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Tall Chai Latte

Poster awards

After waking up early to attend our annual departmental symposium yesterday, I was left feeling exhausted at the end of day.

The symposium is entirely run by graduate students in the department, starting from deciding who to invite as speakers, down to the location of the symposium dinner. Overall, it's a great thing to participate.

But one thing that really bothers me every year is the award session. Each year, the department gives out awards in best poster presentation and oral presentation to students. Although the awardees are either decided by faculty or student in an anonymous voting process, the students receiving these awards are often the students from Big Wig labs. Or the most popular student. Or the talk with the prettiest PowerPoint slides. The science we do is sooo diverse, that is now difficult to fully understand the significance of everyone's work. Everyone works hard, every lab does good science. But you can't give everyone an award- so what do you do?

This is a common theme in life science academia nowadays. I know my PI is trying to be encouraging and supportive on this issue. After all, my success is a reflection on her, and me working hard is in her best interest. But her own CV totally reflects the above situation- multiple Glamour magazine publications, trainee of multiple Big Wigs, etc. It's kind of, well, ironic. It's hard to accept her encouragement when you know she wouldn't be able to land on a faculty position without her credentials above as the icing on the cake.

Life is unfair. I work hard and I have no regrets. That's what I need to know at the end of day.

Tall Chai Latte

I'm not sure what's got hold of me lately. I feel my PhD has been a waste.

I'm close to the end of my fourth year. By September, it will be my fifth year in the program. When I started in the lab, I was assigned four different projects, all were outside of the lab's expertise (and of course I wouldn't have expertise either). I didn't really think much of them besides seeing them as brand new challenges, new opportunities to learn and explore. As time goes on, things were tough, and inevitably some projects came to dead ends. The surviving projects are one high-throughput screening I single-handedly optimized and ran with the help of core facility staffs, and one other interesting in-vivo project looking at novel substrates of the protein we study.

I spent so much time building the technology platform for these projects, and 2 years gone by in a blink. This process really leaves me feeling like a technician rather than a PhD student. Seriously, maybe I'm just not smart or efficient, but I really don't have the mental power to take on intellectual challenges after constant protocol optimization/troubleshooting. Testing compounds from our chemists seems to be my major role in the lab now, along with reading literatures trying to come up with a potential direction to proceed with the in-vivo project. It's a lot of thinking. A lot. My advisor doesn't seem to understand; as someone who just sits in the office and read papers, she seems to have forgotten how it was like to be at the bench. I really see no point in communicating this to her, nor she has the experience in these techniques. My name would be added to the paper whenever any of the compounds I help tested gets published; so far I have 2-3 middle author publications (do these count as anything?).

I don't want to totally discredit the training I received here. It's good to have the ability to troubleshoot or build something from scratch. During the problem solving phase, I acquired a lot of knowledge from all kinds of lab techniques I could lay my hands on, critically think about how they could help my projects, and quickly learn them. But still, sometimes I wish I joined a better established lab. Instead of devoting copious amount of time laying foundations for the lab, I wish that the time I spent would be more beneficial in moving my own projects further. It's hard being someone's only-second grad student. Want to pack up and go home.

Tall Chai Latte

It's the season to come down with a cold. Meh, pay back time from my body...

Things in the lab are as sluggish as ever. I wonder when is anything going to pick up the pace? I have yet to become efficient, surprises this place throw at me constantly put me outside of my comfort zone. It's annoying to often slow down and figure things out.

My boss suddenly said to me the other day that she cannot do my readings for me, that she has many things on her plate, and I need to be independent in doing all the thinking. She ended the conversation offering to help if I ever need reagents, advice, or getting outside help. I don't expect her to do my readings. I know perfectly that's my job. But how does one balance between taking directions and going rogue? It's hard to do when one day you are told that your approach is not good and just do as you're told, then again told you should do your own thinking and independently learn all of the techniques you need. And dealing your boss' emotion fluctuation...

It's been hard moving along in this lab. But it will be better... We've already come this far as a team. Let's do it!

Tall Chai Latte


We arrived at another Monday. Before it leaves us, I would like to take a moment to reflect what happened today.

Today started out as a fairly typical day. I ran into my boss in the hallway and asking her whether an individual meeting was scheduled as usual. She replied yes, so I showed up at her office. The meeting came down as we were not on the same page, with this week being the third week in a roll. I felt like I was speaking calculus while she was saying greek. She insisted on whatever she stated was indeed what we decided to do at the end of our meeting last Monday, while I heard completely different story and told her straight up "this was not what we talked about". I ended up ordering the wrong reagent and she thought I "was not listening".

