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Four Ph.D. Students' Journeys to Graduate School – Part 1: Developing a Passion for Research

Student’s paths to graduate school are as diverse as their interests and backgrounds. In this audio blog post, you are invited to listen in when four Ph.D. students discuss their academic and professional journeys, and talk about how they developed a passion for research.

Before the winter holidays, I sat down with fellow graduate students Allison Dupzyk (Ph.D. Candidate in Microbiology & Immunology), David Lin (Ph.D. Candidate in Microbiology & Immunology), and Adam Krieger (Ph.D. Candidate in Cellular & Molecular Biology) to discuss why we decided to pursue graduate school as well as our different experiences leading up to applying to a Ph.D. program. While we are all in our third year of our graduate programs, we each had different timelines and paths to graduate school.

All four of us entered graduate school through the Program in Biomedical Sciences (PIBS) which consists of 14 separate programs or departments at U-M. In our first year of the Ph.D. program, all students are considered PIBS students and take classes with other first year PIBS students. Once we join a research lab at the end of our first year, we switch from being a general PIBS student to a student in one of the specific 14 programs depending on whichever program or department the lab is based in.

This audio blog post has two parts: Part 1 of our discussion focuses largely on how we became interested in biology research, and how graduate school became part of our career plan. Part 2 of our discussion will be shared later next week, and centers primarily on our academic backgrounds and experiences that led up to graduate school.

The transcript of our conversation is provided below, and includes definitions and explanations of terms specific to biology or graduate school in general. While many details of our discussion are biology-related, I think that any graduate students will be able to relate to some of the experiences we share.

I hope you will enjoy listening to our discussion as much as we enjoyed sharing our experiences. Please leave a comment below if you’d like to share your own reasons for pursuing or planning to pursue graduate school!

Transcript of the Discussion

Amy: My name is Amy. I am in the immunology program and I am a third year. And I am in Grace Chen’s lab, and we study colon cancer and colitis, which is colon inflammation, and I’m joined by three friends today.

Allie: Hi, my name is Allison. I am a third year graduate student in microbiology and immunology, and I’m in Billy Tsai’s lab, and we study polyomavirus and how it transports through the ER [endoplasmic reticulum, a compartment within cells involved in protein synthesis].

David: I’m David. Apparently, I’m also a third year. I think.

Amy: Congrats.

Allie: You can’t be too sure.

David: I am also in the microbiology program, and I’m in Andrew Tai’s lab and I study dengue virus and hepatitis virus.

Adam: I’m Adam, I’m a third year.

David: Oh, you are!

Allie: What!

Adam: I’m in the cellular molecular biology program, and I work in Nina Lin’s lab. And even though I’m CMB, her primary appointment is in chemical engineering, and we do a lot of synthetic biology, so engineering microbes for various novel functions.

Amy: Cool. So does anyone want to start about why they decided on grad school and not other career paths like med school or like going straight into industry [e.g., biotechnology or pharmaceutical companies] or whatever?

Allie: I think mine is a little bit in depth.

Amy: Well, go for it.

David: Go. Start.

Amy: Yeah.

Allie: I had the intention of applying to med school as an undergrad and as a junior, I just by chance, took a microbiology course just for fun and the very first day, twenty minutes into the lecture, completely changed my life. I… yeah…

David: Twenty minutes in?

Allie: I’m not even joking. It was amazing. Yeah, twenty minutes in.

Amy: Mind blown.

Allie: And I think a huge part of it was the instructor who would eventually become my undergraduate PI [principal investigator aka the professor in charge of the lab].

Amy: Oh I didn’t know that.

Allie: She was just so incredibly passionate about everything she was talking about and I just… I knew this was exactly what I was supposed to do.

Amy: Wow.

David: So you joined her lab right away?

Allie: Right away.

David: Wow, so you just went up after the lecture and was like I’m going to do this.

Allie: Oh no no. At the end of the semester. I got an A first, just to make sure.

Allie: Yeah so she couldn’t be like, “Uh… I don’t know you or if you’re actually going to do well in my class.”

David: Why didn’t you want to do med school first?

Allie: I think I’ve always had this drive towards biology. I think we all have that. Yeah. Always loved biology, wanted to help people. Still haven’t ruled out the idea of med school. I just knew this was what I wanted first.

Amy: So Adam?

Adam: Yeah. Well, so it was a little… different for me, I guess, maybe? I didn’t really… I didn’t like biology at all in high school. I think maybe just because I didn’t really, despite the fact that we’re all clearly made of cells… I don’t know. I didn’t really just kind of understand the… like the immediate applications. I don’t know. But anyway, I went to college for a year after high school. Still wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, and then took a few years off from undergrad, and then got interested in neuroscience from reading a few books that I got as gifts.

Amy: Like nonfiction?

Adam: Yeah.

Amy: Oh.

David: What books?

