Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The anti-climactic finish to the hardest climb of my life

I never thought I could sleep this much. I've been clocking about 10 hours most nights. It's shameful. You'd think that I would have too much pride to try and squeeze in a nap after a night's sleep like that, but you'd be wrong.
The countdown to no more lab is three days, but I haven't needed to go in for the past few days. I have one small experiment left.
It's kind of funny. Finishing grad school has all the markings of any other grad school activity. Poorly defined but required duties to complete. Lots of deadlines, some of which don't have dates associated with them, some of which are firm, some of which are not, none of which are labeled as such. And when you finally complete all of the duties, meet all of the deadlines... nothing. Okay, there's one thing: other scientists jokingly call you "doctor" and sometimes ask "What are you still doing here?", which is a question you ask yourself every five minutes when you are back in lab. But most graduate students don't "walk the line" (participate in a graduation ceremony). You aren't handed a diploma. You do have a public defense where you present your work, and some people treat that as a graduation, but it isn't. After that is done, you still have your private defense, and after that, you have to (sometimes) make changes to your dissertation as requested by your committee, and then you have to get the darn thing formatted for acceptance by the graduate school (this particular chore is one of the most confusing things you will run up against). Once you have filed for graduation, defended, submitted your dissertation, had it accepted, paid a bunch of money to get bound copies of it (these people are sly and merciless; it is impossible for the weakened grad student who has spent four years or more putting together their dissertation to resist paying any absurd amount of money to have a bound copy), then you are often still not done. There are papers to submit, revise, and submit again. There are almost always more experiments to do (you soon run out of fingers to count the one last experiments your boss/committee/journal reviewers are asking you to do). Almost always, you go right back to doing what you did leading up to the defense. Most mornings I wake up and go in to lab and wonder if I finished at all.
But I did.
Holy Lord, I did--can you believe it??
And come Monday, my "last" day in lab, maybe it will sink in...
Until I get an e-mail from my boss asking me to re-format the paper, or find a protocol, or maybe do just one more experiment...

Monday, May 28, 2007

Surviving Graduate School, Pt 3: Constant Dripping Hollows Out a Stone

OK! You've avoided being a chump, and are master of your own destiny. Now what?

One of the most difficult parts of graduate school is finding the determination to trudge on when your project is in the crapper. Don't underestimate how hard it is to show up and do experiments over and over when nothing is working. I think this is one of the ways in which graduate school as han edge in difficulty over medical school. There is constant pressure and obvious consequences in medical school for not making progress and forging ahead; the things you need to learn are laid out in front of you, and if you don't learn them, you will fail your class. In graduate school, there are rarely actual consequences to having spans of months where no progress at all is made on your project. Which can be good, because sometimes it is out of your hands; sometimes, no matter how hard you work or how many hours you put in, there will be nothing to show for it. However, the lack of consequences can really undermine your work ethic. It's a constant struggle to find ways to motivate yourself.

There are two steps to getting things done, if you think about it. Sadly, they aren't always as easy as they sound.

Step 1: Show up
Sometimes you will wake up in the morning, lay in bed, and think about how you are so sick of trying things that don't work, how you're sick of lab and graduate school and you just need a break. You'll probably find that your brain can be very persuasive those mornings--it will have very convincing and reasonable sounding arguements as to why it would be okay for you to just take the day off. This is one of the many reasons to try and find a lab which has people you enjoy being with. Finding one or more people to work next to that you like can make the difference between just barely scraping by and actually thriving. There were many days when the only thing that got me out of bed and into lab was knowing that at least I would see my friends, and they could give me a pep talk.
There are other tools also. Self bribery can be very helpful. Depending on the lab you join, there may be plenty of motivation--in the form of having your boss berate you for hours--to at least show up. Side note: some bosses don't even notice if you don't show up for a few days. You should decide if this would be good for you or bad for you. I know it sounds nice now, but it can be helpful to know that you will be missed if you don't show, because sometimes things are so rough that even awesome labmates won't help.
Of course, showing up isn't enough. Once you get in to lab, it's time for:

