Posted in Careers, Ph D posts

How did I become #PhDLife? (part 4)

It’s been almost a year since my ‘How did I become #PhDLife? (part 3)‘ post, and given that I am now at that point where I’m just waiting around until my Thesis is accepted, I thought I’ll add a follow up post of what the latter part of my Ph. D was like.

I’ve written previously on the basic overview of a research-based Ph. D in a previous post, and another post on the basic overview of what is in a Ph. D thesis.

If you would like a more specific overview of what 2019 (i.e. fourth year of my Ph. D) looked like, I have another post from late December detailing all the major events.

Looking back, I can tell that I was much more excited and motivated by lab work at the beginning. I think it was a relatively gradual process, but over time I begun to resent the fact that you could put in so much time and effort into an experiment and not get anything useful back.

I’ve detailed this before, and anyone in science knows that sometimes, things just don’t work.

It could be user error- I’ve had my fair share of experiments that I could have done better if I’d just tweaked some things or asked the right questions earlier- but this is what experience and hindsight can bring you.

I know I had a lot of nudges from supervisor/s and committee to guide me in the right direction, but I found that sometimes, even when I thought I’d understood something, in reality I hadn’t grasped the whole concept. Eventually things clicked, but that took time and contemplation on my part. I wish I could make that process go faster, but sometimes I just couldn’t ‘get it’. If you don’t realise you haven’t understood something, you can’t even ask questions to clarify things, but sometimes that light bulb moment just couldn’t be rushed.

Issues with experiments could also just be the experimental procedure, or a combination of both user and procedure… sometimes you have no idea what went wrong, because so many things could go wrong at every step. Too many variables.

Some people are fine with this, because they can continue to persevere and stay motivated. Generally it’s fairly up and down, where you go from being motivated to mentally drained, sometimes within a couple of hours! But as I got over the half way point of my Ph. D, I realised that I was feeling more drained than motivated, and I started to tease apart what was still enjoyable and what wasn’t.

***

For me personally, I found that experiments themselves were still enjoyable. The mechanical action of pipetting something, or holding tubes in your non-dominant hand and opening the lids aseptically (i.e. without contaminating the contents)- that aspect of lab was still fun. I’ve always been dexterous, and I hope I always will be (well- until old age, I guess).

But… again, it was always when things went wrong that I’d feel really exhausted and sick of everything. E.g. something went wrong with the protocol so I have to start again (usually user error after an exhaustive day)… the experiment didn’t work (results aren’t coming up/are inconclusive) so I have to try again, while figuring out what went wrong so I can tweak the parameters appropriately… I don’t know about other lab people, but I always felt my gut clench and squirm uncomfortably as I waited for the results for an experiment, hoping that it’ll show something promising. Sometimes it would work, and things were good (stomach would relax), but most of the time it didn’t look good and you were left with this really sickened feeling. Given we do multiple experiments in one day, it would mean I would feel tense and uncomfortable all throughout the day- hell, the worst one is when you find out your experiments failed on a Friday evening. We’re also on a time crunch, with many deadlines coming up all the time. Maybe it’s for a publication, a review meeting, or just your weekly catch up with the supervisor. Either way, I begun to hate the feeling of disappointment in myself.

Don’t get me wrong- when experiments did work, I still got very excited about it. I would imagine it’s very similar to the rush of endorphins people experience when they’re playing slot machines and they win money (any money). For a brief moment, you feel elated, and can’t wait to tell your supervisor about the result. In the beginning, I had a lot of trouble trying to figure out what the result meant (i.e. how does it tie into the overall Biology of your organism?), but over time I got better at making good suggestions for discussion points. I felt like I understood the overall picture (albeit a fuzzy picture), and it was exciting to try to piece the puzzle together.

… and then something would happen that contradicts the hypothesis, and you had to change the narrative a little to suit this new finding…

… or you can’t repeat the original finding.

THEY KNOW

And that just meant more experiments- sometimes the same ones over and over again, until the results were relatively consistent, or they weren’t. If they were too inconsistent, the approach would have to be abandoned. URGH.

