How a Three Year Break Prepared Me for a PhD

For a while, I have wanted to write about how my time away from school shaped me into the person/researcher I am now. A reflection on this past semester felt like a good opportunity to discuss how lessons learned in my time away prepared me for the challenges I recently faced.

As a brief timeline of events, I graduated with a Bachelor’s in Biomedical Engineering from Case Western Reserve University in 2013. That fall, I moved to London to pursue a Master’s in Nanotechnology and Regenerative Medicine at University College London, which I completed in the fall of 2014. While both of those experiences were incredible and life-altering in their own way (which I will probably write about at a later time), I really only became an adult and learned adult lessons once I left school.

From September 2014 to August 2017, I did my best to be a contributing member of society, with varying success. The first 9 months of my post-academic life were filled with moving back in with my parents, trying to find a job, questioning my choices, catching up on sleep, and getting re-acquainted with the people in my life. While, in that time, I felt more like a high school student during summer break than a functioning adult, I appreciate the breathing room it afforded me and my chance to reassess what I wanted to do next.

In the summer of 2015, I started a job as research assistant at a very well-funded private institution. I had previously interned there and was very excited to accept a full-time position. Fortunately, this lab allowed me to combine my previous experience with cancer drug delivery platforms with my emerging interests in tissue engineering and regenerative medicine technologies. I was given many responsibilities very soon after starting the position. These grew to involve extensive writing and work with grant applications, as well as holding authority in groups of people with far greater experience and stature than me. “In over my head” felt like an understatement.

The pressure of such responsibility and work-load frustrations lead to dreading any contact with my PI, and resulted in two main events. First, I started writing. I kept an online blog under a pseudonym where I could articulate everything in my life that was making me miserable. Simply putting my thoughts into words felt so cathartic that once written down, I could easily moved past whatever was bothering me. Second, I started looking for a new job.

My limited criteria when looking for a new job were that I stay in Houston, the research be in the realm of tissue engineering, and the PI be very different from the one I’d been working for. It took about 5 months from the time I started looking, to find a position which met my criteria. In the fall of 2016, I started my new job as a research associate (a title bump, but not so much a salary one) at UTHealth School of Dentistry, working with a PI who was the polar opposite of the one I had left.

I took on completely different, but equally challenging responsibilities which mainly included designing a new research project in a field I had never worked in before. This involved spending months reading and familiarizing myself with the vast amounts of knowledge that researchers in the field before me had acquired. Under the guidance of my PI, I wrote a textbook chapter on cell interactions with different biomaterials and designed a research project which I was proud of and excited to start working on.

Within two months of starting at UTHealth, I knew I was ready to go back to school and start working on my PhD. I also wanted to keep working in that lab, with those people. Prior to that job, I had spent enough time working in a septic environment that I recognized one of support, teaching, and growth. Soon after starting my job there, I applied to the PhD program that my PI was affiliated with, the UT MD Anderson/UTHealth Graduate School of Biomedical Sciences.

I don’t think my PI was thrilled about the prospect of my leaving his lab less than a year after joining, but he was incredibly supportive of my desire to go back to school. The research project we’d designed became the project I applied to fellowships with, as it was the project I wanted to work on for my PhD.

In August 2017, I left full-time employment and started on my current journey.

Due to my goal to take candidacy in the spring of next year, I chose to take both of my program’s most difficult courses this past semester. I believed that with my research responsibilities limited to rotations (i.e. short-term projects), I would have more flexibility when needing to complete assignments and study for exams. This assumption turned out to be correct, but I underestimated how much these courses would challenge me and how much time they would require.

With my previous academic endeavors based in engineering principles, switching to a biological mindset has been incredibly difficult. I understood very little of the first few weeks of my classes this semester, causing me to be disheartened and incredibly nervous about my first round of exams. However, I walked into this semester knowing, and regularly telling myself, that grades in graduate school are far less important than they were in undergrad. While I put everything I could into studying and completing exams to the best of my ability, I never felt it necessary to earn the highest grades possible. Following that, when I didn’t do well on an exam, while disappointing, my experiences working in a lab full-time proved that a test score, while important in the short-term, is near-insignificant in the long-term.

This also meant that I consciously decided to not over-exert myself in studying for exams, most of which happened on my couch nook shown above. We didn’t have homework assignments, so the bulk of my efforts were devoted to studying for the 3-4 exams in each.

I remember what it was like to let my stresses at work overrun my mental health, to the point where I despised waking up in the morning. I never wanted my classes to cause me such misery, so I took steps to make sure they didn’t. I made sure to get enough sleep each night, I did my best to eat healthy (though any stress makes sugar unavoidable), and I went to the gym as much as my energy would allow. Beyond that, I also took plenty of breaks, stepping away from work and studying, going out to see friends and family, and taking time for activities that had nothing to do with school.

Outside of class, I started this semester thinking that I knew for sure which lab I was going to work in, what my project would be like, and who I was going to work with. As I’ve previously written, none of what I thought was going to happen did. The final nail in the coffin came when I failed to get a fellowship to provide funding for the research project I started my PhD to work on. Even through that, my past experiences taught me that the right environment will present itself when you are clear about what you’re looking for and are willing to ask for help to find it.

