So, I’m sitting here, in my graduate school research lab, doing research I guess, which mainly consists of doing a bit of everything. Currently I’m trying to finish organizing equipment and materials after we moved our lab, while coordinating the installation of a very expensive instrument, while planning the thesis/masters project of the undergrad I’m mentoring. Mostly I’m just sipping on some coffee, because I love a good cup of coffee.
After a bit of all that, I slap on some gloves and hit the fume hood, where I’ve got a couple of chemical reactions going. For the past two years, I’ve been working on the methods to build a molecule that will light up when a protein chops off a specific part of the molecule. (Google fluorescein if you’re curious and/or want to see some nice orange/yellow/green colors – I’m building a version of that). I’m also thinking about how I need to make the actual protein, which involves hijacking bacteria to make the code that I can then use to hijack human cells (in a dish) to make a lot of the protein.
All in all, there’s a lot going on, and that’s a pervasive theme throughout grad school. Whether you’re balancing classes, teaching, research, personal development, or the many other seemingly unrelated things that come up, you will be busy. But that’s why I chose this path – I needed stimulation, independence, and a goal to work towards.
After three months as a lab tech for a company I didn’t morally support, where I had no scientific input other than testing samples and writing reports, I quit, took a job at a coffee shop, and applied to grad school. An unfortunate hard truth is that the scientific industry does not have a great deal of opportunities for bachelor’s degrees. Most positions will be routine lab or clerical work, and the path upwards through the scientific ranks is long. It’s not impossible, but graduate degrees do offer some degree of acceleration, so something to consider depending on where you want to take your career.
For those of you considering graduate school in the sciences, here are a few tips from my experience so far:
Work in an environment where you are happy, passionate, and supported.
This is a very broad statement that covers a lot of variables, but a graduate level program can be a daunting, long, and an arduous road. Surrounding yourself with people and opportunities that play to your strengths and support your weaknesses will make your journey more enjoyable and productive. Choose a school that will allow you to engage your passions, both academic and extracurricular. Do what makes you happy, and maintain a balance.
Don’t be afraid to branch out.
While Hamilton offers degrees in the traditional scientific areas, those skills are transferable to a huge range of programs. Just because you did chemistry during your undergraduate career does not mean that a chemistry PhD program is your only option. Look broadly at the programs out there, their requirements, and what you would bring you the most happiness – materials science, marine biochemistry, computational modeling of atomic interactions – the world is yours to explore! While in your program of choice, seek out new areas of knowledge and new hobbies – I was a synthetic chemist who played rugby. Now I’m a chemical biologist learning about structural biology who picked up surfing and the bass guitar.
Choosing the right lab can make all the difference.
For most STEM graduate programs, especially PhD programs, you will conduct research in a specific lab that focuses on a particular subject area. When considering these labs, take as much time as you can, and do your research to make sure that it is the right fit. For a chemistry PhD at UCSD, the average time is five and a half years, which is a long time to commit to a single environment. Thankfully, you have some control over this facet of your PhD.
There are a couple main points to consider: your PI (primary investigator a.k.a. THE boss) – lab groups are referred to by the name of this person, and they can be your most ardent supporter or a constant source of stress. Make sure their leadership and management style suit you – there are PI’s who micromanage, and those who don’t manage at all. Ask about their policies and expectations up front. Look at the publication record of the lab to see if all grad students are publishing in a timely manner. Ask the graduate students in the lab for their advice and opinions, and keep in mind that whether it is good or bad, everyone has a unique experience and is biased in their response. Use all information that you can gather to make this decision, as it is one of the most important in grad school. That being said – if you find that the environment is not working for you – it is absolutely OK to seek out a different one.
Tailor your experiences to the career you want.
There are many opportunities for growth and development, so take advantage of those that will help you land your next gig. Whether you want to teach, do research, run a business, market products, communicate science, or manage IP, you can tailor your experience to promote relevant skills. Take advantage of workshops or join organizations that grow the skills you want to market.
Academia is unique, but not by much.
I have more independence now than ever before, and most likely more than I will have when I move on from grad school. I set my own schedule, I plan my days and my research, my experience is what I make it. There are of course pros and cons to that, but it is a facet that I really enjoy. You will have similar opportunities to control your fate in grad school, but it is important to realize (before you commit to grad school) that Academia is not exempt from the machinations that control our other social interactions or workplace environments. In a field where reputation controls everything and the community is smaller than you might think, egos run rampant. Workplace politics are unavoidable, and just because you might enjoy a sense of independence in your schedule and research doesn’t mean that your actions and words are isolated. Your opportunities are still mostly married to your network, and your academic merits can’t be the only thing that carries you through. Most importantly, as is true in most environments, communication is extremely important. Working in an esoteric field tends to promote a specialized vocabulary, but the ability to effectively share your science is an indispensable skill.
Hamilton has a long history of connecting students with alumni and parents whose advice, expertise, and resources help talented young people achieve success for themselves and in their communities.
A graduate program is a long and difficult process that can be immensely fulfilling. For the most part, the people you interact with most along the way will be committed to a never-ending quest for knowledge and understanding, and are fantastic people to have as colleagues. You will have the privilege of being paid to discover, learn, and create. As long as you maintain your balance and happiness, grad school is a fantastic way to bridge the academic and workplace worlds. Lastly, for anyone worrying about the transition from an undergraduate-only liberal arts institution to a graduate STEM research environment – don’t. Your ability to think critically and communicate effectively is more valuable than you might think, and I have no doubt that you will succeed in any venture you might seek. Remember your Hamilton family, and don’t be afraid to reach out to your former professors or fellow students – we love hearing from you!
Bryce Timm graduated Hamilton in 2015 with a degree in chemistry. He’s currently a graduate researcher at UC San Diego.