So over time, I realised that this wasn’t going to be for me anymore. The normal career trajectory for a Ph. D graduate is to find work as a Post-Doctoral researcher (Post-Doc). When I thought about doing this for the next five years… well- I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to have to grind through it for another few years and regret it, especially if I could have transitioned out of it earlier. I think there’s a weird mentality that you should suffer and toil as a researcher, and that you’re weak for seeking something easier (come on, fellow students, you’ve seen and heard this before). Well, f*** ’em. If they want to live like that, that’s their choice, but they don’t make that choice for your life. I decided that this wasn’t for me, because I realised it would be too much misery- you can, and should, prioritise your well-being.

***

Anyway, as I was beginning to hit this realisation that research might not really be for me, I was also doing a lot of work for my first manuscript. The first iteration of this manuscript (let’s go full Tony Stark and call it ‘Mark I’) was written during the latter half of 2018. The experiments were actually pretty good (they were working), and I found that writing the whole study up was really fun. I’ve said it before, but I’ve always loved story-telling. Usually it was fiction (Fantasy/Sci-Fi), but I would fill up notebooks with made up tales, usually based on dreams I would have. I’m not very cohesive when I talk (yeah, I know), but I always found that writing something down on paper let my ideas flow out in a much more ordered fashion. Turns out, this also worked with scientific writing. Not to say I was perfect at it (I had a lot of really good feedback), but I just enjoyed it a lot. It wasn’t tiring because I wanted to do it, and it didn’t leave me with stomach knots because I knew the feedback I would get would be constructive. Also- I knew the writing wasn’t shite! I was very lucky to have solid guidance from co-authors to help me improve my writing during this time.

We submitted Mark I for review at a relatively good journal (a pretty major Bacteriology journal) in late 2018. Unfortunately it was rejected, but they sent back the reviewer comments and we spent the first half of 2019 working to improve the manuscript for submission elsewhere. The experiments were annoying, but they worked in the end, and once again the write up was the best part.

This was around the time I started this Blog. I had been talking to some people who suggested that I start something like this, so while I kept working on my Ph. D, I also started writing about what it was like to do one.

I’d also well and truly started editing my Literature Review to form the Introduction to my Ph. D Thesis, and had begun compiling my Materials and Methods section. Part of it was due to anxiety (gotta start it now because I don’t want to leave it last minute and have all this anxiety and guilt looming over me), but I also just wanted to write. It gave me a sense of productivity that experiments just couldn’t.

By the time manuscript Mark II had been submitted to another journal for review, I could tell quite clearly that I needed to find a job that was writing heavy. I also got introduced to this site that helps people figure out careers after Ph. Ds, and I think my results were all science writing related. I spoke to quite a few people in different professions- two medical writers, a research scientist (but with computers), patent attorneys, pharmaceutical representatives, lecturers, biotech/start up entrepreneurs… With all of their advice in mind, I’d started applying for different positions that were writing or editing related. Updating my resume (not updated since early undergrad) was an interesting exercise- almost like an archaeological dig.

But that isn’t to say I really knew what I wanted. For so long, I had these obvious aspirations: you do your Bachelors, then Honours, then Ph. D… so what do you do after that, if you don’t want to progress to a Post-Doc? I still don’t really have career aspirations. I never did. So many times in the past year, I had conversations with various people telling me to do/don’t do this/that, because it would or wouldn’t benefit my career. I didn’t go into science because I wanted to get a successful career out of it. I went into it because I wanted to know stuff, and I found it fascinating. I still do, but I also can’t tie it to a particular career path.

Anyway, I had so many rejections, because there are many people out there who have Post-Doctoral experience (i.e. even more experience than me) who want to get out of academic research, or just have better qualifications more appropriate to the field. Thankfully I wasn’t desperate for a job in late 2019 (I still had a ways yet with my Ph. D), so it was just a good exercise in writing CVs and cover letters. I’d accumulated quite a few different versions of each for various different roles I was applying for.

