pick a lab based on what excites you or who is doing the exciting research or anything else with the word excite (or any synonym for it) in it, stab them in the eye with a hot poker. I have nothing against excitement and if you are excited about your research that's great, but no one ever graduated on excitement alone. You need a project that is doable and will generate data. Once you have that going for you, then you can worry about excitement.
  • Keep realistic expectations. Let's just be honest here, most established investigators never publish in Nature. Therefore, don't expect to produce super high impact publications. Don't expect to redefine how an entire field thinks about a topic. And certainly don't expect to cure cancer. Keep your goals realistic. If you do manage to do something incredible, that's great, but there is nothing wrong with just publishing a few small papers and graduating.
  • Grad school is a marathon. You've got to keep plugging away. Sometimes stuff works, sometimes stuff fails. Just keep at it. Eventually you'll have jumped through enough hoops and produced enough data so hat you can graduate.

Getting Out
Obviously the most important part of grad school once you are in, is getting out. And just so you know, it's harder to get out then it is to get in.

  • When am I done? Grad school is not like high school, college or even professional school. When you are finished isn't determined ahead of time. You are done when your committee decides you have done enough work. Are there standards? Usually there some written down, but the fact is that most of the decisions are arbitrary. In fact, almost everything in grad school is arbitrary.
  • You must drive your own graduation. It is unlikely that your mentor or your committee really cares if you graduate this year or next. Honestly, you are cheap labor. That means its up to you to start pressuring people to get you out of there.
  • Get your mentor on board. You need your mentor to actually tell the committee that you are done and that its time for you to start writing your dissertation. Usually the committee simply agrees with the mentor. This means that your mentor has to be fully on board with the idea of you graduating.
  • Publications! Its a lot easier if you can hold up a couple of publications and say "This is what I've done, now let me go." than if you hold up nothing and say the same thing.

Grad School Life, Culture and Other Miscellany
So what's it like in grad school? How do I survive? What else should I know? Here are some observations to help you out.

  • The religious and politically conservative are viewed as idiots by academia. Despite their constant celebration of diversity, neither Christians nor Republicans are tolerated by leftist academics. The best thing you can do if you fall into either of these hated groups is keep your mouth shut and do your work. Besides, there are plenty of other things to talk about besides religion and politics.
  • Establishing boundaries. There is always more work to do and advisers will always be pushing you to spend still longer hours in the lab. This is great for workaholics but bad for other people. If you aren't a workaholic establish some boundaries regarding your hours in the lab. Remember if you can't produce any data with a 40-hour workweek an 80-hour workweek isn't going to improve things.
  • Exercise. Sitting at a bench doing experiments isn't good for your health. Take some time out of each day to do some exercise.
  • Mind your finances. Like I've said before grad student stipends are a complete joke. Therefore it is critical that you keep a watchful eye on your finances and try your best not to go into debt.
  • Get a hobby. Believe it or not, life does not revolve around science. Now matter how cool your project is, you need to get out and live a little. Not only that, but having a good non-science hobby will help you maintain mental stability throughout grad school.

After Graduate School
Believe it or not you've got few career options open to you once you finish and have your sparkly new PhD. Here's a quick rundown of some of them. One thing to keep in mind is that while many jobs are out there few are blatantly advertised. This means that you will have to spend some effort finding a job. If you want a post-doc, contact labs you are interest in directly. They may not have posted their openings yet. If you want an industry job try getting in touch with headhunters.

  • Doing a post-doc. Typically you are assumed and expected by academic culture to do a post-doc after graduate school. Most post-docs are at universities but industry has a few as well. A post-doc is a way to further your research experience. If you want a career in academia you are going to have to do one. If you seriously want to build a research career you'll need to post-doc. If you are not interested in continuing with research a post-doc is essentially career purgatory. You're better off getting into the job market and trying to get experience related to whatever career you're after. Keep in mind that post-docs are temporary training positions. Also bear in mind that the average take-home pay for a post-doc isn't much better than for a grad student. So if you've got any of those life goals I was talking about earlier, plan on keeping them on hold while post-docing.
  • Trying for an academic career. Several post-docs will be required for this as you try to build your credentials and get grants. Keep in mind that the average age at which one receives their first R01 grant (the big grant that universities like and prompts them to hire you) is in the early 40s. Also, keep in mind that only a few (20-30%) PhDs ever get a successful academic career.
  • Teaching careers. Usually these are located at small liberal arts colleges or community colleges. These careers often focus purely on teaching, however recently they are becoming more interested in research. Don't underestimate K-12 teaching either. You may have to get a teaching certificate or some other additional qualification depending on what state you work in but PhDs can bring a lot to K-12 education. Particularly when it comes to getting kids excited about science and experiments.
  • Industry careers. Careers in industry are legion. You've got your industry post-docs (they get paid better than academic post-docs) and your industry research careers. There are also a host of non-research careers ranging from technical writing to scientific consulting. Keep in mind that the application process for industry moves fast, so its best to wait at least until you are just a couple of months from finishing your degree before you start applying. Industry won't hold a job for 6 months for you.
  • Government careers. Similar paths as in industry except now you have to deal with the government bureaucracy. This means everything, especially the application process, moves a lot slower.
  • Non-profit careers. There are a number of non-profit career options available, but you have to do some hunting to find them.
  • Back to school. Its been done. Some people go on to still more school after getting a PhD.

Parting Thoughts
There you have it, all my knowledge about grad school in the biomedical and life sciences summed up in a nice neat package. Almost everything outlined in here are things that no one bothered to tell me and I had to learn the hard way. I hope this article will help you make more informed decisions and get the most out of your experience as possible.


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