Dear stressed out science student: here are the answers to your questions about #sciencelife.
If you had asked 6 year-old me what I wanted to be when I grew up, my answer would’ve been “a scientist!” At the time I was perhaps more excited by the bangs and whistles of chemistry and astronomy as opposed to the biology I now study for my PhD, but my love of science started early and has never wavered.
But it has been challenged. A lot!
I was the first in my family to pursue science. While I am so lucky to always have had incredible moral support from family and friends, navigating a career in science was difficult before I found guidance from an insider.
But 21 years later, thanks to a ton of support and mentors I’ve gained along the way, I am currently living my younger self’s dream (though now I think it’s kind of funny that this was my dream… kids are cute). And though I’m still at the beginning of my science career, I’ve picked up quite a few tips so far that are worth sharing for those who are still on the lookout for some guidance.
Social media presents a valuable opportunity for open access and “high-throughput” science engagement and mentorship.
For the last year, I’ve been posting about science on Instagram with the goal of making it more friendly and fun for everyone. Part of this involves making science a more inclusive learning space to encourage anyone interested to pursue their #sciencegoals, especially those who feel particularly barriers to doing so.
I receive a ton of direct messages on Instagram from highschool and undergraduate students interested but nervous about a future in science… perhaps more messages in a week than emails in a semester from students I teach in person at the University of Toronto.
To meet this demand, I experimented with hosting a live, online “office hour” for answering questions people from around the world had about getting into science research, surviving a long PhD, and options for what to do with this degree when they do.
Using the Instagram Livestream feature, I got to chat with >500 people over the course of 2 hours about science life — I was on video and everyone else was typing out questions in real-time. A mixture of highschool, undergraduate, and graduate students tuned in, plus a few professionals looking to transition into science and parents looking to advise their kids.
Instead of posting the 2 hour video, I decided to summarize the highlights below in what is perhaps the most academic and nerdy listicle you’ll ever read.
- Take all advice with a grain of salt. What’s true for one person might be false for you. When I was in undergrad, I was told the scientist who is now my PhD supervisor was terrifying, so I never even considered joining his lab. Then I serendipitously met him one day and he was the nicest scientist I had ever met: he encouraged my questions and we chatted for over an hour.
- Try research during your undergraduate degree (or sooner?) to see if you like it. And even then, it’ll be completely different doing it full time for a grad degree. I wouldn’t recommend doing a PhD just for the letters or title — it takes a long time and a LOT of mental energy, and I think the key to getting through it happily is doing it for the love of science. I decided to do a PhD because I knew that even if I didn’t end up doing research forever, I still had a few more pesky questions I wanted to find answers to (and alas my research has just provoked MORE questions than answers… as it always does).
- Choose undergraduate research opportunities strategically, if possible. If you can do undergraduate research that can lead to a publication (even if you’re way down on the author list), DO IT! This will always help you in academia. This will be more likely in labs that will pair you up with a more senior graduate student or post-doc, or if they say they need help finishing up a project. This isn’t always possible and sometimes you have to take what you can get, and you may not want to be too tacky and straight up ask for it. As an undergrad, any labs you work in will be the source of future reference letters, so make sure to impress and show face as much as possible.
- To get into a grad program (MSc/PhD), grades “matter” but… strong reference letters from prior research experience matter a LOT. If you want to impress, make sure your enthusiasm for science is obvious and can be demonstrated by looking at your resumé. Your grad application will be read by scientists, and it’s really hard to tell a scientist to believe anything you say: you always have to show evidence for it.
- Don’t worry too much about the names of your degrees, eg. I did a Cell Biology & Neuroscience undergrad, am now in the Dept of Molecular Genetics, but study neuroscience and stem cell biology……. Science has a lot of names for everything and as long as you can demonstrate knowledge in a given area and an ability to learn then you’ll be okay.
- To get into a lab for undergrad/grad research, build connections with your profs but… remember they get bombarded by all your classmates too! Look up researchers on departmental websites and reach out via email to scientists whose work is interesting to you. Pro tip: also reach out to grad students working in those labs — they might be more likely to reply to your email, set up a meeting, and maybe even refer you to their supervisor. Also Quality emails > quantity. Introduce yourself briefly in the email, give a line or two demonstrating your interest in their research by mentioning something they study or questions you have about their field. Then ask if they might meet with you so you can learn more about these things and discuss potential research opportunities. Be genuinely interested, don’t send generic emails… Noone likes spam. Even if you do this you may not get a reply. Keep doing it anyway. Persistence is key in science.
- You don’t need to complete an MSc degree to do a PhD. In the US + UK I think it is common to directly enter a PhD program straight after a bachelor’s degree. In Canada, most people enter as an MSc student and then transfer or re-classify to a PhD program in their 2nd year, continuing their project as it was and really only changing the name of their degree. This is what I did, and it might be a helpful route for you if you’re unsure about a PhD or a research area. Doesn’t really matter except that you get paid slightly more as a PhD so starting earlier might give you some extra money sooner, though most government scholarships have a cap for how many years into a PhD you can apply for them, so starting as an MSc student gives you an extra year or two of scholarship opportunities. More on money in #10.
