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I feel my PhD has been a waste

Tall Chai Latte

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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.



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Is doing a postdoc after your PhD common in your field? If so, I wonder if that setting would be the time to move away from so much methods/protocol and explore how to initiate your own questions/studies and make the transition to being more emergent, rather than benchwork.
 

I have middle-author pubs from several years ago...I def. think they count for something. They get your name visible, for one, even if it's just a minor amount; they also help accrue citations for you.

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Most people in my field do a postdoc (or more than one postdoc) after their PhD, but most of them don't have to perform this much methods/protocol related activities as I do. I guess it's highly lab-dependent: some labs focus on a single biological question and draw all relevant expertise to answer the question, while others have a technique forte and tackle questions that are suitable for that. There are definitely pros and cons of each style.

 

What concerns me is that my training is a 'generalist' approach, greatly in contrast of what traditional academics are: specialists. I can't really claim myself an expert in anything I currently do. I don't know if this will affect my prospect as a postdoc.

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I'm finishing my 4th year of grad school too :)

I have heard many other people give me similar advice when I started my PhD. That is, they advised me to make sure I am not just a "technician". In my field, that would be someone who writes code to analyze data or collects data from the telescope. However, I think it is much easier said than done for a PhD student to be 100% independent researchers that come up with our own ideas etc. I'm nearing the end of PhD year 2 now and most of what I've done is technician type work.

 

From observing my colleagues, I would say that the majority of us are performing technician type work too. Perhaps not as much as you are currently describing, so I think that even though you might be doing more protocols type work than you would like to, it is possible that you are not that "far behind" (if it even puts you behind) the others.

 

The other piece of advice I got after I started here, after my quals, was that a PhD student should aim to be an expert in something by the time they graduate. It does not have to be a research question/topic. For example, one prof here was an expert in using a particular technique for observing astronomical objects. Because of his technical training during his PhD, he was able to utilize the instrument in novel ways and come up with a lot of interesting results in his postdoc and early faculty days. His research during grad school is not really related to his current work at all, except for the type of instrument being used.

 

So, perhaps not having as much "science" being done might hurt you a bit. But you have a ton of useful skills now. Perhaps a good idea might be to talk with your advisor and spend your last 1-2 years in the lab being a true expert in one of the many skills you have developed thus far? Also come up with research ideas involving this protocol/method to present in your future research statements.

 

In my field, being an expert in [astronomical object X] will make the people interested in X want to hire you and be interested in you. But being an expert in [observing/analyzing method Y] will also make anyone you can convince that you can use Y on their object of interest want to hire you. So, I think it's important to be an expert in something, but that something can technical thing or a research topic thing!

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1) How much time do you have left? Can you specialize during that time, or want to do so?

 

2) Can your advsior help you along that path, and understand you now need to spend some time moving away from mostly helping to build up a functional lab?

 

3) I've gathered your advisor is junior faculty and a bit moody/unpredictable. Mine's not junior, but largely inaccessible and prone to quick, unexpected changes in tack, etc. Do you have a committee member or professor who's more senior and could provide some supplemental mentoring?

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mandarin.orange:

 

1) I have another 2 years. PhDs here typically last 5.5-6 years in my program. I definitely want to specialize in something. 

 

2) My advisor could definitely help lessen some of the routine by assigning me an undergrad. I had a good undergrad working with me before but graduated recently. Perhaps I could talk to my advisor about having another pair of hands. Some time ago, she did realize that she doesn't want to spend my entire PhD on characterizing compounds, albeit this being very beneficial to the lab. But when these materials come in, nobody in the lab is as equipped as I am to test them. Hence the dilemma and extra workload. This personnel situation ties into how much funding we have at each given time, which area of the research that funding is dedicated to.

 

3) My thesis committee composition is a bit odd, imo. There is one very senior faculty (like yours) and mostly inaccessible. Two other members are even more junior than my advisor, but they are there for additional expertise diversity. So far I've only had one committee meeting and did receive excellent feedbacks then, it's probably time to have another meeting soon.

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2 years sounds great and not at all hopeless. There is definitely time to turn things around, though you will have to approach this, I think, with a whole new attitude and really step up advocating for yourself.

 

1) It's a really good sign that your advisor recognizes that you need to specialize. I would request scheduling a meeting with her in the near future for a more serious sit-down (rather than just a drop-in) about your remaining time in the program, and future direction. Mention (tactfully) your frustrations, but also how you plan to remedy this. Bring up the need to specialize again, and specifically what direction (or possible directions) you want that to be. Then, in any future interactions, you need to keep this new priority foremost in your mind. If something pops up that previously only you could handle, remind her of your new goal that you mutually agreed on. Don't be afraid to sound like a broken record. Any sane advisor should be supportive of this -- it looks bad if their own students don't finish/quit early/don't go on to good positions, esp. for those early in career and concerned about tenure.

