January 2012

Surviving a bioscience Ph.D.

Part 2: Mitigating the hurdles and pitfalls
faced by doctoral students

You spent four-plus years becoming inspired by the biosciences. You were told that you were among the best and the brightest and were encouraged to pursue a Ph.D. You were fortunate enough to choose from among your favorite doctoral programs. Yet now you’re struggling: juggling coursework, pondering rotation research, preparing for the qualifying exam and the thesis proposal, making steady thesis research progress, and figuring out how to finish and defend on time. At the heart of your struggles are nagging internal questions: Do I really belong here? Do I have what it takes to get through this? Do I want to do this?

Most graduate students in the biosciences (and elsewhere) must struggle with these issues while pursuing a Ph.D. I’m not talking about fixing failed experiments, struggling with techniques or having a publication get scooped, which are all difficult aspects of bioscience research. Instead, I’m talking about figuring out what a Ph.D. means to you, finding out the hard way what it takes to get one and developing a career plan to leverage your degree (1).



Qualifying as a doctoral candidate
After getting into a bioscience Ph.D. program, the next hurdle between you and defending your thesis is “qualifying” as a doctoral candidate. This includes passing your coursework, doing research rotations, choosing a thesis lab or mentor, passing a preliminary exam and proposing your thesis research project. Keeping in mind that the time to degree has become increasingly lengthy in the biosciences (six or seven years is not unusual), a student’s choices leading up to Ph.D. qualification can dramatically accelerate or delay the period between matriculation and commencement.

The quality of graduate courses varies widely in part because of your dependence on faculty members whose primary job descriptions and reward systems do not require high-quality teaching. One of the best approaches for students is to form small (three- to four-person) study groups that meet regularly (two to three times a week) to go over the material in detail and teach each other. However, students should keep in mind that coursework is not the main point of graduate school; the most important material any student will learn comes from direct application to her or his research project. Do not take extra courses based solely on interest. Do learn and apply new techniques that help answer interesting research questions.

Getting the most out of research rotations and ultimately choosing the right thesis or lab mentor, thesis research project and thesis committee are all topics that could fill separate articles. The main points include the following: 1) Keep research rotations short (six to eight weeks) but sufficiently long to make an informed decision. The sooner you get rolling on your thesis project, the sooner you’ll graduate. 2) Be aware of both your hands-on and hands-off mentoring needs. Hands-on mentoring involves detailed instruction and oversight, whereas hands-off mentoring consists of top-level project administration only. Some mentors are capable of balancing both as the situation demands. 3) Find a lab that is doing interesting research, but, more importantly, make sure it is a good fit for you scientifically and personally. It’s incredibly important not to feel isolated or in conflict during your thesis research. 4) Choose research rotations carefully to give yourself an opportunity you might not have initially expected, but never rotate into a lab that you wouldn’t consider joining. 5) You’ll probably start on an existing project, but sticking with it for three to five years of thesis research will require that you take ownership and develop your own driving questions and research methods.

The qualifying exam and thesis proposal occur at a time when many graduate students falter. It’s a difficult process that requires lots of hard work and creative thinking to identify important questions and the best approach(es) to answer them. Use the time-management strategies discussed below. Ask for help as necessary (or allowed), but first spend time trying to answer questions and understand key concepts by yourself.

Conducting, finishing and defending your thesis research
To help take ownership of your thesis project, develop your own interests within your discipline and within your thesis lab. Stay in frequent, open communication with your adviser to keep your project on track. If possible, never go more than a week without discussing your science with him or her, including your weekly research goals and accomplishments.

Use your thesis committee for more than just a stamp of approval. These fellow scientists form an important part of your nascent scientific network. If you ask for advice, you can benefit from their experience, not only for your thesis project, but also in other areas of your education and professional development.

Getting from the thesis proposal to the defense requires a large amount of time and sustained effort. Staying motivated is not usually the central issue unless something is wrong in your relationship with your project, your thesis adviser, or your friends and family outside the lab. It’s important to realize that you’re likely to go through a low-motivation period at some point during a five- to seven-year span. Be clear and honest with yourself about the causes of motivation problems, and don’t wait to seek counseling or other help.

Besides creative thinking, hard work, dedication and perseverance, the completion and defense of your thesis require other skills. Chief among these are organization, time management and pride in your work. Scientific research is a kind of knowledge work, meaning that it requires you to generate and analyze data; attend, organize and present at meetings; and write reports and proposals. The main problem in knowledge work is managing how effectively you work on your own. There are many tools and resources for best practices in knowledge work. I recommend using books, including “Getting Things Done” by David Allen (2), and online sources, including “Study Hacks,” a collection of essays by Georgetown University computer science professor Calvin Newport (3, 4). The key is to set reasonable project goals, milestones and timelines with input from your thesis adviser. Project execution requires deliberate practice (3, 4) and working effectively each day (2).

A healthy, productive lifestyle
Stress stemming from hard work over a long period can affect other aspects of your life, including personal relationships. Getting regular exercise and healthy amounts of sleep and eating well provide disproportionate research benefits in comparison with spending more time in the lab. A “work hard, play hard” mentality helps us lead rich, rewarding lives outside the lab while nourishing our creativity for solving research problems. Nevertheless, making steady progress in bioscience research probably requires more than 40 hours per week dedicated to designing and performing experiments, analyzing data, reading the literature and writing manuscripts or proposals. My typical work week is 50 to 60 hours, including time spent working at home. Each individual must find a balance that provides for steady research progress while leading a fulfilling life. Finally, mismanaged stress and traumatic events both in and outside the lab can harm Ph.D. students’ mental health. It is vitally important that grad students utilize counseling when needed and take any other necessary steps to protect their mental health along the road to defending their theses.

  1. 1. Bradley, M. J. Why pursue a Ph.D. in the biosciences? (Aug. 2011) ASBMB Today.
  2. 2. Allen, D. Getting Things Done. Penguin Books: New York, 2001.
  3. 3. Newport, C. The grandmaster in the corner office: What the study of chess experts teaches us about building a remarkable life. Study Hacks. Newport, C. published Jan. 6, 2010. Accessed Dec. 4, 2011. http://calnewport.com/blog/2010/01/06/the-grandmaster-in-the-corner-office-what-the-study-of-chess-experts-teaches-us-about-building-a-remarkable-life/  
  4. 4. Newport, C. Beyond Passion: The science of loving what you do. Study Hacks. Newport, C. published Jan. 23, 2010. Accessed Dec. 4, 2011. http://calnewport.com/blog/2010/01/23/beyond-passion-the-science-of-loving-what-you-do/  

Michael-BradleyMichael J. Bradley (michael.bradley@yale.edu) is a postdoctoral fellow in the department of molecular biophysics and biochemistry at Yale University.

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This article makes many great points many of which, I wish I had read while I was in graduate school. In particular it is critical to realize whether you are a person that requires a hands-on guided adviser, or one that prefers and works well with full independence.



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