Wednesday, June 9, 2010

June Summary

This month we asked several senior grad students and postdocs: What are the top tips for success in grad school?

Amanda Lee

James O'Dea

Beatriz Rios

Naresh Sunkara

Shelli Waetzig

Shannon Watt

Tuesday, June 8, 2010

Building a Circle of Support

Amanda Lee - Postdoc, City of Hope Beckman Research Institute

Just the other day, a friend was introducing me to a few new acquaintances and jokingly said, “Yes, she has a Ph.D.: permanent head damage!” We all laughed, but let’s face the fact—graduate school is tough. After 4–5 years (or even longer) of arduous labor in the lab and relying on more failures than successes to carve out an independent thesis it is hard not to lose some form of sanity along the way.

I have, based on my own experiences, concluded that like all other challenges in life, the hardships of graduate school can be conquered by following a few simple guidelines.

First, being in graduate school does not mean you have to put your social life on hold. In fact, it is really important to establish a strong circle of friends that you can turn to for support and encouragement when things get tough. Besides, it is never too soon to start networking! You may need it when you start looking for a job.

Secondly, take the time to do something meaningful or enjoyable outside of work. Volunteer at the local food pantry or pick up ballroom dancing. It will make you a more interesting person.

Lastly, update your resume once in a while. Taking stock of what you have done helps you to stay on top of your goals.

Planning is crucial when you are trying to minimize stress. So don’t lose your mind. Follow these simple steps and surviving graduate school will not be as difficult as you think!

Amanda Lee completed her Ph.D. at Purdue University and is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at City of Hope Beckman Research Institute.

Monday, June 7, 2010

Finding Guidance from Older Peers

James O'Dea - Grad Student, University of California, Santa Barbara

Well, here I am, three months out from my thesis defense, and finally, in the last nine months or so, I’ve felt like I have things under control. In some regards, that took way too long, in others, that’s probably why it takes more than a few years to get a Ph.D. It’s funny to look back on how your approach to research (and life in general) changes over the course of graduate school

Personally, I was way too uptight at first. Data had to be perfect, I tried to keep current on way too many journals, and I even thought I was so busy that that I had to turn down the older guys down the hall when they asked if I wanted to go out to lunch. I thought I couldn’t spare an hour for a leisurely meal and would instead just plow through lunch, dinner leftovers in hand, while I tried to get some work done on the computer.

After a couple years, I finally got sick of my cooking and started going out with the guys, who at that point were getting close to finishing. I quickly realized that in between small talk and jokes, I had been missing their conversations about thesis writing, postdoc searches, and research ideas. As I approach the end of my graduate studies, I can only imagine how much harder it all would have been without the unstaged guidance I’ve received from some older friends.

James O’Dea is a senior graduate student at the University of California, Santa Barbara and is wrapping up his dissertation on scanned probe techniques to study proton exchange membranes.

Sunday, June 6, 2010

Keeping an Open Mind

Beatriz E. Rios - Grad Student, Southern Methodist University

When I came to graduate school, I knew what I wanted to do. I was sure of where my career would lead me, and I loved the field in which I was going to work. I began my research right away in my first semester and was excited about all the possibilities I had in front of me.

By the end of my first year, things had changed dramatically. My adviser was leaving. I was faced with a big decision: find a new adviser, or find a new Ph.D. program. I never thought I would be faced with this decision; I had everything planned perfectly and I had worked hard to succeed in my field.

At first I was devastated and unmotivated, but I finally decided to stay in the program I was in and to pick a new adviser in a new field. I went from bioorganic chemistry to inorganic chemistry, and today I could not be happier with the choice I made. I was forced to look at options I would have never considered in the past; in retrospect, these options were opportunities.

The best advice I can offer anyone for graduate school is to keep an open mind and to jump on opportunities as they present themselves to you. You never know where change might lead, and you never know what great things change can bring along the way.