Manuscript Mark II was accepted in September, then published in October, but I had already moved onto working on my second manuscript. September was just… insane. So many experiments, and I’d over-committed myself with other stuff… it was terrible, but we managed to piece together everything so that we were able to submit in early December for review (which, given I was on holiday in October, means I did relatively okay). I think the writing side of things had sped up significantly, given I’d spent the previous twelve months working on my first one. I really enjoyed putting it all together into a cohesive story.

But again, publishing is never super easy, and when we got a response from the reviewers on Christmas Eve last year, there were many comments to address, some with words, but others with experimental data. This was another telling moment for me, because the fact I still needed to do more experiments made me feel really frustrated. I desperately wanted to be done with them, so that I could just spend my days writing. I’d also spent the majority of December working on my first results chapter, and wanted to work on the subsequent chapters quickly, so it put a lot of pressure on my overall timeline.

The next three months (Jan-Mar) were just horrendous- hopefully outlined in my blog posts during that time. I had experiments to do, a manuscript to edit, a thesis to write/edit, jobs to keep applying for, and teaching commitments. The crushing weight of all of these things made me very, very stressed and depressed very quickly. Eventually they started affecting my work output and my personal life, and I just felt like I was drowning. When I realised that this is what life in academia is like all the time (with a tonne more work), I knew I had to get out.

So, I did the only thing I could do at this point. I slowly crawled out of the hole and kept on crawling toward each milestone as best I could. I cut back on some planned revision experiments, which required negotiations with my supervisor and some eloquent rebuttals. I focused heavily on the writing (both manuscript and thesis), because that made me happier and gave me a sense of purpose. I revised my financial situation and paused job hunting momentarily so I could focus on my Ph. D. I also shared the workload for teaching so that I couldn’t over-commit, although it actually ended up working out okay.

Things started to slowly come together, and my work output picked up a little over time. I also got an interesting text from my supervisor mid-Feb about one of the divisions in our research institute- they were looking for someone to do some technical writing and data analysis part time. It seemed to be a steady job, and I was very keen. Thankfully my supervisor had already put my name forward, and I ended up having a few informal chats about the role in the coming weeks.

Speaking to all these people who were in various different roles within the scientific field, I found that it was very clear that there were opportunities out there outside of academic research. The only problem was they were very competitive.

But what I found most interesting was that almost all of the ones who had come from a similar background to myself would always reassure me that it was okay to leave academic research. It’s that stigma that I mentioned earlier. There’s a weird, underlying vibe that if you leave, you’re taking the easier/weaker path. The best part was when they would tell me how much happier they were for having left. Better pay, work-life balance, job security… These were ticking many boxes for me. On top of that, I found people who had the exact same feelings I did, in particular with their attitudes toward experiments. There were quite a few people who realised after their Ph. Ds that they didn’t really want to do anymore lab work, and had found success in other roles that were still within research. It seems silly, because it seems rather obvious now, but it was still really reassuring to hear it directly from those who once felt as I do now.

***

I pumped out what ended up being my last experiments all within the space of a week, and submitted my thesis the following Friday. I’d edited everything on the Tuesday, so I had plenty of time to sit and mull it over. I also submitted the rebuttals for this second manuscript the following Tuesday, and had it accepted two days later, so all of a sudden everything to do with my Ph. D just ended. Obviously the examination is still ongoing, but I literally couldn’t do anything else to make it progress faster. I had my job interview for the aforementioned technical writing role on the day my paper was accepted, so I felt really good for the first time in ages.

Then the following week, the lab shut down, meaning I’d just missed COVID-19 related chaos by a mere two weeks. Given my bug takes a week to grow up, I am so thankful I managed to get everything done before this all hit. I also managed to get the job (I found out late the following week), so that was also very fortuitous in the current climate.

