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What to Expect When You're Expecting a PhD

What to Expect When You're Expecting a PhD

Introducing the day-in-the-life series, exploring a range of daily schedules from different career stages.

 

A day as a grad student midway through a PhD in developmental/cell biology.

By the time I applied for grad school, there was really no mystique in grad student life. I had been a lab manager/technician for several years, in addition to being an undergraduate researcher. During this time, I not only participated in the long hours that are typical of laboratory research, but I bore witness to many a dysfunctional graduate student/advisor relationship (in labs other than my own, which were both blissfully functional).

Not all aspiring PhD students have the luxury of precautionary knowledge that I had, particularly if they are coming straight out of completing their baccalaureate degree. Therefore I thought it useful to go ahead and publish some documentation of how I spent some (admittedly frustrating) days as a grad student.

Below is an email I sent to my advisor in 2012, which is currently still hanging on the lab wall (As a deterrent to prospective students? As an example of how not to waste your time? Or maybe just because it’s entertaining at my expense.). Anyhow, enjoy. Or be repulsed. Your call.

[Advisor],
in case any aspiring PhD students ask what it's like to be in your lab, I've prepared this helpful outline of a typical day (specifically, my day today):
 
6:45am: rush to lab for time­-sensitive experiment. seems to be developmentally delayed. wait for it to catch up.
7am: various reading and writing while waiting for experiment.
8am: experiment not "catching up". while waiting, clean urchin tanks (aka get covered in sea urchin sh*t and assorted rotting sea creatures.)
10am: receive email politely reminding me I forgot to write up a protocol and send it out. hurry the eff up and write a protocol, then send it out before class.
10:59am: apologize to dedicated undergrad for yet again being unavailable to help fix her experiment.
11am: hurry to class.
12:30pm: rush back from class, full of hope that experiment has "caught up". "delayed" experiment is f*cked. move on.
1pm: prep new experiment. identify problems then re­prep experiment. start experiment. assorted problems ensue. eff it. start over.
3pm: attempt to start new experiment over. more assorted problems ensue. stab finger with needle (accident). bang head on wall (intentional).
4:30pm: call biotech company to request a replacement of shoddy reagents they supplied, thereby ruining three separate experiments over the course of the past week.
5pm: attempt for the third time to start new experiment over. with any luck, finish in the lab by 9pm.
9pm: read, go over data, prepare for am meeting tomorrow.
11pm: drag sorry ass up g*ddamn hill and go home.

Note that no eating is mentioned at any point during the day. I would like to say that this was an anomaly, but alas, it was fairly typical (my body mass was one of several casualties of grad school). My favorite grad school professor once told me, "grad school is a necessarily unbalanced time in what can ultimately become a balanced life." I've found this to be very sage advice, and I repeat it often to incoming and/or struggling grad students.

A printout of the email quoted above, which still lives on the wall of my grad school lab.

A printout of the email quoted above, which still lives on the wall of my grad school lab.

Care to share your own day in the life story? Whether it's similar to this or a completely different experience, we'd love to hear about it. Shoot us an email, or let us know in the comments below.

 

Top photo: living embryos of the purple sea urchin, Strongylocentrotus purpuratus. Each little sand-like fleck is an individual embryo that uses its cilia to swim around in the seawater. These guys were grown so I could use them to analyze expression of different genes and proteins during various stages of embryonic development.

All photos by Lauren Shipp

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