Wednesday, August 25, 2010

It’s called grad SCHOOL for a reason boys and girls…

Since last entry I’ve managed to navigate the mean streets of south central West Lafayette, IN, watch dumbfounded as my bus passed me by (4 times at last count), and not be murdered by my roommate. All in all it has turned out to be a decent month.

Orientation was last week (all week long) and let me tell you it is not for the faint of heart! It was about as fun as a rectal exam. I don’t know about you, but being up before Jesus is not my idea of a good time! I and my cohort spent the bulk of the week running back and forth from pointless session to pointless session with a few faculty interviews in between. And by faculty interviews I mean meetings with potential labs. If the program you choose happens to be in the biological or interdisciplinary life sciences – there is a very strong possibility that you will have to complete rotations (usually 2 per semester). The PULSe program requires that incoming first year graduate students interview AT LEAST 5 faculty members to determine 1.) if their research is stimulating enough to spend 7 weeks in their lab and 2.) if you like the PI enough to endure being in their lab for 7 weeks. (HEADS UP PEOPLE! ADVICE AHEAD) The whole point of rotating through multiple labs is to make sure you find the perfect home for the next 5-7 years. Rotations ensure that you like the research in the lab you’ve chosen, that you like the people currently in the lab, that you like the PI, and so on. It is a 7 week long interview. TAKE IT SERIOUSLY!!!!! And as a bonus – any work you do that generates scientifically relevant data can be put into an article that you can be a co-author on! HOW FREAKIN AWESOME IS THAT!? Calm down, it isn’t that awesome (please note the sarcastic tone…)

I must say that I have run into some major issues trying to find a home. If you are a senior in college who is hoping to go to XYZ University for its stellar research in XYZ department – do NOT hesitate to ask any professor you are interested in working with about their funding situation. I repeat do NOT hesitate to ask any professor you are interested in working with about their funding situation. PI’s have to pay grad students out of grant money. If there is no grant money, or grant money is running low, you will be unable to work with your PI or PIs of choice. I learned this the hard way. I didn’t have anyone to tell me how to really navigate grad school (recruitment weekends included). Grad schools invite you to recruitment weekend because they want you. They bring out the shiniest of students and the “fine china” that’s always heard about but never seen. They feed you, put you up in pretty hotels, and pay for your flight – the whole gamut. They want you and they will do whatever it takes to get you – including shake their moneymakers. EVERY school wants what they consider to be the crème de la crème. If they invite you to recruitment - you, my friend, are the crème. Recognize your worth and know that you have the right to ask any question you want.

I did not know this. I chose a school that had 3 professors that were actively engaged in research DIRECTLY linked to what I wanted to study and others who I could tolerably learn from. Only one was up front with me about his funding situation. You have the right to ask professors about funding situations – especially if you are picking XYZ University because of them. When you go to recruitment and you meet with the people who will be your colleagues for the next 5-7 years – ask them how their ongoing research projects mesh with rotation schedules. Ask them about money: do they have it, will they be getting more of it, and when will they potentially be running out of it. You don’t want to choose a school and choose a lab only to have said lab run out of money halfway through your project. Ask them what the future directions of their research entails. Ask them about techniques they are currently using in the lab. You should even ask the graduate students how long it took them to generate data that was meaningful enough to give them a paper with first authorship. PhD programs in the sciences pay you for a reason. You are an employee. You have the right to know about where you will be working for the next 5 or so years.

I say all this because I didn’t ask these questions. I didn’t have anyone around me to tell me to ask these questions. Hopefully someone will be able to walk away from this in a better position than I am in today. I would like to state that this is in no way a fault of the PULSe program. My program has no way of knowing which professors have money which ones don’t. There are over 400 labs conducting research on Purdue’s main campus alone. I simply was not educated in the ways of grad school. I am now, and hopefully, so are you.

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