The chemistry graduate school experience
Graduate students handle myriad challenges, including a labmate’s annoying habit and loneliness when transplanted into a foreign country. C&EN reporters Kerri Jansen, Matt Davenport, and Linda Wang spoke with several international Ph.D. candidates to learn how they stay motivated and productive and find balance amid the chaos.
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The following is a transcript of this podcast.
Reggie Mills: It’s so quiet, it’s like [humming]. It’s something that he just does under his breath, and he’s adamant that he doesn’t realize it. So yeah, it’s usually like the little things tend to get on your nerves.
Kerri Jansen:That’s Reggie Mills. He’s a third-year graduate student at the University of Toronto in Canada. Working in an organic chemistry lab, he encountered that classic workplace struggle: a coworker with an annoying habit.
Reggie Mills: And it’s under his breath, too, is the other thing. It is so quiet, so sometimes I don’t even realize that he’s humming until, you know, a few minutes after it starts, and I’m like, “What’s that noise?”
Kerri: This episode of Stereo Chemistry is all about grad students: their joys and also their frustrations—from the little things like humming, to the bigger challenges that come from uprooting your life to pursue your science. We spoke with eight students from around the world from widely different backgrounds, studying a variety of chemistries.
[Audio montage of grad students introducing themselves]
Kerri: We wanted to hear about their diverse experiences but also their shared challenges, as well as how they stay motivated to overcome those obstacles. I’m Kerri Jansen. Joining me on this international journey are C&EN’s Linda Wang and my Stereo Chemistry cohost, Matt Davenport.
Matt Davenport: Hello.
Linda: Hi, Kerri.
Kerri: So we spoke with several students facing many different problems. Things like loneliness, funding issues, trying to raise a family, and, yes, even humming. Despite those differences, I thought there was a common theme in what they told us. That they were all so passionate about what they do. Did any similarities or unifying themes stand out to you?
Linda:Yeah, what impressed me was the dedication. These students are facing so many different challenges, you know, some of them left their country, left their home, to pursue their studies. Some of them are in places where there aren’t a lot of resources available. And they’re finding a way to make it work.
Matt:Yeah, and something that really stuck with me was that the problems were all different, but a lot of what we heard kind of boiled down to the question of, how do you deal? How do I, the grad student, interact with this community surrounding me that’s also interested in science, and that person in the hood next to me hums all the time—how do I manage that? Or how do I connect to my labmates when we’re all from such different backgrounds? That problem of, how do I fit into this community?
Kerri: And, good news, Reggie did find a way to tolerate his humming labmate. He says they worked it out, and they joke about it now. Which lets Reggie focus on other challenges of getting a doctorate in chemistry.
Reggie Mills: To be a successful Ph.D. student, you kind of aim to have X, Y, and Z by the end of your Ph.D. And so, you know, if you’re kind of not meeting certain timelines for that it can be really stressful, especially if your chemistry is very finicky and challenging and hard to work with. It’s super stressful, but when it works it’s also extremely rewarding. It’s such a great feeling to, you know, just have your chemistry work or to be the one who invented a reaction.
Kerri:Reggie told us that getting to that reward, getting that reaction to work, takes a lot of time in the lab. But he also said he thinks that’s normal for graduate school. And we can’t disagree based on what we heard. Yang Xicheng at Fudan University in China is five years into his bachelor-doctorate program, studying molecules that could treat central nervous system diseases like Alzheimer’s and depression. He says the rule in his lab is that students work from 8 AM to 8 PM.
Xicheng Yang: So I wake at 7:15 and then eat breakfast at 7:30 and then start my work at 8 AM and then lunch. And then continue to work. And then the dinner at 5. And maybe some exercise, just from 6 to 8, and then continue to work in the lab until maybe 10 or 11.
Linda (during interview): So you’re pretty much working all day, as soon as you wake up until right before you go to bed.
