Oh, the places you'll go
after grad school!
Matter for thought

Mastering out and Moving on

Aug 22, 2013

My posts here have become far less frequent as I’ve turned my energy elsewhere. In the past few months, I have applied and interviewed for jobs, finished writing a Master’s thesis, sold nearly everything I own, and moved across the country to Manhattan. After just shy of two years in the Neurobiology & Behavior graduate program at the University of Washington, I’m leaving with a Master’s degree. And a week from now, I’ll start work as a consultant in the life sciences practice of a management consulting firm in New York City. Here, a little more about how all of this came to be…

When I first came to grad school I had this hazy notion that I wouldn’t need to worry about what I did next. I had a fellowship that would support my research, and everything would progress merrily from there. At the end of my 5 – 7 years, perfectly tailored career pathways would lay themselves out in front of me and job offers would pour down on me and my newly minted PhD like a reliable Seattle rain.

I was disavowed of this illusion midway through my first year. In many ways grad school is an apprenticeship for a professorship, a career that both no longer appealed to me and, let’s be honest, is so rarely available it is functionally fictional.

I reasoned that if I was going to commit half a decade of my life – or more! – to a graduate degree, I should probably have some idea of what I’d do with said degree. So I began my informational interview project, and eventually this website, intent on answering the question: What else can I do with a PhD in neuroscience?

But over the course of a few months, that question gradually shifted. It became: Do I really need a PhD to find a satisfying career?

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Proposal: A National Online Platform for STEM Graduate Student Career Exploration and Professional Development

May 20, 2013

The National Science Foundation is sponsoring a competition to innovate graduate education, and my proposal has made it to the final round. One of the awards is based on public vote, so I would be grateful for your support and vote! The text of my proposal is below, and can also be found at the following link…

Vote for my proposal to innovate graduate education. Voting ends May 29 and your support is much appreciated!

ISSUE

The realities of STEM graduate student career outcomes must be addressed. While graduate programs prepare students for the academic research track, in 2006 fewer than 15% of STEM PhDs attained a tenure track position within 5-6 years of graduating, a significant decrease from 55% in 1973 (1). Given that graduate student enrollment increased 50% between 2000 and 2010 (2), while tenure availability decreased (3), this trend is likely to continue.

These statistics reflect not only the increasing difficulty of attaining academic positions, but also students’ declining interest in pursuing this path. A recent large scale cross sectional survey of STEM PhD students at tier-one universities found that the share of students who consider a faculty research career “unattractive” or “extremely unattractive” doubles between early (pre-qualifying exam) and late (on the job market) PhD stages, reaching as high as 38% of late stage chemistry students (4).

A recent survey of UCSF graduate students reported a similar pattern. Interestingly, when asked why their career goals have shifted away from academic research, students overwhelming cite negative associations with the PI track, rather than a positive reason for change, like new knowledge of career options or the development of personal skills and interests (5).

Together, these findings reveal the core of the problem: graduate students increasingly view academic research careers as unattainable or undesirable, yet graduate programs do little to prepare students for career alternatives (4, 5, 6).

This problem is compounded by a two-pronged information asymmetry, in which students are provided little or no credible information about career outcomes, and policy makers know little about how or why students make career decisions.  Indeed, a working group recently convened by the NIH to study career pathways of biomedical science students lamented the lack of comprehensive, longitudinal data needed to better guide policy decisions about graduate education (6).

SOLUTION

A solution is needed to address both the lack of resources for career development, as well as the shortage of data about STEM student career pathways. A national online platform for STEM graduate students could achieve both of these objectives, while also creating a collaborative, interdisciplinary community for nationwide graduate student support.

The online platform, accessible to STEM graduate students enrolled at accredited US universities, will pursue four objectives:

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Keep a tiger in your boat

Keep a tiger in your boat

Apr 10, 2013

Mind-blowing cinematography aside, one narrative moment stuck out for me in Ang Lee’s Life of Pi film adaptation. With only the dwindling lead of a single pencil to keep his mind occupied, Pi explains how his forced cohabitation on a lifeboat with a Bengal tiger has actually helped him in his daunting drift across the Pacific Ocean: “My fear of him keeps me alert,” Pi says, “Tending to his needs gives me purpose.”

Let’s take a closer look at his situation. Pi is surviving on very limited resources. His family and friends are oblivious to the challenges of the journey he is on. His rickety boat is subject to the whims of a force he can neither predict nor understand: at times he is hurled into the eye of an unforgiving storm, but often is left alone in an endless expanse, with little wind to propel his sails and no land in sight. He delights in the smallest victories and steadies himself against the unknown perils lurking below. His love of free food knows no bounds. Do you see what I’m getting at? I think we have a great metaphor for grad school here.

Why is the tiger so essential to his endurance?

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Translating skills for the job market: Can I put goldfish brain surgery on my resume?

Translating skills for the job market: Can I put goldfish brain surgery on my resume?

Nov 26, 2012

When you’re looking to transition from science research to something else, you’ll have to consider how the skills developed in years of research will translate outside that environment. And here you might protest, as I did initially, that these skills just do not translate. Where exactly on my resume do I mention that I can perform survival brain surgery on a goldfish?

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Branching points in neurons and in life

Branching points in neurons and in life

Oct 5, 2012

Branching point, n. The point at which a projection extends from the cell body or from another projection.

 

As a research technician, I spent long hours tracing the projections that extend from neurons. These projections transmit information between cells, and the complexity of their branching pattern says a lot about what kind of neuron they belong to.branching pattern of a simple neuron by Ramon y Cajal

 

Some, like this neuron on the right, can look pretty simple

 

while other neurons, like this Purkinje cell, have much more complex branching patterns.

 

 

 

But neurons aren’t born looking like this.

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Why I'm writing

Why I’m writing

Oct 1, 2012

Every Monday of my first year of neuroscience graduate school, enticed in no small part by the promise of a free lunch, my classmates and I sat down with a rotating cast of University of Washington faculty members. These sessions were half thesis-lab-matchmaking and half seminar in How I Survived Grad School and Made it to the Top of the Academic Food Chain. Instead of giving the usual research talk, here the faculty were tasked with telling the story of their lives, from the day they graduated high school to the day they came to meet with us.

In a game of sharks and minnows we were the minnows, teetering nervously on the edge of the pool, with so many sharks in our way (project failures, paper rejections, low pay, family obligations, years of staring at a petri dish alone in a dark room) that we could barely see to the other side of the pool (tenure!). But these faculty had made it there, and this was our chance to find out how: What do you wish you had known when you were at our stage? Who was your most influential mentor? How did you deal with project failures?

These conversations fascinated me.  How does someone with a knack for high school chemistry and a curiosity about the natural world emerge from the maelstrom of academic bureaucracy, competitive publishing, and chronic underappreciation as the world’s leading expert in the genetic underpinnings of sexual behavior in a fruit fly? 

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