I didn't walk out of the meeting happy, and it was written all over my face. I was also totally confused on what exactly did we talk about last time, and what is expected of me for next time. The unhappy mood lasted more than half of the day today because I felt I was misunderstood. Good thing was, boss didn't let her temper rolling out of control, which had happened before to someone else. She quickly reverted back to a more cheerful tone, we discussed an idea I plan on pursuing, and that was all.

I suppose these are chances for a grad student to mature and grow. One can learn how to let go of the negative emotions quickly, how to think positively, and come back tomorrow to try again. I can see this time around, the negative emotion affected me less, and I was back to my old self soon after sipping on some hot milk tea at 3pm.

Let's try again, tomorrow.

Tall Chai Latte

4th year

It's been a while since I blogged on the gradcafe. Last time I blogged, I was in the midst of the never-ending rotation streak, and it felt like I would never manage to land anywhere in the program. My program is an umbrella program, I rotated through FOUR DIFFERENT DEPARTMENTS! Well, I did find a lab home to stay, passed my prelim and became a candidate, and now arrived in the middle of my fourth year. Many research-related ups and downs happened, projects initiated and terminated, and time went by really fast -- It only seemed yesterday that I was fretting over how to find an advisor at all.

Over Christmas break, I spent a lot of time preparing application material for a very prestigious university fellowship, as my boss suddenly decided to nominate me for it. I asked around for advice, and the advice I was given was this: don't worry about it too much, whether you win or not all depends on your advisor. If your advisor is a bigwig, then you have bigger chance of winning it. I have long heard about these "unspoken rules" as disadvantage of working with a junior faculty (my boss is relatively junior in the department). I didn't believe it completely at first until I read the personal statements from the past year winners, then I realized how slim my chance would be at winning this thing.

But still, my boss nominated me, and the department agreed to send my application out to Fellowship Office. The secretary was on my back about having everything ready to be submitted by a certain date. My boss tried to spin things in a positive light, by stating how it'll be a great exercise and that my efforts count, simultaneously being critical on my written statement. I didn't want to do it but still being dragged through the whole process, with a very slim chance of getting anything in return. I finished writing the personal statement at the last moment, and then I was eventually rejected. I was pretty bummed about this outcome -- why do it while you know you don't stand a chance? I could have relaxed over Christmas, but instead I was fretting over this thing. Moreover, the rejection letter was totally unhelpful. It didn't come with any feedbacks or comments on the overall application. How would I know what to do if I want to apply again next year? Even R01 rejections give you a score and some comments on your grant proposal!

Well, better go focus on other things.

Tall Chai Latte

Back for an entry

Hello GradCafe,

In this somewhat chilly afternoon, I am trying to produce some progress before I head home for thanksgiving. I haven't visited this site (and the blog) for a while, it's a good time to take a moment and write something.

After my journey with numerous rotations (let's say, more than 3, to remain anonymous on the internet), I settled down in a lab. During the course of my super rotation journey, I also picked up running. This morning I just completed my first 5K run with 43 minutes. Not bad for a rookie eh?

For the semester, I have to take a literature course required by my new department. Students are required to take turn and present the latest literature from a selection of fields, chosen by the professors teaching the course. None of the fields directly pertains to my background (some are totally unrelated), presenting/critiquing the papers became harder for me than other students in the class, with some of them came directly from that area and/or are currently doing research in those areas. Although I am trying my best to offer my two cents in coming up hypothetical 'future directions' for each paper I present, and contribution to the general discussion, I can't help feeling a little worried from time to time... Oh well, what can you do? The only thing I can do is to tough it out at every presentation and take the questions the best I can, putting on a thick skin helps.

I just want to pass... And move on to the next challenge...

Tall Chai Latte

First year of grad school is almost over. Although I don't like the class I'm taking (ugh what a passive aggressive prof... whatev just let me pass), things are alright. Comparing to the first semester, It seems we are more on track. Rotation project accomplished, boss man has no complaints, looks like we are good for the next 3-4 years (I hope).