Xicheng Yang:I think that’s typical for, I think, chemists. I think that’s typical. Maybe I think the long hours is not a problem, but I think the long hours in one place is a problem. So you have six years, five or six days a week, and twelve hours a day in the same place. Like other students, they can travel the whole world. They can talk to each other. They get to discuss problems like the politics. But for chemists, I think they need to be patient and work in one place.
Kerri: What was interesting to me was that the students we talked to—they all work these long hours, doing this difficult work, but no one really complained about it. At least to us, anyway. They just accepted the time in the lab as necessary to achieving their Ph.D. goals.
Stephen Opeyemi Aderinto just finished his master’s degree at Lanzhou Jiaotong University in China, where he developed sensors to monitor heavy metals. He’s originally from Nigeria. And Stephen told us that when he arrived in China, the hours that graduate students spent in the lab were unbelievable to him. The work ethic was so strong. But Stephen acclimated.
Stephen Opeyemi Aderinto: Even a Chinese student, they go to lab from Monday to Sunday. Eight to ten, every day. And we enjoy it here. And I think that’s one of the things that is making China to be productive, research-wise. A friend of mine was like, “Stephen, you are too serious. Calm down, take things easy.” But I was like, “It’s not that I’m too serious, but for me to achieve the desired level of results, I need to put a corresponding level of input.” Research is a life on its own, really.
Linda:And what really struck me about Stephen’s story is, it’s not just those long hours, but when he first came to China, he didn’t speak any of the language. He spent a year learning Chinese before he started his program.
Stephen Opeyemi Aderinto:(In Mandarin) ...and that’s what I’m going to discuss with you.
Linda (interview):That is phenomenal! Your Mandarin is so good!
(In Mandarin) Your Chinese is so good!
Stephen Opeyemi Aderinto:(In Mandarin) Oh, no, not at all.
Matt (voice over):Stephen moved to China during the West African Ebola outbreak that began in 2014. He spent three weeks in quarantine when he arrived in his new country. So before he learned a word of this new language, before he was spending his waking life in the lab, he was already facing challenges I can’t even imagine. We wanted to know what kept him going through all this.
Stephen Opeyemi Aderinto: I knew what I wanted. That passion is my secret and has been my key motivator along the way.
Kerri: Stephen has actually completed his program in China and will be continuing his studies in the U.K. soon.
Linda:So, Stephen told us that he’s going to miss China and that his experiences there are always going to be a part of him. But he’s already looking to the future.
Stephen Opeyemi Aderinto:I’m ready for the world. But I’m first ready for Africa because actually my passion is to see science develop in Africa. So maybe I’m not fully ready for the world, but even while I’m still learning from other parts of the world, learning from this culture, that culture, this system, that system, I still want to gather the knowledge, and if possible, that’s my utmost desire, go back to Africa to use this knowledge to transform the system there.
Matt: Stephen also said he’s well aware that when it comes to scientists in Africa, he’s part of the 1%. Statistics from UNESCO [United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization] show that only 1.1% of the world’s scientific researchers were in sub-Saharan Africa as of 2013.
Stephen Opeyemi Aderinto: So there has always been this feeling within me that only if I have the chance to just find the correct platform back in Africa, I may not see the full change at once, but even if I just kick-start the change. So I am ready from the world, but I’m taking it from Africa. Africa, that’s my utmost desire.
Kerri:So you might be wondering how we found all these ambitious, hardworking students to speak so candidly with us. The truth is that they found us, for the most part. Linda and our education editor, Celia Arnaud, were putting together this big package for C&EN focused on the graduate school experience in chemistry—it’s amazing, and you can read it now on our website. And one of the things they did was put out a call for essays written by graduate students.
Linda:We got more than 80 submissions, including more than 20 from outside the United States. So we saw this opportunity for the podcast to share some of the stories that we simply couldn’t fit in print. And one of the essays that stood out to us came from Stephlina D’cunha.
