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Four Ph.D. Students' Journeys to Graduate School – Part 2: Preparing Academically and Thinking About Careers

Last Friday, I shared Part 1 of an audio blog post, in which four Ph.D. students in the sciences, including myself, discussed the motivations and goals behind our decision to continue on to higher education and pursue a Ph.D.

Today I am excited to share the second half of this audio blog post, which delves into our academic and professional experiences, starting with our undergraduate careers that contributed to our decision and readiness to apply to graduate school.

A full transcript of the recording is provided below, in which any biology or graduate school specific terms are explained briefly.

This blog post format is quite unique and different from my past posts, and I would love to hear what you think. 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 graduate student “origin story”!

Transcript of the Discussion

Allie: So my name is Allie. Again. Hi.

David: “I’m a third year.”

Allie: I’m a third year in micro. So I started at community college for the first four years of undergrad and during that time, I worked part-time to pay for undergrad. Then went to UC Santa Cruz and got my bachelor’s degree in biochemistry and molecular biology. So I don’t have a master’s degree. I came to grad school directly out of undergrad, but I took an extra two and a half years in undergrad to work part-time.

Amy: David?

David: Alright so…

Allie: Say hi, you’re David.

David: Hi. I’m David. I’m a third year. Let’s see. I got my bachelor’s from UC Davis. Let’s see what was I doing? I was studying walnuts. So there’s this project called the Walnut Improvement Program where they grow walnuts to be better flavors.

Adam: I mean sure, walnuts are good…

Amy: They’re a huge industry.

Adam: We’re going for great.

David: This is a legit thing, okay? There’s a big enough industry where this is like a thing.

Amy: That’s cool.

David: And so there’re different breeds of walnuts and basically you want to passage them so that … like there’s colors, okay? When you crack open the shell, there’s webbing on the inside and people don’t want that.

Allie: Yeah, I don’t want that.

David: Because it’s difficult. But I left the lab because it wasn’t interesting.

Adam: Too many walnuts.

David: It was too many walnuts. I went to a bioengineering lab where we made biofuels.

Adam: Oh.

Amy: Nice.

David: Sugar beets? Because what they do is they shred sugar beets. When you mash up the stuff and make juice, sugar, whatever. There’s all this crap leftover. And we take it and we were going to ferment it to make ethanol. That’s the idea. And then immediately after that, I left and I worked in a public health lab where we screened for bioterrorism stuff like anthrax.

Amy: Were you in undergrad at this point?

David: No this was just after undergrad so I just got my B.S.

Allie: What did you get your B.S. in?

David: Oh, I got my B.S. in biotechnology with an emphasis in microbiology and fermentation, which related to my lab experience.

Amy: Whoa fermentation?

David: Yeah. So I went to work in this public health lab, and then that’s when I decided that I would probably go to grad school because basically everyone there… well the two people above me had their master’s and that was it, and they weren’t allowed to do anything beyond stay in this lab, and there were people that did more of the actual work that were inside… So it’s split, basically, there were contractors and then there were people who were actually in the public health labs. So the people with the Ph.D.s that did most of the interesting stuff, so they worked in the BSL-3+ [Note: Biosafety levels describe labs that work with pathogens, where levels 3 and 4 labs are specialized to work with serious and potentially lethal pathogens (e.g., level 3-anthrax, level 4- Ebola virus)] where you could sample like, when the FBI comes in with stuff and they think this could be anthrax, you got to do something, make sure it’s not. So most of the people where I worked were really bored, and we did the same thing day in and day out. Yeah. So I decided to leave and go and get my master’s because my undergrad was so bad that nobody would take me okay? I had a 2.4 [GPA] graduating from my undergrad but they don’t ask about your GPA when you apply for jobs right? They don’t care. Initially my thought was, I would just go into industry and just be a tech but it was just so boring, I couldn’t handle it. And so I went and got my master’s at Fullerton, so the small Cal State.

Allie: CSU.

David: Yeah it’s a Cal State University. And so luckily, someone took me [for grad school].

Amy: So did that help bump up your GPA a lot? Or just like more experience basically? Or both?

David: I don’t know. So I think if you apply to Ivies, they still look at your GPA regardless of your master’s. Because I didn’t even get interviews.

Amy: I would assume that they would look at both, you know?

David: I think they ignored my application.

Amy: Like screened you out, basically?

Adam: Yeah. They’re so competitive.

David: There’s heavy screening for sure. But anyways, yeah, I took 3 years for my master’s which is not typical. Most places like Michigan you can get out with your master’s in one year if you just take coursework. But my master’s was thesis-based and so I studied antibiotic resistance, and I was lucky enough where I published a lot during my master’s and so when I applied for the Ph.D. program, that’s what I highlighted: that I could do research and that was it.

Adam: Which I think for a lot of Ph.D. programs, really carries a lot of weight.

David: I was also pretty lucky. My GRE was pretty good.

Amy: So what was your undergrad story?