But I can't help wanting to go home. I just want to spend a little time home when semester ends... I have no idea how to bring this up to the boss man, since he is adamant about students working 24/7. I mean, I agree that in order to be better than everyone else, you need to invest time. Just like if you play piano, to be a good pianist you need to practice piano all the time. To be a good scientist, you need to practice science all the time. After 8 months, I still want to go home... :(

However, a good skype conversation with my ex-PI somewhat relieved that thought. He sounded happy to talk to me again, as we planned how to push our manuscript closer to publication. (he just laughed when I told him "omg the boss man wants me to breathe, eat, and sleep science!" and said "yes... that's for your own good...")

Final exams are coming... Time to study hard. And spring still hasn't arrived in this area. Oh well, patience is a virtue.

Tall Chai Latte

So I'm writing once again to vent.

One more month until the end of this semester, our program already sent out information regarding declare a thesis lab and a home department.

Things did improve a lot compared to the last semester, which I'm glad. While fully engaged into science, what's lacking this time is the human interaction. A brand new lab, a brand new group of people, starting all over again... I like how productive and diligent people are, somehow I am not entirely assimilated into this group. People are nice, don't get me wrong....

Now another dilemma comes. We all know that April is grant season, PIs are all submitting their big shot grant proposals and hoping to get them funded for the next cycle. While I hope to stay in this lab and do/learn the science, somehow something feels not quite there. Another rotation is not guaranteed given funding situation, on top of the whole "does it work out?" question... Decisions, decisions.

Ugh I'm so stressed and anxious. Someone get me out of this stressed state...

Tall Chai Latte

The first semester as a grad student has come and gone. Seeing another round of application season coming upon us just made me realize how fast time flies, I was just in these applicants' shoes last year!

Honestly, I didn't like my experience this semester at all. I followed the recommendation of our program director to sign up for 3 courses, without knowing that how much more work one graduate level course is compared to undergrad. Assignments are endless, literature reviews, discussions... These courses are tedious. Just yesterday I found out from my fellow classmates that they all know not to take two certain classes together (which are two of the three I was taking), apparently I didn't get the memo...

Classes aside, the main killer is the rotation experience itself. Coming into academia as a young grasshopper (compared to the profs, who have been in this business for the past 30 years), I was eager to make good impressions and demonstrate that I have what it takes to succeed, also very eager to meet the expectations of my rotation advisor. Just one week into the rotation, I realized I made a wrong decision -- and things didn't get better afterwards. I felt I was being used, and there was no mentoring at all. Although I was in research for a while prior to grad school, I was expected to perform at the level of postdocs as a rotation student, and good results were the only thing that mattered. Maybe this is all grad students are to their advisors? Just producing good results fast and help the advisors advancing their career? The politics behind science overwhelmed me, as course work took up a big portion of my week, I felt so burnt out and unmotivated. It was like a big reality check.

I'm writing this to vent, so I apologize if I complained too much. It seems ironic, I wanted to get in somewhere so bad last year around this time, now I feel like a quitter.

Tall Chai Latte

Slowing down

10/7 marks the first month of my grad school career. Over the past month, I saw a lot of things and experienced a lot of things. One of those is speed in research progress.

My fellow scientists on this forum probably understand well that research is never a speedy process. Rather, it's an iterative process of observation, hypothesis, trial and error. It all takes time before you finally conclude anything, but... the boss man wants progress, fast, and publish those progress, fast.

The quality really gets compromised. When will people ever slow down and think? Outsourcing is not the solution.

Tall Chai Latte

Uh... ok

So school has started for two weeks. Settled into my apt, getting familiar with bus routine, talked to perspective rotation mentor... ok, sounds like we are moving along.

This is my first rotation. First day in the new lab, I was asked to do a 5 minute presentation on what my project will be, given short notice. Within the following four days, I found that the most relevant senior post doc to my project is leaving the lab in about a month. Okay, I admit I know how to carry out the task my mentor asked me, because I had some experience with it in the past. But is it really fair or responsible to put a new rotation student on a project like that?

Maybe one might argue that since I am a grad student now, that I'm expected to operate independently and nobody should hold my hand at each step. Or maybe this is an opportunity to learn things on my own if anything else. Maybe. But how do you do that with minimal guidance, and with classes going on at the same time?

It disappoints me to see that this particular new lab is one step down from where I came from. It's still very early in the rotation period (another 12 weeks to go) and already feeling frustrated to some extend. At the moment, the best way to go about doing this is to stick it out -- the most politically correct way.

Tall Chai Latte

It has nothing to do with graduate school admission, but that tension accumulates to a point that I can't hold it in anymore.

The trigger of this emotional day was a scenario happened last Friday. I don't want to revisit the scene, but what happened was I took the ironic humor of my boss personal. It hurt.