Step 2: Do actual work
First, briefly congratulate yourself for shaking off those two weeks of long hours and hard work that went into the garbage yesterday. Now it's time to get down to business. This may not be as easy as it sounds.
You see, there is this kind of quicksand that can form in labs. Chances are that at any one time there are at least two people for whom things aren't going well. And in the days of computers, and heading out to lunch, there are about ten million ways in which you can be technically in lab but not actually doing anything. You may be able to escape this temptation normally, but having someone else around that is as frustrated, as tired, as disillusioned and as unmotivated as you forms slacker quicksand that is well nigh impossible to escape. Watch for this quicksand, and avoid it if you can.
There are two sayings that really helped me pull out of this quicksand. The first is the title of this entry: constant dripping hollows out a stone. I liked to say this to myself as I got up to start repeat number one billion of an experiment I didn't want to do in the first place. The other is: you can't till a field by turning it over in your mind. Another trap is thinking, and planning, and thinking, and planning, but never just doing your experiments. At some point you have to just get up and do it.
Because the truth is--and you have probably noticed this as a theme so far--that only you can get yourself through grad school to your degree, and you do that by trudging on.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Surviving Graduate School, Part 2: Be the Captian of Your Own Ship

This sounds fairly self-explanatory, and it is. However, for some reasons, scores of graduate students everywhere are floating around randomly on bobbing, captain-less ships. Or, they are sailing towards a slave port, because they have allowed their ship to be captained by someone else (it is important to assume, until proven otherwise, that everyone around you is looking to sell you into slavery).

Actually, in many ways, this is my philosophy of life: life is not just stuff that happens to you. It’s what you do to stuff, if you get my meaning. I’m not a terribly patient person, so I was lucky enough to learn early in the grad school process that it is important to take initiative if you ever want to escape. Because it is highly unlikely that anyone else is going to push you to check things off of your list and eventually graduate.

Find out what you need to do and when. Have conversations with your boss about what he or she expects from you. In short, be proactive. As a side note, I also learned this the hard way back a million years ago when I was working in the real world. I was horribly underpaid, and when I found out that I was making less than new people with less experience, I was very, very angry. I even started looking for another job, but as it turned out, all I had to do was to go to my boss and say “I deserve to make X amount of money.” He agreed, and my salary was increased by about 70%. Basically, very often people will give you as little and take as much as they can get away with. I don’t mean this as cynically as it sounds, but it’s usually true to some degree. If you are good at your job and are being mistreated you need to be your own advocate and stand up for yourself. This is definitely true in grad school too.

So get out there and steer, people! Your ship’s a-waitin’, and if it helps, I have an eye patch and a parrot you can borrow.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Surviving Graduate School (And Possibly Even Getting Your Degree), Part 1


First of all, a word as to what I wish to accomplish with these next entries. If you are reading this, I figure you are 1) considering graduate school; 2) in graduate school; 3) know someone struggling through graduate school; or 4) incredibly bored. Hopefully I will address things which will be helpful, or at least amusing, for all of you. That is my main goal. My secondary goal is to have a hobby which prevents me from having fantasies of slipping into a coma—not a serious coma, mind you, but one like in the soap operas, where you wake up feeling refreshed and with no loss of mental or physical function—while I finish up my own graduate degree. I hope it will give me a sense of accomplishment, passing on what I have learned; a sense of accomplishment that is simply unattainable by writing or defending my dissertation. This may sound strange, but I think you’ll understand what I mean after reading some of what I have to say. Some of these lessons may even be useful in the non-graduate school “real world”. However, I have completely lost touch with the real world, and therefore I can’t say for sure.

When I started Graduate School—what seems like a kazillion years ago—I had no idea what was in store for me. I had done quite a bit of scientific research and felt I was pretty good at it; I had learned the ups and downs and ins and outs in the way that you can only learn by being in a lab for years. This worked for me and against me, as I will detail if I remember to. Herein you will find tips, tricks, and warnings which are based upon my experiences and the experiences of other grad students (friends of mine) and are therefore only opinions and suggestions. We therefore make no guarantees, even though we are TOTALLY right and you would be a complete chump not to take heed.