So, basically in the space of a couple weeks, I’d submitted my Ph. D thesis, re-submitted my second manuscript and had it accepted, did a job interview and got accepted for the role, had my lab shutdown so I couldn’t see everyone anymore, and couldn’t visit friends and family due to restrictions…

***

To cut a very long story short-

If anyone else has hit that point in their candidature where they suddenly have a much bigger existential crisis where they don’t even know what to do with their life anymore, I hope this post helps. There was a lot of introspection and soul-searching involved, but I managed to figure out what I enjoyed the most and how I might be able to transfer those skills to a different role. Talking to people was really good, because they either confirmed your ideas or they don’t. Either way it’s still a learning opportunity. I think a lot of people saw the successes on the forefront, but hopefully you can appreciate that it came with a lot of internal struggle. Someone might look fine, but in private they might not be.

I have no idea what the next few years hold for me (especially given this current pandemic has cancelled my teaching commitments), but I will continue to post bits and pieces from my Ph. D life. Otherwise, stay safe, stay well, and 2 m please (yes I know Australia is 1.5 m- just watch the video, it’s hilarious).

Posted in Careers, General, General Lab, Ph D posts

Some reading material

Seeing as a lot of us are working from home, self-isolating, or getting bombarded with rather depressing news, I thought I’d compile a list of previous posts that might tickle your fancy.

For those that want to think about a career in research:

Want to know whether you’re cut out for it?

Who works in a research lab, and how is it structured?

Not sure which lab to pick?

How does a Ph. D work?

What’s a typical day like for a Ph. D student?

Things I wish I knew before I started a Ph. D

How to write a Ph. D thesis

What is a scientific conference?

How do you write a scientific paper/manuscript?

On the long road to scientific publication

Not sure what to do after graduating from a science degree?

For those that want to know more about me and my career journey:

Part 1: High school

Part 2: First to second year Undergraduate student

Part 3: Third year Undergraduate student to Ph. D

The stuff I worked on

Moth stuff

Friends appreciation post

Trying to sort out where to live

A general post at the end of 2019 on my progress

Experimental procedures:

DNA: A general protocol of cloning (with ongoing follow up posts), plus how to look at DNA

Proteins: Protein gels and Western blots (Part 1 and Part 2)

How to study Bacterial effector translocation (i.e. transport of teeny Bacterial proteins into the host cell)

Other fun, bits and bobs:

How to say ‘I love you’ as a scientist

Teeny lab stuff

Hilarious science comics

Posted in Careers

That time of year again

Courtesy of Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (SMBC) comics
https://www.smbc-comics.com/

I definitely don’t miss exams, but while the rest of the University student cohort are in a state of misery, there’s also a lot that are trying to figure out what to do next.

So, for those that missed it, these are some previous posts of mine that may help you decide whether you want to pursue further studies in research (and if so, how to go about deciding where and who to contact):

Not sure whether to pursue the #LabLife?

https://abugslife.online/2019/05/18/is-research-lab-right-for-you/

Not sure which lab to pick (especially when you’re not really sure where you want to be)?

https://wordpress.com/posts/abugslife.online

Want to know what a typical day as a Ph. D student is like?

https://wordpress.com/posts/abugslife.online

Want to know what the overall lab hierarchy is like?

https://wordpress.com/posts/abugslife.online

What exactly does ‘doing a Ph. D’ involve?

https://abugslife.online/2019/08/26/a-doctor-but-not-that-kind-of-doctor/

‘I don’t care about any of that- let me just enjoy those science comics you so love!’

https://abugslife.online/2019/08/05/hilarious-science-comics/

Hope these help!

Posted in Careers, Ph D posts

Career resource for science Ph. D graduates

I got introduced to this awesome website today after a careers workshop!

This is for those who are thinking about job opportunities after their degrees, who aren’t quite sure where they want to go. There is a bit of a lengthy, ‘on a scale from 1-7’ type questionnaire, but I think it’s a great starting point or confirmation point. You do need to create an account, but it also saves your results for future viewing.

http://myidp.sciencecareers.org/

Funnily enough this thing told me I should do science policy making as number 1 career option, then science writing as number 2! Hmmm… I wonder what that’s like?

Posted in Careers, General Lab

This is how science funding works in Australia

Twitter is currently blowing up with the above image.