Kerri: Stephlina, like Stephen, whom you just heard, decided to leave her home country for grad school. She grew up in Mumbai and is now a second-year Ph.D. student at the University of Queensland in Australia studying catalysis and biochemistry. Her essay was about feeling isolated in her new country, but the Stephlina we spoke to sounded like she had moved past that. She took us through that transition.
Stephlina D’cunha: It was a big, big step for me to get out of my country, get out of my comfort zone, and move to an entirely different continent. Yeah, I think I’m enjoying it. I think one of the main criteria when you’re looking for making something or you know some place home is the people. You need to be able to associate yourself with the people around you. I felt that in the beginning, it was difficult, and it was different. But as you start to live around, as you start to talk to people, you understand what kind of mindset they have, how it differs from you. And then I think you build the bridges then on the differences that exist, not the common things that exist between you. So I think you have to make the differences the key aspects of building stable relations if you want to call some place home.
Linda (interview): What ways have you been able to make your lab feel a little bit more like home? Maybe not your second home, but at least kind of carve out a little home for yourself in your lab.
Stephlina D’cunha: So I like to cook a lot. And then most of my colleagues like Indian food. So good curry is always appreciated. So I’ve tried to rope them into my Indian-ness through the stuff that I cook. Or just to get to know them more because not everybody opens up easily, not everybody is keen to talk about their personal life or their childhood. But these are the things that actually give you a lot of information about a person, why a person is the way he or she is. So I think it’s just that what I’m trying to do is trying to associate myself with them, you know, through their experiences, whether they want to tell a funny story or you know just go out for coffee or, yeah, feed them Indian food.
Matt (voice over): All of that said, Stephlina definitely acknowledges that you’re never going to be good friends with everyone in your lab group, but she likes knowing that her labmates have bonded over their common journey. If she needs them, they have her back. And as she’s been sharing her food and her background with them, Stephlina has found that bonding with her group in Australia has actually changed her own behavior.
Stephlina D’cunha: So for example, I have been brought up in a very soft-spoken manner. So when I came here, you know, I realized that everybody would voice their opinion even in front of my supervisor. For me it was like, “Oh my god. How do I say this in front of her?” But I just realized from all of my colleagues, by observing them, by listening to them, that it was so easy for them to speak their mind. And I realized that that voice that they have is actually appreciated and not looked down upon.
Kerri: Stephlina also told us something we heard from many students. That suddenly being on your own and having to figure things out by yourself—yeah, that’s stressful. But there’s also a huge benefit because you grow and learn how capable you really are.
Stephlina D’cunha: I think when you start grad school, you realize right in the beginning that there is not a lot of handholding and you know you are at the helm steering your own ship. The best part for me in the last one-and-a-half years is just realizing how much I can actually utilize the power of reasoning that I have and logic behind things. You know, you can learn a formula and forget about it, but you can never forget the process of working it out. So I think I’m enjoying the process so much and just realizing a lot of my own strength as well.
Kerri:We’re going to take a quick break, but when we come back, we’ll hear from more grad students who are making grown up decisions: starting families, navigating unfriendly job markets, and more.
Matt: We’ll also talk about zebras!
Linda: Can you play us out, Stephen?
Stephen Opeyemi Aderinto: [singing]
Click or swipe to read advice and other thoughts on graduate school from students around the world.
Carmen Drahl: Hi there! Carmen Drahl here. If you’re like me, you’re on the edge of your seat waiting for the annual announcement of the Nobel Prize in Chemistry, coming up on October 3.
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Now, back to the show.
Kerri: So, Matt. You went to grad school several years ago. Now you’re raising a baby daughter, Dorothy. She’s adorable. Can you imagine managing both of those things at the same time?
Matt: No way. I remember when I was a grad student, I worked with an undergrad researcher who had kids. I didn’t know and still don’t know how he did it. I mean, I think what it takes that I didn’t have is an ability to compartmentalize. To find that balance between your work and your other responsibilities.