This should be your mantra in graduate school. Don’t be a chump. And I think you will find (sometimes in retrospect, unfortunately) that there are a metric crapload of times that you will be prepped for prime chumpitude in graduate school. Here are just a few.

Potential Chump Situation #1: Becoming involved in a poorly thought out research project which has little or no chance of resulting in meaningful progress for you.

Warning Sign: Whoever is trying to get you involved in this mess is very enthusiastic, vaguely pushy, stands a lot to gain, but probably won’t have to put forth much more effort than you will; says things like “This could get us a quick/easy publication.”

Upon further inspection: This project will take up oodles of your time, but will not be part of your dissertation. There are two exceptions: first, if you are guaranteed authorship for a set amount of work, regardless of the outcome, and feel you can finish the said work in one week or less, it may be worth it. Second, if doing it would put the other person in your debt, and you think you can later use this to your advantage, consider it.

How not to be a chump: First, define all the details—specifics about the experiment and specifics about the authorship. If the deal is no good for you, just say no. This is a very important theme you will see throughout these pages: sometimes you have to say no. If you are no good at saying no, learning how to do so now will save you time and sanity. In fact, this is a good time for…

Potential Chump Situation #2: Not saying no to things you should say no to.

Warning Sign: Your boss (and basically everyone else) not only comes to you for everything, but sends others to you, too.

Upon further inspection: You have become a doormat. Sometimes people don’t even ask you to do stuff anymore, they just tell you to. I’m talking training others, organizing stuff, picking up other people’s slack, and so on.

How not to be a chump: In this area, all grad students have to be somewhat of a chump. You will have to do things that aren’t your job, and if you are any good, you will have to do more of this than other, stupider people around you. So in a way, it’s kind of a complement. The trick here is to find where to draw that line in the sand. Being fairly Machiavellian myself, I tend to ask myself the following question before doing just about anything for anyone: “Will this, somehow and at some point, be helpful to me?” Be sure to ask this inside your head. For some reason, people tend to think you are a jerk if you ask it out loud.

Potential Chump Situation #3: Waiting around for someone else to be the captain of your ship.

Warning Sign: You don’t know what you need to do to graduate.

Upon further inspection: You’re waiting for your boss to tell you to take your prelims, to form your committee, to write your papers, and to generally lead your life.

How not to be a chump: Surprisingly, the way out of this one is: be the captain of your own ship. I will talk more about this in Part 2 of Surviving Graduate School, coming soon to a blog near you.

Wednesday, May 23, 2007

Paging Dr. Idiot...

I'm having this really terrifying experience over and over again, now that I'm starting to get back into the clinic. Basically someone mentions a medical finding or fact, or sometimes asks me a question about medicine, and one of three things happens:

1. My brain drops into my feet and I can't form real words, just words like "whosywhatsis" or "thingy", which are not traditionally accepted medical terms.
2. The initials of the answer pop into my head, but nothing more (for example, if the answer is "pyogenic granuloma", what my brain comes up with is "P. G."). This is not even a little helpful, and I'm pretty sure my brain is intentionally taunting me.
3. I come up with something that is kind of similar--for example, a related disease which would appear on the same page of a medical textbook as the correct disease, but is not actually the correct disease. You might think that isn't too bad, I'm in the ballpark and all, but it is true that close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Not so much in medicine. For some reason, they always want you to be actually right, not just kinda right. What makes this much worse is that I think my answer is actually correct.

They say that all the stuff you learned in 1st and 2nd year medical school will come back to you. I'm clinging to that idea like a ramora. Other than the creeping suspicion that I am a medical idiot, things are going well. Lab stuff has wound way down and I'm trying to do some studying. Notice I say trying.

I'll try to post some stuff I wrote a little while ago about graduate school tomorrow. In the meantime, if you're looking for medical information which is incorrect in one of three idiotic ways, drop me a line!!