Beatriz E. Rios is a 4th-year graduate student at Southern Methodist University where her research focuses on phosphorus-based calix[5]arene ligands and their transition metal complexes.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Focusing on Interdisciplinary Research and Networking

Naresh Sunkara - Postdoc, University of California, Berkeley

As a postdoctoral fellow interacting with and mentoring graduate students at UC, Berkeley, I thought I’d share a few thoughts on two subjects that could help you enhance your grad school experience: Interdisciplinary research and networking!

The significance of research at the boundary of different scientific fields to research at graduate school has increased dramatically in recent years. Interdisciplinary research entails exploring, learning, and mastering more skills in more than one scientific field in the typical time frame of graduate school (5–6 years). Although this can be a greater challenge, it may provide more career options after grad school. I want to emphasize this point because of the changing face of the pharmaceutical industry, along with the emergence of new careers in biotech, other related industries and government, which are looking for scientists with a broader expertise in science.

Once you choose your adviser, decide on the research topic, and get through qualifiers, you should start NETWORKING! Most of us hope that our mentor will be able to place us somewhere after graduation. Your research adviser should not be your only connection to the scientific world! You need to have mentors other than your graduate adviser and your committee to guide you in pursuit of your career goals. Try to network with researchers who are willing to guide you professionally. One important place to network is at the national meetings, where you can efficiently develop professional relations.

To be successful during and after graduate school, in addition to their scientific skills students should make a conscious effort to develop their social and networking skills.

Naresh Sunkara completed his Ph.D. at the University of Maryland Baltimore County and is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of California, Berkeley.

Wednesday, June 2, 2010

Combining Hard Work, Communication, and Recreation

Shelli Waetzig - Visiting Assistant Professor at College of the Holy Cross

While it’s true that different environments (school, area of study, degree) contribute to vastly different experiences in graduate school, I believe there are a few things that can help make every student successful.

First, I learned during my own experience that both scientific and nonscientific communication is vital for success. The ability to communicate with your adviser, other professors, your peers, and (Gasp!) even strangers at a conference will be a practical skill long after graduate school has ended.

Next, I believe that a successful approach includes a strong work ethic. Obtaining those much-needed results is a grueling task and requires a large degree of perseverance and diligence. A strong work ethic is an invaluable tool that helps shape a budding career and, as an added bonus, can be highly contagious.

Lastly, I found that some time away from the lab provided relief from the intense focus that graduate school demanded. For me, this included sports—such as softball, volleyball, and running—as well as cooking and baking. For others, this can include volunteering, music, community activities, or happy hour at the pub. Finding a release is an important way to help refocus in the laboratory or classroom.

These are just a few suggestions that worked for me. In the end, there is no magical solution to succeeding in graduate school. But, if you begin with hard work, throw in some communication, and add a dash of recreation, I think you will find a recipe for success!

Shelli Waetzig completed her Ph.D. from the University of Kansas and her postdoctoral fellowship at the University of California, Irvine. This fall, she will be a visiting assistant professor at College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Learning from Networking

Shannon Watt - Postdoc, University of Michigan

I have always been an outgoing person...except when it came to networking. I wasn’t sure why it was important, who to network with, or what to talk about.

That changed when I attended a career-related symposium at my first ACS Regional Meeting. During the break, I happened to talk with two industrial chemists and mentioned that I was considering starting a student committee related to our topic of conversation. They kindly asked all about it, encouraged me to go for it, and e-mailed me afterward with useful resources. A few days later, I realized I’d been networking! Several years later, I also realized that this interaction indirectly led me to my ideal career path.

In addition to finding my career direction, that experience taught me three things about networking:

• Even students need business cards—they’re the admission ticket to the networking club.

• It’s important to establish professional contacts both within and beyond your research area, so make time to attend talks and receptions on campus and at conferences in addition to the usual research presentations. The chemistry community is relatively small; you never know when a contact will lead to a valuable opportunity. Every job offer I’ve received came directly from networking.

• Networking doesn’t have to be intimidating. Most people are interested in talking with and helping junior colleagues. Be yourself, be professional, and practice—it does get easier!

And those two industrial chemists from my first conference? They’re still in my network.

Shannon Watt completed her Ph.D. at the Georgia Institute of Technology and is currently an NSF Discovery Corps Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Michigan.