This is a lesson: how to take work as work ONLY. When you care about something so deeply, it could backfire.

Tall Chai Latte

I know people in my immediate surrounding are nice and wanting to help me with this decision of which school to attend. But it's getting too much, it really is.

Can you guys just give me a break? I really haven't made up my mind yet, okay?

I wish April is here.

Tall Chai Latte

Back to waiting

It's been a while since I heard anything from schools. I've begun a series of emailing to different PIs, engaged in different conversations with PIs from my two admits so far. One reject but no big deal, the rest is... silence.

On the result page, I did see someone posting interview notices to the places I'm still waiting to hear back. I wonder what's going on.... My online applications have technical glitch or something? Seems like they are frozen in time. Hello? Anybody there?

Rejection sounds very easy to do at this point, doesn't it? Schools, just say something, anything.

Let's go people. I don't like this wishy-washy feeling at all.

[02/17/10 9:06am edit] I was so scared I won't get in anywhere at first, because my GPA isn't great.. What a change of emotion states this application cycle brings us..

Tall Chai Latte

Grad school application process has been a roller coaster ride for me. Before I began filling out the apps, I had a huge fear that I might got rejected across the board because of my close-to-minimum-requirement GPA. I was totally aiming at my safety school, nevertheless, I picked a couple ambitious choices and notified my recommenders in mid september.

The first deadline was NSF GRFP. It took me a while to gather information and began writing the required essays. Surprisingly, I could not find anyone from my undergrad college to give me advice/feedback on things related to that. Good that a post doc in our group joined us with NSF postdoctoral fellowship, so he knows a thing or two on NSF essays. Broader Impacts, Intellectual Merits etc.... Everything was done and submitted but this MIA recommendation letter. I was freaking out, after many emails and phone calls, the LOR did her letter and submitted half an hour before the due time... phew..

With NSF finished, I decided which schools/programs to apply to. I started crafting out my SOP. It took me a while to distinguish "personal statement" and "statement of purpose" (oh man, Michigan's essays were very... hard to write blink.gif). Got all that done, and tailored the SOPs/PS somewhat to fit each school. Schools due on 12/01 were first submitted, followed by other schools. Everything was done by 12/08 from my part. The third recommender was once again MIA, I was once again freaking out over this letter. As deadlines came and went, this letter never reached their destined schools. I wasn't really keeping any hopes up for things... It was frustrating..

Some time at end of December, a PI from one of my choices called me. It was totally surprising because they only had two LORs on their hands, and yet I got notified of having an interview. Told my ex-labmate about this (who currently goes there for grad school) and he said he'll be there to meet me, and he ended up being my student host for the interview.. But I was still feeling insecure...

Waiting is the hardest thing to do when you care about the results so much. One month had passed since the phone call, I was back to waiting around. During this time, I've heard a lot of opinions/advices/suggestions or any other synonyms of those from everyone around me. Most of them were contradictory to each other. And the final LOR was still missing, I felt my grad school applications end there, but I asked for backup letter from a good coworker of mine. That solved the LOR crisis.. Applications complete but still no more news... And hopefully no news is no rejection at this point.

Within two days of each other, two of my schools sent me informations. One invited me to interview and the other offered me admittance... These are not my very top choices, but better than nothing still...

After going through this round of applications, I'm quite thankful for people around me. A big thank you to my letter writers, two are my coworkers, who sent letters in fast and provided me backup letters when I needed one the most. I'm very grateful for my current PI, whom being a professor and all is definitely quite busy everyday, but he still managed to send my letters on time. I learned a lot! Seriously did.. academically. Thank you, for sending letters on time and being so nice when I can't help complaining about stupid things happened in the lab.. Thanks to my group of coworkers to be there when I felt like complaining nonstop.

Finally, thank you thegradcafe for having such a place to vent. Wish that I joined this forum earlier.

Tall Chai Latte

UC Davis

UC Davis is one of my seven schools I applied to. Although I am going for Pharmacology and Toxicology, I still have vet school in mind, and UC Davis happened to have one on campus. Maybe I will make the switch in the future? Not sure. The writing prompts of UC Davis are just as confusing as Michigan's... And I had to enter grades of the classes I took one by one!

After the LOR crisis, I got an email saying that my application is now complete. Phew.

But guess what, I forgot to change the header of my resume. It still says Jonhs Hopkins University.. huh.gif Argh.