 

2) Undergrad help is great. Rather than waiting for your advisor to assign one, offer to take the lead on recruitment for someone you can train up. This lessens her burden, and moves the situation towards something YOU now have more control over within your timeline. Do your undergrads get paid? If funding is too uncertain/intermittent, will students volunteer? We have no shortage of undergrads interested in our lab, and none of them get paid. They recognize the many benefits of this unpaid work: getting experience for their resumes, research course credit, skills for grad school, a solid letter of reference down the line when they apply for jobs, scholarships, whatever. We sometimes recruit by asking the profs of junior/senior relevant coursework if we can drop into the first 2-3 min of their lecture and make a pitch. Interested students then contact us with a resume/CV, sometimes overwhelmingly.
 

3) Yes, schedule that committee meeting. There is no "probably" about it -- DO IT. Getting them all together in one room to focus on you and coach you appropriately is probably the biggest challenge; again this is where you need to apply your relentless initiative to make it happen and resolve peoples' busy and disparate schedules.

 

Generally in your response I see a lot of tentative language and get the sense you are waiting for external things to happen that will help you out of this bind. It is time to TAKE THE REINS and shape the rest of your PhD experience, and future career. I'd also recommend, if you haven't read it, "Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student's Guide to Earning a Masters or PhD" by Robert L. Peters.  

Also, this quote, which is one of my favorites:

“To live without purpose is to live at the mercy of chance – the chance event, the chance phone call, the chance encounter – because we have no standard by which to judge what is or is not worth doing. Outside forces bounce us along, like a cork floating on water, with no initiative of our own to set a specific course. Our orientation to life is reactive rather than proactive. We are drifters.”– Nathaniel Branden

 

Hope wall of text helps. I apologize if it comes on too strong, but I've seen so many people drop out or not finish or regret their investment of (a SIGNIFICANT amount of) time in graduate degrees...and being passive, rather than active, was in almost every case the common denominator. You still have PLENTY of time to not be hopeless.

And you're NOT "not smart enough" because you're too mentally drained to think cognitively after dealing with routine lab procedure and troubleshooting all day...anyone would be! I sure am!

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mandarin.orange, you did not come on too strong, so don't worry about it! It is people like you who make GradCafe a really helpful place for advice. 

 

I admit that I am waiting for something external to happen that will release me from this bind, whether it be good progress on my other projects (so that I could go and wager more time to devote to them and free time to develop/explore other ideas) or getting additional hands to help with the routine testing. Otherwise, there is no one else at the moment who is better equipped than me to carry out these routines. Everyone in the lab has an unique, non-overlapping niche. I have turned down a lot of these 'testings' and collaborations my advisor received from outside, and there are still many requests as my advisor continues to build her academic reputation and bringing in future funds. 

 

It's time to protect my own time from these requests by developing an efficient routine at the bench, and like you said, advocating my own professional needs. 

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I'm not from a lab-based field, and haven't even started my PhD yet, so take everything I'm saying with a grain of salt, but it sounds like you're feeling responsible for stuff that technically isnt your responsibility. Just because you're the best at analyzing Y stuff doesn't mean you should do it every time something like this needs to be done. Not only are you taking on responsibility that isn't really yours, but you're also making sure no one else learns to analyze Y, thus compounding your problem. If I was you, I would probably start by timing exactly how much time you spend on doing different things (in the lab), and once that's done for a couple weeks, look at how to optimize. If you figure out that youre spending 40hours doing stuff for your advisor that actually pays you to work 20 hours, for example, you not only can plan to cut down the time you spend doing Y yourself, but can also talk to your advisor about what workload she can expect you to do in the hours needed. Honestly, it seems like turning down requests, budgeting time etc. should be your advisor's job, so talking with her about what is realistic for you to do in the time frame that you have for HER projects would definitely be my first step.

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Hi IRToni, thanks for your comment. Maybe I came across sounding like a technique nazi in my comments/blog post, I do end up being the go-to person because my advisor doesn't want to spend time for other people to get up to speed with what I currently do (also limiting me from learning what others do). While I am more than happy for someone else in the lab to learn from me (and vice versa), one of my advisor's traits is impatience and that's the cause of all these frustrations. One can't really change that, right? What you mentioned about optimization of workflow is exactly what I need to do, just simply focus, execute, and deliver. I will not let my advisor's moodiness distract me!

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I'm from a different field and I also don't have anything to say that hasn't been said before, but maybe it doesn't hurt to repeat some of the wise things that were already said in this thread. 

 

First, I think that specializing in a technique that's not common is very useful when it comes time to go on the job market. Search committees will look at dozens (or more) of CVs and ask themselves, what can she bring to the table? Being familiar with a technique that others might not know makes it possible for you to offer something that others won't have. There are ways of spinning this to your advantage, especially since you've also spent some time thinking about how to apply this technique to different kinds of questions. Having a unique skill and the demonstrable ability to use it in creative ways is a big plus. 