Kerri:A couple of the grad students we spoke with do have families. Daniel Sava moved to the U.K. from Romania along with his wife and baby daughter. He’s now a third-year grad student at the University of Manchester—actually graduating this month. And even though he and his family have been living in the U.K. for years now, he says they still struggle with the feeling of loneliness.
Daniel Sava:It’s harder as a student, let’s say, carer which has a family to make friends with other people that don’t have families. Because after having a child or whatever, the priorities change a lot. And most of the students don’t have families. So I think this was a hard thing to cope with, the fact that we’re kind of, like, outsiders in the graduate area.
Kerri: And for Daniel, the complication of having a family in grad school isn’t only about making friends. He described feeling caught in a sort of gray area. He’s not like a student student, who’s spending all his time in class. But he’s also not treated fully as an employee either. And that actually limits the support he can get for things like child care costs, or as he says, nursery fees.
Daniel Sava: The nursery fees for one month can vary from 800-something to even £1,000. So that’s almost all of a stipend going just towards the nursery fees. There is something at the university which is called “nursery aid” or something like that. But you can only get that if you prove to them that you cannot afford the nursery otherwise. Which I cannot lie, we can afford it. But we’re—I mean, we’re not going out that often. We’re cooking our food. We’re not buying too many stuff, so, it is manageable.
Also in terms of like medical insurance as a student, you don’t really have the medical insurance which we would have had in Romania. So there’s a lot of issues that come along with not being employed but being a Ph.D. student.
Matt (interview):What’s standing out to me is that we’ve talked about, you know, there’s the financial pressures that come with having a family, there is raising a family, which is its own set of pressures, right? And we haven’t even really talked about the research itself. How do you have the bandwidth to do all that?
Daniel Sava:I’m not sure. Just not being very negative no matter what happens and just taking it all from there and thinking that something happened for a reason that’s outside of my power, so I can do whatever I can with what I have. I don’t know. It’s also the fact that usually when I do something, I do it with passion.
And also I love having a family, I love having a small daughter. And I do think that in some ways it can be an advantage because, no matter how stressed I am in the lab, no matter what pressures I have during my professional life, when I come home, I automatically disconnect because my daughter would not allow to go otherwise. I mean, she wants to play. She wants to do things, so I think it’s also an advantage, the fact that you disconnect no matter what. So you have a balance of not being too much in your Ph.D. or doing too much work.
Kerri (voice over):So Daniel found a way to adapt to his complicated position. And, Matt, you mentioned that ability to compartmentalize—it definitely seems that the ability to disconnect from his work is key.
Matt: Yeah, and we heard that from another parent we spoke with, too: Concepción Sánchez-Paredes—or Connie. She’s a first-year master’s student in food chemistry at the National Autonomous University of Mexico. She said that her first months in grad school were a shock and that she felt isolated. But she’s since found a better balance by setting up boundaries. It’s not perfect. She said she still cries sometimes, but it’s much better.
Concepción Sánchez-Paredes:I don’t feel lonely anymore. I don’t feel so stressed. This is the way that I can tell you properly: The chemist that I am is staying at university when I come home. Mom comes home and the graduate student stays at university. So that’s the way that I feel good emotionally and physically. My health is fine, I can sleep well, I eat well, and I can spend very good time with my parents, with my kids.
Linda: So she leaves the chemist at the university, and she’s Mom at home.
Kerri: Yeah, setting up those boundaries really helped. But there are some challenges that grad students face that are simply beyond their control. Linda, you spoke with a student who is managing what sounds like some pretty severe resource limitations in his work. Can you tell us about that?
Linda:Yeah, so earlier we spoke with Stephen who is from Nigeria but left and went to China to continue his studies. Well, Akeem Abefe Aliyu is still studying in Nigeria; he’s a fourth-year Ph.D. student working on isolating and characterizing the bioactive constituents of plants that could be used for medicine. And for Aliyu, there’s no funding support; his lab doesn’t have the resources for the equipment he needs for his work. And that really weighs on him.
