Saturday, September 20, 2014

Thoughts on being a doctor

Despite spending a large portion of my free time writing, guess what?

I’m a doctor! 

Back in July, I got through my dissertation defense, and now I’m officially a Ph.D! 6 years of grad school are over with! 

Of course, research itself is never over. I’ve got a post doc position now!
I figured I’d chat a bit about the graduate school experience, since I’ve noticed more than a few people find this blog through searches about grad school.

My program was in cognitive neuroscience. This is a field dedicated to figuring out how the brain works, and many researchers also focus on the underpinnings of certain mental illnesses. My lab had a focus on autism, schizophrenia, and addiction, and while I dabbled in the former two, my dissertation was on addiction.

I went into grad school directly out of undergrad, and my first year was spent realizing just how little I knew about anything. My program was heavy in coursework, and the level of detail this coursework went into blew anything in undergrad out of the water. Exams were basically freeform essays where you had to prove that you knew everything about a particular subject, whether it be brain development, the visual system, or the basics of motor control. I didn’t always do well on these tests, but many others didn’t do well either, so I didn’t let it upset me.

While taking classes, I also did research. In cognitive neuroscience, this usually means running human participants through experimental tasks. These can be IQ tests, neuropsychological tests, functional magnetic resonance imaging, or many more. I learned a lot about interacting with people by doing this. It’s strange to have realized how much of a bubble undergrad is!

Speaking of the undergrad bubble, going through grad school was also a great chance for me to learn how to function as an adult. It is not at all like being an undergraduate. You don’t live in a dorm, so get used to apartment hunting. You do get paid, but its not much, so managing a budget is crucial.  There’s no dining hall, hence all the jokes in the grad school world about getting free food at conferences because its tough to afford food. On top of research and classes of your own, you may also have to teach, so free time is precious. And your circle of friends also tends to become people who are also in their first year—and in grad school, not everyone is the same age. Making friends with people much older than you is something that may happen for the first time.

Grad school may have “school” in the name, but its closer to having a job and taking classes part time than actually being in school. The only thing that makes it feel like school are the exams, with the two major ones being quals (the first test to make sure you know what you’re doing, which is usually either a comprehensive exam or an exam that proves you know how to design an experiment) and of course, the final defense. I will say, though, that by the time you do your final defense, it feels like a formality, not an exam. It’s not a test anymore of whether you’re qualified, it’s a performance of all you’ve accomplished. In the U.S., very, very few people outright fail the defense.

The one thing grad students in fields like these worry about is how useful what they’ve learned is. Is grad school worth it? As a post doc, yes, my skills are useful. But what about outside of academia?

In grad school, I learned the basics of a lot of things—programming, science writing, administering tests. But the soft skills, harder to quantify, are just as important. Having a Ph.D is proof that you’re dedicated, a hard worker, and self-motivated. (The same set of skills people use to finish writing novels, I’d imagine).

After 6 years, I don’t regret grad school. But if you’re going into it, I would make sure you like what you do. Yes, there were days in grad school where I was miserable. But you have to figure out where that misery comes from. Is it a short term thing (my experiment failed, my advisor ignored me today) or a long term thing (consistently wondering if you will ever graduate, hating every second of being in lab). If its long term, that’s when to consider if grad school is right for you. If you hate the nitty gritty, though, and like the overall thrust of research, I would stick with it. After all, you’re not likely to be the one running participants or counting cells once you’re a professor.

Of course, the world of academia is pretty tough on its own, even after getting the Ph.D. I’ll see how I do. The track to becoming a professor is its own journey!

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