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Graduate Education

The making of a Ph.D. chemist

Learning how to navigate the graduate school years can be a lesson in itself

by Linda Wang
September 9, 2018 | A version of this story appeared in Volume 96, Issue 36
Illustration of a graduate student about to start a marathon that is representative of the graduate school experience.

Credit: Ryan Inzana


Congratulations! You’ve chosen a graduate school and settled into a research group. Now, the real fun (that is, hard work) begins. Over the next several years, you can expect to navigate a series of milestones and experience a spectrum of emotions: the anxiety of fitting into a new lab culture, the uncertainty of teaching undergraduates for the first time, the exhaustion of working through the night to repeat an experiment that didn’t work, the self-doubt of questioning whether to stay in graduate school, the exhilaration of passing your qualifying exam or getting your first paper published, and—finally—the relief and satisfaction of seeing the finish line.

The marathon that is graduate school is unlike any other experience in one’s educational training, and it’s one during which graduate students complete their journey to becoming a Ph.D. scientist. Despite all the hurdles and unexpected turns, many graduate students C&EN spoke with say that the ultimate payoff—adding those three coveted letters to their name—is worth the sweat and tears.

Starting down the path to a Ph.D. can be as exhilarating as it is daunting, and expectations that first-year students have at the outset can quickly give way to reality.

“The hardest thing for me was committing completely to just one subject, whereas in undergrad I had so many things going on,” says Rachel Lackner, who just completed her first year of graduate school at the University of Pennsylvania. “Fear of failure is a big thing and then just being so tired for the first semester.”

In addition to adjusting to the rhythm of graduate school, Lackner also needed to find her niche. “It’s very alienating to move to a new city and leave behind your family and the support network you built up in undergrad,” she says.

Lackner found support in the other first-year grad students in her department. “I’ve become very close with some of them, and we’ve gotten each other through some really difficult and painful experiences in the first year,” she says. “I’m really grateful for that.”

Adapting to a new culture can be especially challenging for foreign graduate students. “When I went to graduate school in Korea, I had to work from 9 AM to 9 PM because that’s what my PI [principal investigator] wanted. He was very hands on, and that was stressful,” says Youngah (Karen) Kwon, a fifth-year graduate student at Columbia University, who completed a master’s degree in Korea. “When I moved to the U.S., my PI was definitely more hands off.”

Kwon initially felt intimidated about approaching her current PI with questions. “It was hard for me to come out of my shell and just go knock on my PI’s door because I was so used to my PI knocking on my door back in Korea.”

After she overcame her fears and began approaching her PI, their relationship began to improve. “I don’t think she was running away from me or closing her door; I think it was just that she was waiting for me to be more proactive and figure things out myself.”

You get to a point where your motivation is completely sapped, and you feel like a failure.
Lauren St. Louis, fourth-year graduate student, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

Shriyaa Mittal, a third-year graduate student at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign, says she has learned to manage her time better over the course of grad school. “I used to think of myself as a very organized person, but graduate school requires even more organization than I was used to,” she says. “There’s no structure at all in graduate school, and all the responsibility is on you to make sure that things are progressing.”

For some students, graduate school is the first time they’ve ever had to teach a class. “It was intimidating because you don’t get any training as far as how to teach,” says Lauren St. Louis, a fourth-year graduate student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. “There’s a lot of thinking on your feet and figuring things out as you go along.”

She admits that she was nervous about teaching for the first time, but her anxiety eased as soon as she was in front of the classroom. “The students come in and they know you’re teaching, so there’s automatically a certain level of respect, which I hadn’t realized was going to happen,” she says.

After a couple of years, some students will question whether they belong in graduate school. “You get to a point where your motivation is completely sapped, and you feel like a failure,” says St. Louis, who experienced burnout after her oral preliminary exam. “At that point you’ve been working in the lab for close to two years, and you’re starting to feel the pressures of ‘I don’t have a publication yet; what am I doing wrong?’ But you’ve poured so much of yourself into a project; it’s hard to think about just abandoning it.”

Emily Caudill, a fourth-year graduate student at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, says the most challenging part of grad school is “remembering why you’re there.” She says that a turning point for her was when she ended up in the hospital the day after giving a big presentation. “I had my first real small-bowel obstruction, and it reminded me that I’m first a human being that needs to make sure I’m not in the hospital. Life is most important, and then you fill it with your passions.”

“Graduate school can be very isolating,” says Andrew Dawson, who is starting his third year at the University of California, Los Angeles. He explains that there’s such an enormous commitment in graduate school to teach, do research, and mentor students that little time is left for extracurricular activities. “It can be very difficult to find a community within grad school and be able to broaden your vision and see what else is going on around you,” he says.

“It’s definitely common to question whether or not it was a good decision for you to go to graduate school,” Dawson says. “After talking to a lot of people about it, I came to the conclusion that I really do belong here, I enjoy it, and I’m learning a lot about science, about myself, and about my future.”

With all the hurdles of grad school, celebrating milestones becomes that much sweeter. Mittal’s research group at Illinois has a tradition of baking and decorating cakes based on the topics of their recently published papers. Her paper, which was published in the Journal of Physical Chemistry B, was on labeling amino acids in proteins. “I made a chocolate cake and used icing for the helix of the protein, and then I got these sugar balls and I put those on as probe molecules.”

And setbacks that used to feel overwhelming start to become manageable. “I have cried many times during my Ph.D. where the rough times are just so rough, and you’re thinking, ‘Is it normal to cry over one experiment?’ ” says Aisha Bismillah, a student at Durham University who is starting the final year of her three-year Ph.D. program, which is the typical time frame in the U.K. “Now I’m even more invested, but I don’t get upset and I don’t cry. As you get older, you think, ‘How can I deal with this?’ That’s a really good change.”

Some students nearing completion of their program turn their focus toward improving the graduate school experience for those behind them. For example, Chris Fisher, a fifth-year graduate student at the University of California, San Diego, who serves as a representative in the Chemistry Graduate Student Council at UCSD, worked to raise the stipend for graduate students in the chemistry department. He’s also championing more training for PIs on mentoring graduate students. “Simply having a voice or a seat at the table goes a long way” in feeling like part of the community, he says.

In the end, the most memorable days of graduate school are the good days, which can ease any feelings of self-doubt. The day when everything finally comes together and works is extraordinarily exciting, St. Louis says. “It can make all the work that went into allowing that to happen worthwhile.”

Learning how to navigate graduate school teaches a student how to navigate the world. “The Ph.D. years have been the best years of my life,” Bismillah says. “But I’ve only just come to realize that as I finish my second year. What I think people will appreciate at the end of the Ph.D. is the learning process. I’m going to be really sad when it ends because I have learned so much.”


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