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Grad vs Med: The Smackdown

A lot of people have been asking me about school lately. My graduate school peers have asked how medical school is different, the doctors I've been working with have been asking about the PhD. Really, both groups mostly want to know which is "harder". Right now, I am leaning towards graduate school being the more difficult of the two by a hair, but that may be because it's what I've been doing for four years. I've come up with two metaphors to explain the differences between the two training paths; the first struck me within in the first year of graduate school after finishing two years of medical school, and the other has been very recent, having been developed after the struggle to publish and graduate.

Graduate school is like strenuous cross training; medical school is like doing 2000 right biceps curls. They're both hard, but for different reasons.
I can see now, looking back, that I was still smarting from the butt-kicking that is first and second year medical school. And the point of the metaphor still holds; that is, the first two years of medical school are grueling and involve very little thinking and a whole truckload of memorization, and graduate school is also grueling but because there is a lot of thinking and reading (and doing experiments, sometimes over and over).
But over these past few years I have developed a sort of fondness for med school. For one thing, I had WAY more free time. For another, there was a great deal of structure, which brings us to--

Imagine you are sleeping in your bed, and suddenly wake with the feeling someone is in the room. You open your eyes in time to see masked men chloroform you back into unconsciousness. When you next awaken, you are in a completely unfamiliar and uninhabited jungle, with no apparent trails, paths, or indication of where you might be. Next to you, you find a map and compass with a note: "500 miles to civilization. Good luck, and watch out for the tigers." This is medical school. Graduate school is the same, only when you wake up you are naked and they didn't leave you squat.
Clearly, when I came up with this metaphor, I was feeling the angst of the complete lack of structure which is rampant in graduate school. I am the kind of person who likes to make lists and cross things off. (Confession: I have also been known to add something to the list which I have already done so I can immediately cross it off. I know there are more of you out there: don't deny it.) People like me are bound to feel some angst in graduate school where everything tends to be "fuzzy", including expectations and deadlines. This drives me absolutely nuts. Being someone who enjoys a good rant, I'm sure I will be writing much more about the trials and tribulations of graduate school in the future.

For now, I have to say that the Grad vs Med smackdown is not over. It's the 6th round, and both contestents are reeling on their feet, but no clear winner has emerged. Stay tuned...

Sunday, May 20, 2007

Never say never.

I have been saying for two years that I would not start a blog, which is actually a bit strange; one of my primary hobbies is talking, and back before my career path completely eclipsed the rest of my life, I wrote a great deal. However, over the past few months I have been toying around with the idea of starting a blog about my career path/education, and a few days ago, one of my best friends suggested she might actually read such a thing, so here I am.

So what is this crazy career path which, in my somewhat damaged mind, is worthy of yet another blog in a vast sea of blogs? I am a "mudphud": an MD/PhD student. We are a crazy lot, and gluttons for punishment. I am currently 6 years into an 8 year program. The length of the program can vary according to the duration of the PhD. Medical school is fixed at 4 years.

The structure can vary somewhat from school to school, but the "traditional" structure of the MD/PhD program is as follows:
-Medical school years 1 and 2 (Year 1 is mostly basic science, physiology, anatomy, etc., and year 2 is slightly more clinical, but still almost all of these years is classroom learing)
-Graduate school (the PhD portion--this usually takes four years, but often takes five; some lucky souls escape in three; it depends on the department, the project, and the lead scientist)
-Medical school years 3 and 4 (Both are clinical years spent mostly in the hospital)

Having just completed my PhD, I am about to return to finish the last two years of medical school. I have been writing some essays about surviving graduate school over the past year, so I will post some of that here. I'll also be trying to post some of my experiences on the hospital wards. 3rd year medical school is an enormous transition even for medical students proceeding from 2nd year, but for me, who has spent the last four years in a lab obtaining a PhD, it is kind of like switching from the swimming portion of a triathlon to the cycling portion. I'm pretty sure I'll need training wheels.

I hope my foibles during these experiences, past and present, will be amusing to read about (feel free to laugh at me as well as with me) and I will try to be as honest as possible about my experiences. So please, join me, will you? Especially if you are looking for a perfectly innocent way to avoid doing anything productive, even if only for a few minutes.