Just as an FYI to my non-science friends. The National Health and Medical Research Council funds a large number of grants that researchers absolutely rely on. Early career researchers need funding to establish themselves in their fields, yet the below success rate shows how skewed the funding is toward those who are at the top of their careers, who have already established themselves in their areas of expertise. This is how science works. It’s one of the reasons why I’m choosing to leave academic research as a career. This is ridiculous.

Posted in Careers

Choosing the right lab for you

“Which lab should I choose?”.

This is another common question I get from undergraduate students looking to go into Honours/Masters. Here’s what I usually end up telling them.

Writing as a wet-lab based Bacteriology Ph. D student residing in Australia.

Usually by the time students are choosing to proceed to Honours and beyond, they have a rough idea of what fields they take interest in. Their Majors are locked in, and they may even have some labs in mind to apply for. I’ve written more about how to look for labs in my “Is research/lab right for you?” post. https://abugslife.home.blog/2019/05/18/is-research-lab-right-for-you/

In terms of choosing labs, I think it depends on what you prioritise. Some things to consider are:

  • Does the project interest you? Would you be able to get enjoyment out of it?
  • Do the techniques involved in the project interest you?
  • Do you get along with the principle investigator (PI)/supervisor/Lab Head?
  • Do you get along with potential fellow lab mates?
  • Will the project stand you in good stead for future careers?

Does the project interest you? Would you be able to get enjoyment out of it?

Our Department has an info session where Lab Heads or supervisors (may not necessarily be the same person) go and advertise projects they will be offering. Info books of all the projects are available on the Department website to peruse at your leisure.

If you miss out on these sorts of events, again, check out the lab’s web pages (hopefully the Lab Head has a profile page that describes what their research is).

Obviously there’s a choice to be made here. For me, I chose projects I was fascinated in myself. I know others who chose projects because it’s a wise career move (the project was in a field that was highly desirable- *coughs “BIOINFORMATICS”*). If you get both, fantastic! Basically, if the project summary alone is making you drowsy, maybe it isn’t for you. If it grabs your attention and it sounds rather fascinating, proceed and contact the Lab.

Do the techniques involved in the project interest you?

Sometimes projects have some details of the types of techniques and experiments you’ll be performing. It ties in with the previous category, but maybe there’s a particular experimental approach you like (or would like more experience in). For instance, I chose my current Ph. D project because it had a lot of Metabolomics/Mass-Spectrometry components to it. I knew nothing about it, but I also knew that it might be a handy technique to be familiar with. Coupled with more traditional molecular techniques, I also have an “omics” level technique up my sleeve. Also, people love graduates with data analysis skills. If you want to do Flow Cytometry/FACS, it might pay to look for projects that use that technique. If you prefer coding and writing scripts, try a bioinformatics lab.

Do you get along with the principle investigator (PI)/supervisor/Lab Head?

This one, to me, is very important. I value having a supervisor I can confide my lab (and sometimes life) problems to. Obviously their primary role is not to be your friend. They are your boss, first and foremost, but a supervisor can be someone you can also have good banter with.
Some people fall into a trap where they begin to view their supervisor as a parent-like being. Again, they are your boss. You are their worker, because, chances are, they can’t do lab experiments anymore (they’re too busy with more desk-based jobs). You can’t expect them to look after you as a whole human being (although that would be nice).

Anyway- you’ve found a good project, you’ve figured out a particular lab might be worth contacting. It’s now time to organise a one on one meeting with the Lab Head. It can be daunting if this is the first time you have a professional meeting. I was lucky, in that the only two people I approached for Honours projects were down-to-earth, chill individuals who were very easy to talk to. Just send them an email and arrange a time.

Depending on the individual, they may have a secretary/personal assistant who arranges their scheduling. Hopefully your contact notifies you if that’s the case. If they don’t reply, give them a few days and send a polite email asking if they could get back to you. These people are busy. Don’t take it personally if they don’t reply immediately, and do avoid passive-aggressive emails. Even if you don’t really want to work for them (maybe they’re preference 5), you never know what the future holds- you might end up working with them via a collaboration, or require help with a particular technique/equipment. Last thing you need is that negative air between you.

