Friday, May 22, 2015

XA: "I made it through only because I got help...."

Our second story of staying in graduate school in chemistry comes from "XA." It has been redacted for privacy.
The comment about “STEM Propaganda” caught my attention immediately, as I definitely feel I was fed a lot of propaganda in undergrad. For me, graduate school was an almost automatic step because I knew I wanted to teach chemistry at the college level. I felt well prepared because I had done well in undergraduate coursework, although in retrospect my undergraduate research should’ve thrown up red flags (turning an RBF of bromosilane into a literal pyrophoric firebomb was probably the low point). Earning a poor grade—and yes, I earned every bit of that poor grade—in Advanced Organic Chemistry Lab was another red flag. 
I started in graduate school with blinders on, pointed directly at the post labeled “organic synthesis.” I worked my ass off to do well in classes—one story that stands out in my mind is the day I forced myself to memorize something like twenty different aldol methods. “This sucks,” I thought, “but I guess this is just what graduate school is.” I joined the research group of [Very Prominent Professor] who was well known to be extremely demanding. Upon starting research I realized that no, coursework is nothing like what you’re expected to do in the lab. The chasm between coursework and research both seduced and misled me, and I would encourage any young students to look very carefully at the nature of coursework and how (if?!) it promotes research skills. Places like Scripps do this really well; my sense is that most places do it horribly. 
I chugged along in research for a few months at an embarrassingly slow pace, sliding incrementally deeper into depression. Pardon the metaphor, but it felt like the activation energy associated with graduate school was climbing ever higher, and that I was not going to be able to get over the hump. Though I was very passionate about teaching, teaching at the college level just felt out of reach. Resigned to my fate, I walked into [VPP]’s office fully intent on leaving graduate school. Miraculously, in a move that instantly restored my faith in humanity, he compelled me not to leave, but to look for other options within the department. He was literally the catalyst that threw my ass over the hump. 
Ultimately I ended up switching research groups and working on research projects that were much better aligned with my long-term goals than organic synthesis. In my new group, my advisor was upfront about his lack of knowledge about my work, but didn’t aggressively question or put down the work. Some might say I got lucky; however, in retrospect many of the same things that were true in my first research group were also true in my second. I was still basically on my own. 
It took a great deal of maturation for me to come to grips with what graduate school entailed. I tell students regularly that I wish I’d waited a few years to start graduate school. That said, there’s a certain “delusions of grandeur” mindset that comes with being a graduate student in chemistry, and my sense is that most survive, rather than thrive. The system is broken at many universities, and in my experience it boils down to too little focus on developing research skills in coursework. I spent too many years aping my professors and not enough getting comfortable with doing science. I made it through only because (a) I got help from [VPP] and (b) I matured enough to set my own expectations.
Thanks to XA for their story. Readers, if you're interested in sharing your story of staying or leaving graduate school in chemistry, please e-mail me at chemjobber@gmail.com.

7 comments:

  1. +1 (FWIW, from an anonymous).

    I've told people that it would have helped me a lot to have spent a couple of years working before I went to grad school. I don't think I understood the difference between research and classroom knowledge before I went, though if I had done more research in undergrad, that would have been clear (it was not entirely a deficiency in undergrad, though a thesis requirement would have helped, I think). Most things just don't work. It's good that you got support and got through.

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  2. I can't quite work out what XA means by "coursework" here. Is this a US thing?

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    1. Poison Ivy LeagueMay 23, 2015 at 4:16 PM

      It's typical in US/Can PhD programs to spend the first year taking 4-6 (even as high as 8 at some places) graduate courses, followed by a candidacy exam sometime in the second year and finally the defense whenever it's done. Some places still have cumes/quals as requirements during the earlier years of your studies, however this is getting less and less common (I think Wisconsin, one of the holdouts, just did away with them).

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  3. Though it should be noted that the US coursework is done on top of a full course of research... 60-80hour weeks are common in the good US grad schools.

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  4. CJ. What about stories of women, LGBT and minorities who succeeded despite the field, and despite their advisers? As a part of this group, I believe it would be a disservice to post only stories of people that stayed because they were supported by the field, because it is a fact, that this is not often times the case.

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    1. Anon, I would like to hear your story. My spin on Prof. Yoon's request is that "Now that I have heard from many people who quit, let's hear from people who stayed." The involvement of advisors, etc. is not necessarily a core part of my thoughts.

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    2. At my former department in the UK, it was a choleric polymer chemist who initiated a departmental civil war, the result of which was to chase away the organic chemists. I came in to take over their jobs. I can still remember his words to VIP organic chemists from a very big international pharma company, and I quote, because I was in the room: "Forget about organic chemistry at [insert name of university] !!!". IMHO that person was probably a major reason behind the closure of the chemistry program there.

      Oh yeah. He was gay. So don't attribute any special virtues to minorities, etc.

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