- Everyone burns out. Everyone. If you want to do well, treat yourself well. Don’t subscribe to a culture of treating your body like shit: never sleeping + eating poorly + doing things that depress you because you’re competing with classmates or even yourself. TAKE BREAKS. SEE YOUR FRIENDS & FAMILY. GO FOR A WALK. SHOWER. EXERCISE. Trust me. Anyone bragging about not doing these things is not a good role model so quit trying to be like them. Unfollow, unsubscribe, delete. Nothing is worth sacrificing your long-term happiness and well-being. School and work will always be there, there is time for a break.
- On that note, the hardest part of grad school is the psychological aspect of it. Science isn’t that hard. Well it is in that it takes super long and is repetitive and hella mysterious, but that’s just part of the job and you get used to it. The real challenges are all of the uncertainties long-term: will this project even work? Am I doing everything wrong? What will I do after this? How come all my classmates are ahead of me? I have never met a grad student who hasn’t had an existential crisis, serious case of imposter syndrome, and near mental breakdown at least once. This is perhaps a symptom of a big problem in academic culture that we need to fix, but in the meantime, you are not alone. So don’t do it for the glory… a PhD isn’t a glamorous life by any means, but if you love it then the fulfillment and passion will be glorious.
- Speaking of glam, let’s talk $$. If you’re doing a research-based graduate program, you will get paid a stipend (as far as I know for North America + most places in Europe). This amount should cover the cost of the degree and include a living expense, since graduate school is > full-time work and leaves little room for side jobs. With that said, it is not a lot of money and I have several side jobs. So do a lot of my friends. (I live in an expensive city and like to shop and go out to eat a lot….) Anyway, this amount will vary depending on the location/school/program, and you can increase your chances of getting more money by winning scholarships. To win these scholarships, the usual mix of high grades, references, and extra-curriculars are key, and any peer-reviewed publication you get (especially early on) will set you apart from the rest.
- Once you get through everything above, what to do next? No matter what you want to do next, networking will be key — just like in every other field. Go to social events and introduce yourself to strangers, get on LinkedIn and Twitter (especially at conferences and events!), reach out to people working your fields of interest… There are a lot of options for you but noone is going to plop them on your lap.
- Okay but actually, what can you do with a MSc and/or PhD degree? Science grads can work in a bunch of different traditional and non-traditional settings, including:
- Academic research (eg. as a principle investigator of a lab or a research associate in someone else’s lab)
- Private research (eg. at a company like Novartis, ThermoFisher, etc.)
- Science policy
- Science journalism
- Science journal editing
- Science related non-profit (as a media relations person, patient outreach coordinator, strategic planner, project manager)
- Funding agencies (private or from the government, eg. NIH, CIHR, etc.)
- Medical writing
- Science communications (eg. blogger or social media manager for a non-profit, company, or freelance)
- Consulting (either management consulting on corporate projects or science consulting)
- Law (Intellectual Property)
- Teaching (elementary/high school with an M.Ed/Teacher’s college; as a contract/full-time Lecturer at a university; at local institutes like community Science Centres)
- Entrepreneurship (work at or have your own start-up)
There are a lot more options — doing science research trains you to be really good at analytical thinking and problem-solving, which are of course relevant to pretty much everything. The skillset you earn from an MSc or PhD degree can be re-framed to be applicable to nearly anything you want, thought it’s not always easy or obvious, especially with a lack of formal training in most graduate programs.
While I always knew I wanted to pursue science, 6 year-old me had no idea that it would look like what I now do everyday in the lab… hell, not even 22 year-old me who applied for graduate school really knew.
It has been simultaneously one of the most difficult but rewarding things I’ve ever done, and it’s not even over yet. I am most definitely happy with my choice to pursue a PhD, and am so grateful for how it has shaped me as a scientist and a person. But I wouldn’t recommend it for everyone — not everyone is interested or would benefit from it, and if you’re currently stressing trying to decide whether or not to do one, then that’s kind of good because it is something worth consideration.
At the end of the day though, sometimes you just need to experiment. You’ll never really know until you try and life will be flexible if you keep an open mind. No degree is a life sentence, and nowadays people switch careers and fields all the time. I know people who have quit their PhDs to go pursue music careers; have friends who went in thinking they’d do a PhD and ended up doing an MSc then going to law school; friends who were doing it for the hell of it then fell in love and now are research lifers; and friends who are about to graduate and are still unsure about what they’ll be doing in 5 years yet ARE STILL OKAY.
And you will be okay too! In fact, you’ll be great! Especially if you’re still reading this because that is a definite sign of your motivation and commitment.
I want to end this ‘article of answers’ with a few questions for you. Ask yourself: what gets you jazzed? What’s the one thing you always want to read, debate, and talk about? What are you doing when you feel the most like yourself?
…….No seriously, answer them!
Okay… now please close this browser, put down your phone/laptop, and go do it.