I also took this semester to get back to writing about my experiences, which has helped me to express frustrations and move past obstacles in my path.

I have gotten through a difficult semester and come out on the other side feeling like I’ve gained a whole new knowledge base. I am very fortunate to have joined an incredible lab, found an inspiring PI/mentor, and started an exciting research project that will push me to grow even further as a researcher and scientist. I am grateful that my past experiences have enabled me to adapt to the unexpected, handle seemingly uncontrollable stresses, and recognize worthwhile opportunities.

The Trickle-Down Effects of Limited Research Funding

This is the time of year that thousands of PhD student hopefuls get invited to visit and interview at programs they have applied to for this fall. At my institution, interviewees have a chance to meet with multiple faculty members in the research area(s) they are interested in, as well as a chance to talk with current students about their experiences in the program. This is an invaluable time for potential new students to assess whether our program is right for them and for us to determine whether they fit here. It is an incredibly stressful process for the interviewees, which is compounded by conversations about research funding.

Ask any researcher or principal investigator (PI) about funding – how to get it, how long it lasts, how much it covers, etc. – and you will consistently hear about how not enough research funding is available and how difficult it is to be awarded a grant. It is more difficult than ever to find tenure-track positions, become a PI, and establish your own research lab, mainly because of limited research funding. In addition, those who are fortunate enough to start their own lab face a seemingly endless cycle of gathering data, publishing, applying for new grants, and repeating the process year after year. The struggles of procuring funding in academic research is not a secret. However, I do not think that people speak enough about how funding shortages affect new PhD students.

A common practice in PhD programs across the country is for students to spend most of their first year rotating in a few different labs in order to try out various research projects, work with potential doctoral advisers/PIs, and determine whether they can see themselves working in a particular lab for 4+ years. In my program, students have 3 chances to work with a PI for 8-10 weeks, after which, they must choose who to work with for the rest of their doctoral career. My institution boasts 300+ faculty in more areas of biomedical research than I can name, whom we are able to choose from for rotations.

When choosing a rotation lab, we are encouraged to have a conversation with that lab’s PI about whether or not they have funding for a PhD student. In my experience, PIs are very clear about whether they believe they have enough funding to take on a PhD student. Unfortunately, I have found that not every PI knows how much a PhD student really costs. In my program, each student’s yearly tuition is under $5,000, medical insurance is about $8,000, and our annual stipend is $32,000, totaling about $45,000 per student, per year, that the PI is responsible to pay. For those unfamiliar with researcher salaries, that is approximately the cost of a postdoctoral fellow. The productivity of a graduate student versus a postdoctoral fellow can be debated, but PhD students would be in a lab for 4+ years, whereas postdocs can be a financial commitment of only 1-2 years.

When faced with the full assessment of the financial burden of a PhD student, faculty can become understandably reticent about whether they are ready and able to make that kind of financial commitment. Regrettably, students may not have this detailed a discussion about finances with their rotation PIs until later in their rotation when they have expressed interest in joining that lab. This heartbreaking news is then followed by that student scrambling to find another PI to rotate with who has the ideal combination of interesting research, desired mentorship style, optimal lab environment, has funding for a PhD student, and hasn’t yet committed to another student.

I can say from first hand experience that all of this happening can feel like the world is crumbling around you, but you still have to wake up in the morning, go to the lab you want but know you can’t join, finish your rotation project, keep going to class, and fulfill every other responsibility you have, while trying to find a new lab which fits the aforementioned criteria. It is no wonder that PhD students commonly face mental health problems.

In most instances, the PI is not to blame for this problem. There are miscommunications, gaps in knowledge, last-minute changes in finance allocations, and, as ever, a general lack of research funding. To their credit, my institution’s administrators understand that financial commitments of 4+ years can be tricky and do everything they can to assure that a student will not be forced out of a lab/project after 2-3 years due to a PI’s lack of research funds. Additionally, my program offers internal fellowships to partially or fully cover the student’s costs, but those are very competitive and can only be applied for 2-3 years into a doctoral project.

Undergraduate seniors and incoming PhD students can apply for external fellowships from federal organizations like the National Science Foundation and the Department of Defense, as well as a few private organizations like the Hertz Fellowship. These fellowships cover part to all of a student’s tuition/fees and offer a stipend that is typically more than what the PhD institution offers, but only fund 1-10% of applicants (depending on the fellowship program) and can require students to plan a research project months in advance of them choosing a lab/project/adviser.

Other popular external fellowships, such as those offered by the National Institutes of Health, are monetarily valuable, but require the student to have chosen and started working on a doctoral project, meaning they cannot be applied for until months after the student has joined a lab. Essentially, a PhD student can only secure funding for themselves when they are either extremely forward-planning or after a PI has already agreed to cover their costs. But again, these external programs have, at best, a 10-15% acceptance rate, leaving thousands of students across the country to be funded exclusively by their PIs.

While limited funding for PhD students is a multi-faceted problem, including issues like increased tuition prices and necessary increases in stipend to provide a living wage, I do not know of any other way fix this problem without specifically allocating more federal funds for graduate students in the forms of fellowships and more accessible research project grants.