September 2013

Jack of a few trades, Master of Science

Allow me to set the scene: A few months ago, I was at a big-deal school interviewing for a Ph.D. position with one of the asthma research gods of our time. As I waited for him to arrive, I struck up a conversation with another candidate. As we exchanged phatic nothings, I revealed that I was getting an M.S. in an immunology lab in the Midwest. The candidate scoffed, “Well, isn’t that just a waste of time? I’m a senior right now, and I applied directly!”
Had the circumstances been different, I would have responded with something subtle yet piquant. But this was an academic institution and not a pivotal moment on the sets of “Mad Men,” so I let it pass. Besides, perhaps it was nerves. What else could cause another person to call out so blatantly a relative stranger’s choices? Anyway, it wasn’t my first time at the Ph.D. rodeo. I’d done this before: I’d also interviewed right out of undergrad. "Why, then, the M.S.?" you ask. I wanted to be sure.

Akshat Sharma pull-out quote: it was experience that I lacked the first time I applied for Ph.D. programs.

As young experimental scientists, when we read papers in the likes of Cell, Science, Nature, et al., we get lulled into believing that the doing of elegant science is, well, elegant. None of those papers, as important and awe-inspiring as they are, gives even the slightest hint of how grueling the process of acquiring those results probably was. Excremental things happen: standards fail, proteins unravel, machines become temperamental, mice die … and then you start over. Rinse; repeat. I’m not saying that these papers should read along the lines of “Abstract, Introduction, Materials and Methods, Results, Discussion, and Thoughts, Feelings and Coping Mechanisms” — but that last section is a product of experience, and it was experience that I lacked the first time I applied for Ph.D. programs. As one of my interviewers in the spring of 2010 said to me, “I’d take you on, but you lack experience. A Ph.D. is a six-year commitment. What if you burn out halfway? Do you know if you have the stomach for this?”
And surely I was not alone in this. How many undergrads do you know who have been handed the reins of a project? While there is now a great push to bring undergraduates into a lab, how many of them know the Imposter Syndrome that plagues graduate students and those above them?
I posit that an M.S. program is an important rite of passage. It’s a spiritual journey of sorts on which you find out if you care enough about a question that the adversity doesn’t matter, that you’ll come in the next day and want to start over, if need be. As I elected to pursue my M.S., I promised myself that if I burnt out in two years I’d not pursue a Ph.D. As it turns out, I didn’t burn out. I ended up thirsting for more — more techniques, more questions, more independence on the bench. Today, in my Ph.D. lab, I know how to work smarter; how to keep a lab notebook; how to run routine assays; how to manage my time between teaching, learning and researching; and, most importantly, how to regroup and not fall apart when something fails. Sans the M.S. experience, I wouldn’t be here, and I mean both at my dream school and in my more confident head space. In the Hess’ cycle of achieving one’s dreams, this is but one more pathway. I won’t insist that this is the right one, but it certainly isn’t a waste of time!

Akshat SharmaAkshat Sharma ( received his M.S. in microbiology from North Dakota State University and is a Ph.D. student in the department of medical microbiology and immunology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Read his blog at

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  • Very exciting is this blog and shows the flexibility that emanates from having command on language and being able to mingle science with reality. Interestingly some of the opportunities mentioned are never heard of in some parts of the world (........); an undergrad applying/going directly for a PhD program. The commitment for a six year project is worth it compared to what some people can achieve in the same time. Analytically speaking one remains at the same footing with other colleagues that join the other side of world.

  • Absolutely bang-on. I believe many universities and PI's don't poo-poo and discourage, or refuse to take on, MSc students for anything other than self-serving reasons: an MSc who develops skills and then promptly leaves the lab is seen as a poor ROI. Never mind that what goes around comes around: you get PhD candidates who developed bench skills in other labs. In other words, everyone just wants cheap, dedicated and skilled lab labour to churn out publications. Nobody wants to take on the scientist's duty to train future colleagues. Cynical? Perhaps. But if the shoe fits...

    As for the cocky naifs like that senior? An undergraduate's beliefs about the value of various grad degrees mean nothing. Humbling, but hopefully inspirational, experiences await him...

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