Adam: Yeah. Right. So I graduated high school in 2003 and yeah, wasn’t really interested in academics in high school. Went right into college just because, specifically in my family, that was very much the expectation. And so I went to Western Michigan University for a year and still didn’t really find anything, any kind of academic interests and so after a year or so, I decided to take some time off and took about five years off and just worked a variety of not too exciting jobs, although I did enjoy them—mostly in restaurants but then like I said, I got interested in neuroscience from some science non-fiction books that I just read in my spare time, and University of Michigan was the only school in Michigan that had an undergraduate neuroscience program at the time, and so I had free credits from a trust, from an education trust fund, through my parents. So I had free credits at U of M, they had a neuroscience program, so I went to community college for two years in order to get my grades up and then transferred from Oakland Community College to University of Michigan and then took another three years to finish my undergrad and then applied directly from that—finishing undergrad—to graduate school. Definitely there were a lot of pluses and minuses for the path that I took but for me, it did really work out really well. I’m very happy with where I am and I now have a pretty good idea of what makes me happy and what I’m interested in. So that was for me very useful, but not everybody needs that much time.

Amy: So what was your undergrad degree then? Neuroscience?

Adam: So my undergraduate degree was neuroscience.

Amy: Okay.

Adam: Even … actually by the end of my undergraduate degree, so like probably a year… maybe a year and a half into the three years it took me to finish at U of M, I became really interested in synthetic biology.

Amy: How did that happen?

Adam: So it’s kind of funny. I was actually watching The Colbert Report and there’s a guy…

David: Wow. We’re sold.

Adam: George Church, who’s like arguably the preeminent synthetic biologist in the world. He’s a professor at Harvard. And he had recently written a book called Regenesis, and he was like doing a book tour so he was doing all kinds of interviews and stuff, and so I was like in the midst of taking a bunch of like molecular biology and genetics courses for my neuroscience prerequisites and I heard this interview with George Church, and he talks about a lot of interesting stuff with what David mentioned before, so they do a lot of like biological engineering for biofuel production. I had always been pretty interested in energy production and also, synthetic biology has a lot about food production on terms of engineering plants and stuff like that. Even while I was finishing my undergraduate degree, I knew that I was going to be going into synthetic biology and not neuroscience. But because I still liked neuroscience so much, I just finished off the undergrad. And there was a lab here at Michigan that does a lot of synthetic biology that I was really interested in. The professor Nina Lin, my professor, actually did a postdoc with George Church. In our lab, we focus on microbial consortia so basically microbial communities, trying to grow different microbes together and it’s kind of… the idea is kind of basically specialization and division of labor similar to human economies. And so the idea that using different species of microbes to split up different tasks within microbial consortia makes them more modular and more programmable and more efficient. So anyway, that’s it.

Amy: I’m Amy. I’m a third year.

David: There you are! Okay.

Allie: Fantastic.

Amy: I did my undergrad at UC Berkeley. In sophomore year, I declared my molecular and cell biology, MCB, [major] with an emphasis in immunology and then I really enjoyed my plant biology lab experience so much I tacked on a genetics and plant biology major in my junior year and so it took me four and a half years to graduate. And then I came directly here.

David: Why?

Amy: What to do you mean why? Like why here or…?

David: Why did you want to do a Ph.D.? How did you know this was what you wanted to do?

Amy: Mainly it’s like throughout all my research experiences I just really liked that process of like here’s the problem, how are you going to solve it? Can you solve it—you can never fully solve it and from then, where do you go? I think of it as a branching pattern in my head. I just really like you have all these options. Negative data is still data just go the other way. Like go off onto the other branch. But actually I had no immunology experience. My mom was an immunologist so I like kind of knew what she did and then I did do a little stint in a cancer biology lab. And so that wasn’t really immunology but that’s where I kind of decided I wanted to do human biology research.

David: Future career question. When I came in, it was academia. And it’s still academia despite the numbers. The main goal of all of it is to teach other people how to do science, right?

Adam: Right, exactly.

Allie: I don’t think you would receive a Ph.D. if this [money] were a concern, right? Like because there’s not enough money in the world to make me want to come into lab every day and continue to fail. Nine out of ten experiments do not work. And if there’s not something else driving you, you’re going to quit. There has to be a love for what you are doing. I think you really have to like this. Yeah I don’t think this can be narrowed down to a spreadsheet.

David: I can convince myself on like a daily basis that I really shouldn’t be doing this.

Allie: I don’t think you can doing anything else.

Amy: You made it this far for a reason too.

Allie: This is all you ever talk about every time we interact! You love this so much you talk about it more than anything else. Sometimes you start a conversation with me, in the middle of a conversation, that you’ve been having in your own head about your research.

David: Yeah.

Amy: And you just have to go along with it.

Allie: Yes.

David: This is… this is what it takes to get a Ph.D. You got to think about it all day. This is… it’s your life.

Adam: Yeah. That’s funny. I was talking to my cousin one time, right? So I have a cousin, like I said, he did a master’s of pharmaceutical engineering. He works for Genentech. His wife also works for Genentech. And she has a master’s, and I was talking to her one time about getting a Ph.D. And she was saying she knew… she remembers the exact moment when she knew she didn’t want to get a Ph.D. because she was talking to one of her friends who was in a Ph.D. program and he was telling her, “Yeah, you know, I was getting out of the shower the other day, and I just thought of a control [a control sample is used to help determine a baseline for experimental variables] that I could do for my experiment.” And she was like, that is never something that’s happened to me. Well… yeah. Great… great talk guys.

Amy: Thanks for listening!