Akeem Abefe Aliyu:At some point, you lose focus because you have to do everything on your own.
Kerri: Along with actually doing his research, Aliyu has to find a way to pay for his school fees, his research costs, and he has to find other research institutes to run the analyses that he can’t do in his lab. Sometimes the electricity isn’t even reliable enough to run his own equipment.
Akeem Abefe Aliyu: Currently, the kind of system, the kind of politics we are running in the country does not encourage one to stay. So these are the challenges we face here. As an organic chemist, you really want to be sure that the compounds you are either synthesizing or you are isolating from a particular plant is very pure, so you need a very good technique and very good equipment to actualize that, which is not possible in Nigeria.
Linda (interview): Are there any opportunities for finding a job in Nigeria?
Akeem Abefe Aliyu:Currently, I must be honest with you, currently there is not any opportunity for getting a job for now. Currently there is none. And that’s one of the challenges with graduate students.
Kerri (voice over):So if Aliyu doesn’t see any job prospects in Nigeria, what are his plans for after he graduates?
Linda: Well, he’s looking for other universities abroad to collaborate with, and he thinks he will probably move to another country to continue his career. But even given all of those challenges that he’s facing in Nigeria, he still wants to someday use his science to help make his country stronger.
Linda (interview): Do you anticipate that one day you will return to Nigeria and bring back all the things that you’ve learned, or do you plan to in the future settle in another country?
Akeem Abefe Aliyu: It has been my plan to give back to the society. So even though if I am not in the country, I will still find time to really relate with those I’ve left behind and to serve as mentors to them.
Linda (voice over): That just never occurred to me, you know, how much people have stacked against them in places where you don’t even have dependable electricity to do the research that you want to do.
Matt: We did speak with another researcher who also lacked reliable access to the sort of amenities we can take for granted here, but for a different reason. We were really anticipating the interview you’re about to hear with Olabimpe Olaide for weeks. When we first reached out to her earlier this summer, she didn’t have access to reliable telecommunications because she was out in the field doing research. When we did reach her, the audio quality wasn’t perfect—so, sorry about that. But we still think you’ll enjoy hearing about what she was doing out there: swabbing a couple dozen tranquilized zebras to collect their skin odors.
Matt (interview): What are they like in the wild?
Olabimpe Olaide: Oh, zebras are not docile. They are not calm. They are quite aggressive.
Kerri (voice over): Olabimpe is a third-year Ph.D. student at the University of Pretoria in South Africa, but she’s currently working in Kenya at the International Centre of Insect Physiology & Ecology.
She hopes to develop a repellent for tsetse flies, which are large, biting flies that inhabit much of sub-Saharan Africa. The flies can transmit a parasite responsible for trypanosomiasis—also known as sleeping sickness—a potentially fatal disease that affects both humans and livestock.
But while tsetse flies are known to feed on cattle and other animals, they tend to avoid zebras. So Olabimpe is looking for a chemical in the zebra’s skin odor that may be responsible for that behavior.
Matt: And she told us how field work presents all kinds of challenges, from unpredictable weather to the difficulty of securing the proper permits for her work.
Olabimpe Olaide: So many variables that you can’t really control. For instance, when I came initially, my first challenge was to access zebras. You know zebras are wildlife, and they’re kind of protected. There was a lot of processes involved. And then when the permits came through, again I was faced with the challenge of drought in the field site where we were to work, which also affected the population of tsetse flies in the field. And we need these flies to be able to do our field bioassays.
Kerri:So, like Aliyu, Olabimpe was contending with challenges she couldn’t control. In Aliyu’s case, it was the lack of resources available to him at his school in Nigeria. Olabimpe is originally from Nigeria, so we asked about her access to resources through her institution.
Olabimpe Olaide: I must say I’m quite fortunate. The institute that I’m attached to, the International Centre of Insect Physiology & Ecology, it’s well equipped for the kind of research that I do. I kind of have everything that I need to do my research, but it’s not the same all over the continent. So particularly in the universities back home, the funding and the funding opportunities is not that good. So it’s quite challenging, but right now it is what it is. We are hoping that in the future, things can change for the better.
