Ph.D. Student? Nope, it's an apprentice in the trench.

Graduate school has changed my life, however, very few people realize what graduate school is and what it actually encompasses. In this post I hope to walk you through what it looks like to get a Ph.D. in a STEM related field, how we’re not students or employees and how you can encourage those of us who embark on this journey.

Ph.D. life:
I am a third year Ph.D candidate in Genetics and Molecular Biology. I work 45-50 hour weeks. that are often unpredictable. My workdays are built around performing experiments which can take anywhere from four days to two weeks to do. Depending on the day I can spend 4-5 hours doing lab work and 4-5 hours of doing data analysis or writing. Often these exact numbers vary based on the amount of experiments I have going at any one time. People are surprised when I tell them I have to go in on the weekend to feed my cells or stay late because an experiment is working and I want to keep getting data. A Ph.D. student does not just work 9-5 and 40 hours a week. Our hours depend on experiments. We do have a more flexible schedule but with that flexibility during the week comes the need for flexibility with a personal life when there is a lot going on in lab.  

Uncertainty is a huge hallmark of science. Sometimes my cells decide to be uncooperative and grow too fast or slow. An experiment may work one week, but not work the next. As the scientist, a lot of my time is spent scratching my head wondering what changed between experiments and making sure to record every parameter about the experiment I can! Some scientists even track the weather to see if that impacts the data they receive from their experiments. This uncertainty leads to many experiments being repeated and very rigorous standards for keeping track of experiments.

Ideally, all of my experiments will help me answer a scientific question. With the data I receive from my experiments I can write a story about how I think a molecule is working or why the data looks a certain way. I base this story on all the other stories that have been written in science. My work should add something to the field I study so that other scientists can repeat my work and build off of it. In order to graduate I have to publish one of these stories in a scientific journal where it is reviewed by other scientists. This process takes a long time and I am only required to publish one of these stories, though I hope to publish multiple during my time in graduate school.

Besides time performing experiments, a significant amount of our time is spent writing abstracts, grants, and designing posters. This may seem like a huge waste of time but the time spent not pipetting is actually crucially important. Not only do we learn to tell a story that needs to be heard  but it allows our work to be critiqued. Anything we write, present or share in graduate school is chewed up and spit back at us with questions, comments, and a lots of red pen. We learn to thrive on failure and constructive criticism because that will make us stronger and better scientists in the end. 

We are also learning how to think differently. All of us study different topics so deeply that we become an expert in whatever our dissertation ends up being. We are taught to not take things at face value. Our classes consist of journal clubs where we read primary literature and pick it apart one paragraph at a time asking what else should have been looked at and if the right methods are used. We are taught to question everything and look at everything logically and with strong skepticism. I alluded more to the effect of this in a previous post, but this can lead to a lot of tongue-biting in social situations when your pseudo-science radar starts flashing. At the end of the day, we all receive a Ph.D. In all reality it does not matter what project people work on. I study muscle development but I could work on almost any project and learn the same set of core skills needed to grant me a Ph.D. 

This gets to the real kicker. Every other week a church friend or family member will ask me when I’m going to graduate and get a ‘real job’. First of all, science is unpredictable so I have no idea when my paper will be published and when I will get a Ph.D. At my university there is an average time to degree but so much depends on how your experiments go. When people ask this question it is one of the most discouraging because we have no idea and it can be a reminder that we have so much to get done. Second of all, being a scientist is a real job. We are asking questions about the natural world, learning how to answer those questions and communicating our findings. Through all of this, we are challenged to think deeper and more critically. People outside of STEM tend to make mass generalizations and treat scientists pursuing a PhD like we are just students even though we are training to become professionally recognized as a voice of reason in the scientific community. This gets into how grad students are defined. 

Student or employee or neither?:
In most of my conversations with people they try to classify me into one of two categories: student or employee because that's all they know. As a student, I have to fulfill certain class and teaching requirements as well as pass several qualifying exams and pay tuition. As an employee, I do not get summers off and instead have more time to dedicate to my research, but I am neither one of these categories. I would argue there's a third category that people don't know about. This third category is the apprentice in the trench and is a perfect depiction of graduate school. 

Our time in graduate school is one of purposeful sacrifice. We know more or less what we are getting into when we begin the five-year journey but we often are not prepared for the failure that vigilantly marches to meet us. This failure can take many forms: interpreting data wrong, messing up an experiment, an experiment not working no matter how many times you attempt it, a difficult class, months spent writing a grant only to not get it - the list goes on. Nevertheless, we persevere through this failure looking around for glimpses of light in the darkness. 

One week you can discover a glorious piece of data, the next you can be slogging through an experiment that never works. Most of the days during a five-year PhD program are full of hard work with little reward and your work can seem all encompassing. It's something you've fully given yourself to and that you labor towards which makes it different from a job. It's also something that has no defined ending which makes it different from school. It's an investment of your time, energy and ultimately yourself because you walk out of lab a changed person with a Ph.D. in hand. It is because of this consistent plodding through the thick and thin that I would argue we are apprentices in the trenches. 

I do not write all this to garner sympathy but rather to share what it is like in graduate school. We are not employees and we are not students. We are on a long journey in the trenches with a dim light at the end of the tunnel that hides behind clouds, trees, and other people to try to discourage us from the path. If you know a graduate student, give them a hug, a cup of coffee and stop asking them when they're going to graduate. Try to understand what they’re going through and try to realize that they don’t have all the time in the world to volunteer or spend time with you because they're barely able to get enough sleep or make food. Ask them about their science if you want to. But if you don't want to know about their science or don’t have time to truly understand it then don't ask because it hurts more for people to not care about this five year long war we are battling through.

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