Adam: Yeah well, I think the first one that really piqued my interest was called Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain. I mean it’s all about the idea of like… well so the – there’s a guy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison who studies a lot of meditation, and then he’s really interested in the effects that meditation has, like physical effects that meditation has on the brain. And so that was kind of the thesis for the whole book which is like… what are ways that you can kind of shape the way that you think, and then the physical effects that those can have on like the structure and function of your brain. So I thought that was really cool. And then I started getting a lot into neuroscience and ended up just deciding to go back to school for it. But then through the course of the required neuroscience courses, took like a lot of molecular biology and stuff like that.

Amy: Oh, so it was a positive outcome.

Adam: Yeah.

Amy: I was thinking like, “Oh, I ended up hating it.”

Adam: No, no, no. I still really like neuroscience.

David: It shaped his life okay?

Amy: I’m sorry.

Adam: Yeah I was really close to going into grad school for neuroscience, but I ended up finding synthetic biology as a field and thought that was really cool. But for me probably the most immediate thing for grad school was I got a job in an undergrad lab, and then within that first summer, I just really, really liked it.

David: I… I think that’s what did it [for me], too.

Amy: Yeah.

Adam: Yeah.

Amy: Well all of us did research in undergrad right? And that’s kind of like when you’re exploring you do it, and kind of grew into it more and more.

Adam: Specifically, there was like a two-week period during that very first summer.

Amy: Like hers was twenty minutes and yours is two weeks?

Adam: Well, yeah. I mean I definitely really remember it. The PI went on vacation and also the postdoc [postdoctoral researchers have their doctoral degree like a Ph.D. but are not a PI; “postdoc” can refer to a person with the job or the position/job itself] that I was working for was also gone to a conference and so I had two weeks…

Amy: In the lab alone?

Adam: Yeah. But I had been there long enough that like, I had stuff to work on but I remember that I was able to like… something weird happened the first day and so…

Amy: Oh like something bad so you could trouble shoot?

Adam: Yeah. Right so then like take like the next two weeks and try and like figure it out… see what happened. And like it was just a lot of… it was kind of like problem solving, mystery.

Amy: Kind of like “I can do this!”

Adam: Yeah. Yeah it was really—it was fun.

Allie: I feel like there’s an underlying theme among the three of us [Allie, David and Adam]. We’re all a little bit older and did not do the direct four years of undergrad, immediate grad school applications.

David: Yeah definitely.

Allie: We all have different paths.

Amy: Yeah that’s true. That’s why I also decided on the three of you.

David: Yeah, totally diverse.

Amy: Kind of diverse. But like our paths here were fairly diverse because I entered [graduate school] straight from undergrad, but I think I had a lot of research experience in undergrad. Like two or three different types and that’s kind of like your industry job. Like one of my experiences in undergrad could be similar to like, your industry job that helped get you into biology.

David: Mmhm.

Amy: I don’t know. But yeah, I did not start out in immunology, but you like test and try things out. Take different classes.

Adam: Yeah. What drew you to immunology?

Amy: My mom is an immunologist.

Adam: Ahh.

Amy: So I grew up with it, and then my entire life, I was like “I’m not going to be in science.” But then I was good at it and then you learn to like it. Yeah… I started off in plant bio[logy].

David: Me too.

Amy: Yeah! I didn’t know that.

David: I didn’t like it.

Amy: Oh, I loved it. That was the experience that got me into research.

Amy: So future careers. Like we’re all in Ph.D… in a Ph.D…

David: Did we really answer the first question? “Why grad school?”

Amy: Well, I guess we can go around.

David: I don’t know.

Amy: It’s kind of like you don’t want to do med school but like…

David: No, it’s not. Totally different.

Amy: They are different. Explain…

David: They’re totally different

Amy: How would you describe grad school and how it’s different from med school?

David: How would you describe… I don’t know.

Allie: They are very different.

Adam: I think med school is a lot more rote memorization.

David: There’s structure in med school.

Adam: Very structured.

Allie: You have to be self-motivated in graduate school.

David: Yes, in grad school there’s no structure. If you don’t want to do something, then you just don’t. You end up not doing it. And no one tells you to do it.

Allie: And then you never leave.

David: Exactly.

Adam: Well you don’t feel like you clearly answered “Why grad school?”

David: I don’t think any of us did. I don’t think we really know exactly why. After you start doing research, there’s still a lot of paths besides grad school right? You can still go into industry, you can go into science writing…

Allie: That’s true.

Adam: Yeah.

David: There’s so many options.

Adam: That’s a good point. So for me, I do plan on going into industry. And so thinking about that, one of the things that enticed me about a Ph.D. as opposed to going right after undergrad or even after a master’s degree was that I was interested in the idea of having a little bit more autonomy when I get into the industry. I talked to people who go in right after undergrad. It seems like, what I’ve heard at least, is you don’t… you’re not… to a significant level, in charge of what you’re doing, just kind of like a pair of hands. And so… and then I also have a cousin who’s worked for a variety… so he’s worked for Amgen and Genentech. And he has a master’s in pharmaceutical engineering and he felt like his career was somewhat limited.

Amy: Like stagnant?

Adam: By having only a master’s. Yeah.

Amy: Like there’s only a certain point you can get to? Basically?

Adam: Right.

David: I would agree with that.