 

Second, it's not too late for you to specialize in something, but now is the time to get started! Other people have already made suggestions about how to go about doing this, and I have nothing new to contribute except to repeat: (1) get that undergrad assistant as soon as you can; it's worth being active about recruiting someone even if it's not technically your job. (2) You specializing should be your advisor's priority too, but it's really important that it be yours and that you be proactive about it. Make that your number one priority and actively seek it. Use your committee to help you do that. (3) You're already doing this, but continue saying 'no' to requests that take an excessive toll on your time. I'd only accept collaboration requests from people who you might want to do a postdoc with, for the connections you might establish more than anything else. Getting those mid-authorships is not bad either (it does count, but not as much), though if you could get a first-authorship out of it that would be perfect. (4) It may be time to push for training a younger student in the lab to take over some of your responsibilities. You're not going to be around forever, so your advisor should have a vested interest in someone else being able to do what you do now after you leave or become too busy with your dissertation work.

 

Finally, now may be a bit early but soon (next year around this time--or at least that's how things would be in my field) you can start thinking about what kind of postdoc you'd like to have and how to position yourself to get it.  A good postdoc should help you make up for any deficiencies you might have now, be it specializing in a new subfield, learning a new set of techniques, doing more of the thinking and grant writing, or anything else that would help you then get a good job. A collaboration with a potential postdoc advisor would be one way to get the ball rolling. But just thinking about it is an important first step, and getting familiar with labs and people is also very useful because it'll help you see what skills others had when they started in that lab and what you need to do to get yourself there too.

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finally i've found someone who are in the same situation with me.

My problem is that i'm working alone, somehow i don't know where to ask help. And the system, which is tightly tied to the culture (I'm doing it in Asian country), make me hard to find help outside the advisor with the advisor consent.

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@ xnov: my advisor is asian. I wonder if this is a culture thing, Asian advisors tend to follow the pattern of "just do what you are told" and "prove that you can do x before you come asking for y". Similar to your situation, I also work alone, and I can't get advisor consent to have outside help. 

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@tall Chai Latte: it is a cultural thing that I can't do brainstorming and reasoning with him. I have to prove it before i can talk. it took me 2 years trying to make his idea working out and in the end I proved that his idea was wrong. i went through hard times for this thing. if he listened to me in the beginning, or at least to the paper that showing his idea/method has defect, I wouldn't have such trouble today.

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I remember feeling this way well into year 4 of my PhD as well.  I felt like I had wasted a lot of time, like the enterprise was kind of pointless and I should've just gotten a master's degree instead.  My field is a lab field and is similar in some ways.  In addition to that, I also developed a set of skills that no one else in my lab really had, so I was also the go-to person when these skills were required (and they are for every project we do.  In some ways, I know more about this skill set than my advisor now.)  So I also felt like a technician or research assistant largely through my fourth year, until I passed my oral comprehensives at the end of my fourth year and began working on my dissertation proposal.

 

This is going to sound weird but I really think it'll change once you begin working on your dissertation (if you haven't already).  When I started doing the deep, focused work necessary to write a dissertation, that's when I really started feeling like a straight-up doctoral scholar, and like this PhD was worth it.

 

Yes, middle-author publications count - I think as long as you're before like sixth or seventh those are still seen as good, as long as you also have some first- and second-authored publications as well.  I also want to agree with an above point; having a particular technical skill set that no one else has, or few other people have, is really awesome on the job market.  I have a postdoc but I've been perusing job ads and there are SO MANY that come my way that prefer someone with the qualifications I have, but I know that it's a methodological skill set that not very many people within my field know how to use.  If you can do something unique and do it well, you set yourself up not only for great postdocs but also faculty positions that want someone to teach that thing.

 

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.

 

Haha, maybe we're the same person?  I am also my advisor's second-and-a-half grad student (he helped one doctoral student finish up, but I am his second that he's had from the beginning).  When I started working with him, he didn't really have much of a lab, and now he has several employees.  There were several things we had to do ourselves that in other labs there were RAs and postdocs and stuff who did it for the grad students.  In the moment it kind of sucked, but now I'm glad I had the experience.  I got really familiar with my data that way - not just the dataset but how it was collected and the people it came from - and I got an inside look on how a lab gets built up.  It's a struggle but really it can be beneficial, too.

 

Hang in there!

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Doing Phd. is an ardous task and if you feel that your time has been wasted there is nothing much sad. I personally feel Phd has a great career prospect as companies pay well to Phd candidates.

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Phd has been  higher education degree,i think that it has a great platform for any candidates apart form Phd person take higher salary  in any organization,Kyazoonga provide Register online for Jaipur Literature Festival 2015.

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Interesting - I have an equal and opposite problem. I almost fell into the trap of becoming my lab's data monkey, but I managed to sidestep that role just in time for another new PhD student to take on that role (lol). So I've developed my own research area within the lab, and I've spent most of my time designing novel experiments and testing hypotheses. However, I have not developed many technical skills that my peers have - mainly because I don't feel like they would directly help me to answer my research questions, but I know I should learn more technical skills for my (hopeful) future career.

 

I'm going into my fourth year, so hopefully I can practice my technical skills during dissertation time. And hopefully you can practice your research design skills in the time you have left. Cheers...

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Run - Run - Run.  Get your PhD with another person in your program.  Trust your instincts - and don't waste another minute.  You will be able to use the lab techniques and your expertise - don't under any circumstances start to train others on your skills.  He'll bog you down with training.  Don't be helpful - you're already an asset he doesn't want to get rid of....

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