Generally during these types of meetings, the supervisor will obviously talk to the student about the project on offer, but they’re also looking at the student for enthusiasm and engagement. If you rock up expecting to do very little talking- unfortunately that is not what’s expected. You should come armed with questions, discuss the project. Take it as more opportunity to suss out what kind of person the Lab Head/supervisor is (they’ll be doing the same to you). Also- they have your academic transcript. Don’t go in thinking you can talk yourself up. Just be honest.

Once the meeting is over, think about how you went. Again, I prize the inter-personal relationships more than anything else, so I highly recommend paying attention to this. If, throughout your meeting and interactions with your potential supervisor, your gut was telling you something wasn’t clicking (“they aren’t quite understanding what I’m saying” “I don’t like their tone” “I don’t like their mannerisms toward me” “they didn’t seem to care about what I had to say”)- it’s probably a good sign they’re not the right supervisor for you.

Your supervisor is the person you need to be able to comfortably and explicitly say when you f*** up.

And I don’t mean, any old f*** up (experiments fail 90% of the time). I mean- it’s entirely your fault, the scale of it is huge, and you have to own it all. You should still feel comfortable enough that when you tell your supervisor you’ve made a colossal mistake, you don’t need to be fearful of how they will react and treat you. If you think they’ll yell at you- not okay. If you think they’ll start criticising you as a person (“you’re useless/pathetic”), as opposed to criticising the way you performed the experiment (“you’ve clearly used the wrong buffer”), that’s also not okay. Unfortunately supervisors like the former are out there.

Something to note, too, is that your Lab Head doesn’t necessarily equal supervisor. Especially in larger labs, or where the Lab Head is quite high up in the career ladder, you might get assigned a different person. If that’s the case, I would probably encourage arranging a time to meet that person as well (if possible). The Lab Head might be fantastic, but the supervisor might not be.

Do you get along with potential fellow lab mates?

A lab is a team environment. Even if you prefer working alone, it’s actually quite important to be able to adapt and work as part of a lab/team. That means you should probably suss out what the other lab members are like. If possible, try and reach out to a lab member and see if they would be happy to chat to you about what their lab is like to work in. I would target a student, because they would know best if the Lab Head/Post-Docs have any issues. You’ll get to hear an honest opinion from the lowest tier of lab member status. If there’s any power harassment going on, the students will know. Not that you can’t trust what a Lab Head/supervisor says, but I’ve seen instances where people were fooled into thinking the Lab Head/supervisor was fantastic, when in fact they just had a front. Awful, but again, the reality is that there are terrible people in any field.

Will the project stand you in good stead for future careers?

This one, again, comes down to what you value. For me I chose a basic research field, where the results don’t necessarily lead to cures or better society in that sense. I chose it because I just love knowing things, and learning how intricate little beings control other living things… The stuff we work on may one day help another researcher figure out a cure for something, but we in particular don’t prioritise that.

But, if you want to be more savvy about this, you can choose labs and projects based on the skills you’ll gain from it. Some research fields are “in” (like fashion, but with less clothing), and you will be more employable if you have experience in said field. If you choose projects in an area that is not so popular, or is becoming outdated… maybe not so employable. Doesn’t mean you won’t gain skills from it (maybe I’ll talk about that in the future), but particularly if you want to stay within research, it might pay to pick a project that has more longevity.

Something else people consider as part of this is to choose a lab that is- to put it bluntly- wealthy. If they’re getting grants left, right and centre, they’re more likely to be able to pay you and keep you on as an employee, post-studies. Unfortunately with research grants being the way they are, it is extremely difficult for labs to be funded (National Health and Medical Research Council in Australia generally has a success rate below 15%). Chances of getting into the small handful of labs that are getting consistent funding is somewhat low (but still worth a shot!).

At the end of the day, much like with other career posts, you just need to know yourself well enough that you can figure out what you prioritise and what you can compromise on. Hopefully this is food for thought.