Kerri: You may have noticed, like we did, Olabimpe is a pretty optimistic person. And so we asked her the same question we asked a lot of the students we spoke with: In the face of all these challenges, what keeps her motivated?
Olabimpe Olaide:The beauty of it is that as long as you remain passionate, as long as you remain focused, and you don’t give up, it comes to this fulfillment at the end when you’re able to eventually get the result.
Matt:I think we all noticed a common theme in these interviews, which is that the students all talked about this underlying drive. The flavor of their challenges and the problems varied, but the reason that they pushed through all of this was they all felt that this commitment to the research was worth it.
And that fascinates me because all of those challenges are stacked on top of what I see as one of the central challenges of science, which is that nature is under no obligation to agree with you—that your idea might just not work. And I remember as a graduate student that really frustrated me.
Kerri:I think it was Xicheng who said that that actually was one of the most frustrating things to him, that all of a sudden he’s presented with a problem, and the answer cannot be found in any textbook. He’s got to figure it out on its own, and that can be frustrating. But many of the people we spoke to also mentioned that as one of their favorite things about grad school, being on their own and having that control over the path that they take and having their independence. That was something that they actually really enjoyed about grad school.
Linda: Yeah. It was like overcoming that challenge gave them the confidence that they could take on any problem.
Matt: I’m curious, Kerri, because you have not had the grad school chemistry experience, and this is probably your deepest immersion into that culture—was it what you were expecting?
Kerri:Well, I have to say I have a newfound appreciation for the amount of dedication represented by those three letters, Ph.D., behind your name. There’s a big difference between thinking, “Oh, grad school is a lot of work,” and then hearing what that actually means—that it’s maybe 12-plus-hour days in the lab, no weekends, handing over three quarters of your stipend just for child care. I have a lot of respect for people who can dedicate that much of their time and really basically devote their life for a period of several years to this one subject, to making this work.
But I think to be that invested in your work—and in many cases we heard from these people that they really loved what they do—I mean despite the challenges, that seems like a very fulfilling way to spend your time, if you can find something that can capture your attention and capture your passion like that. That’s really amazing.
Matt:And, you know, we asked probably all of the students, what advice do you have for people thinking about going into grad school? A lot of people were very blunt and said, “The choice you’re making is a big investment. Make sure it’s what you want to do.”
Kerri:I think we learned through these discussions some important things these students have in common that led them to make the choice that they did. They have such a passion for their science, and they thrive on facing down a challenge and overcoming it to achieve their goal. Like Olabimpe told us, those challenges are actually what make the experience so valuable.
Olabimpe Olaide:It might not be the straight path that they’ve laid out for themselves. Even if you are working in the lab, it’s not going to be straightforward. It’s not going to be easy. But in the end, that is what makes it fulfilling.
Kerri: We want to hear even more of your grad school experiences, whether that’s overcoming funding challenges or a humming labmate. If you’d like to share your story, you can email us at email@example.com, and we’ll pick a few to share later on. We’d also like to offer a big “thank you” to all the students who took the time to talk with us for this project. We actually heard from several more grad students than those you heard from in this episode—from 11 countries in all—and we shared some of their experiences on C&EN’s website. You can find that link in this episode’s description. And I definitely want to thank C&EN editorial fellow Cici Zhang, who was a big help in producing this episode.
Coming soon from Stereo Chemistry: C&EN reporter Lisa Jarvis sat down with science writer Deborah Blum to talk about her new book, “The Poison Squad,” which follows the campaign of American chemist Harvey Washington Wiley to ensure food safety at the turn of the 20th century. We’ll publish that conversation later this month.
Thanks for listening.
“The Zeppelin” by Blue Dot Sessions is licensed under CC BY-NC 4.0
“The Confrontation” by Podington Bear is licensed under CC BY-NC 3.0