Archive for the 'lab/graduate school' Category

the art of the major professor hunt

I’ve received some questions lately about how to find a good major professor and thought that I would address them in a post.

First off, I’m obviously not really one to be doling out such advice since I chose horribly wrong, but I suppose I could at least speak to the warning signs to look for when on the hunt for a major professor.

1. How many grad students/post-docs does he have? If your lab-to-be is as deserted as, well, the desert, you should go running for your life. Why? You would think that the fewer people in the lab, the more attention you’ll get. Though that may be true, do you really want attention from your major professor all of the time? Plus, fewer people in the lab means more meaningless non-PhD-related grunt work for you. And did you ever stop to think that maybe there’s no one in the lab because your major professor-to-be is impossible to work for and anyone with half a brain knew better than to work for him? Yeah, nothing says run for your life more than an empty lab.

2. How does your major professor treat the people who are in the lab? This question might be hard to assess without actually spending a lot of time in his lab. For the few weeks that you may be there for your rotation, everything might appear rosy if your major professor-to-be is good at hiding his mean streak (like mine was), but given enough time, the mean streak will come out. Do the people in his lab seem happy to be there? Or do they secretly lunch together and dish about what an ass your major professor-to-be is? When I was a fresh-faced undergrad in my major professor’s lab, the people there dropped hints to me about how he may not be as nice as he seemed, but I was too naive to catch the hints then and paid dearly for it. If you get the sense that someone is dropping you a hint, take it and run for your life. You can always thank them later.

3. Here’s a simple hint. Ask the other grad students in the lab how they like your major professor-to-be. Sure, they may lie through their teeth, but unless you’re completely socially inept, you should be able to tell when they’re lying.

4. Has your major professor-to-be had any experience with MD/PhD students? Your future mentor might be awesome all-around, but if he hasn’t had any experience with us special kids, you still might end up screwed, simply because he just doesn’t know how the program works and the corners that may have to be cut in order for you to finish your PhD in a decent amount of time. If your major professor-to-be has no experience, be frank and ask him what his specific goals are with you given that you are on a special track and how he plans to help you finish your PhD in the allotted time. Ideally, the two of you would come up with a schedule that you will hopefully stick to so that you don’t end up spending forever on your PhD. If he truly is a good major professor, he will be able to adapt to your being a special case.

5. For the daring: come up with some crazy idea for your PhD project and run it by your major professor-to-be and observe how he reacts. If he berates you, then it’s obvious you should run for your life. If he gently tells you how your idea is crazy but finds a grain of non-craziness in your idea and tells you how to develop that non-crazy point into a workable idea without making you feel like an idiot, then he may be a keeper. Just be careful of the ones who are subtly berating you for being an idiot…they sound like they’re being nice, but they’re really just telling you you’re an idiot. If he doesn’t mention a single good thing (no matter how small) about your crazy idea, then that’s your cue to run for your life.

6. If your major professor-to-be is constantly telling you how great he is or what a nice boss/mentor he is, then you should probably run for your life. Someone who’s really great won’t have to tell you how great he is. His lab atmosphere and the people in the lab will tell you that. If he’s going to great lengths to tell you how great things are, then chances are the exact opposite is true.

7. Go with your gut. Regardless of empirical evidence, you should go with your gut. Even if everyone in the lab seems happy and you hit it off with your major professor-to-be, if your gut has nagging doubts, you should listen to it. It’s probably right.

These tips are more common sense than anything, but they are good things to ask yourself when you’re evaluating a potential major professor. You will be spending many years with this person. This person will decide when you get to move on with your life and go back to med school. This person can make you hate science. Or he can make you love it even more. Learn from my mistakes and choose wisely. If just one reader gets the point and doesn’t make a fatal mistake in choosing their major professor, then I will finally feel that I have not blogged about all of my struggles in vain.

it’s so hard to say goodbye…

...NOT!

So I went to see all of my committee members last week to give them final copies of my dissertation and thank you gifts. I had a nice long talk with Dr. Happy Surgery Collaborator and he genuinely complimented me on my work and how much skill I must have to have been able to rewrite my dissertation so fast. He’s always been nice to me, from when my experiments totally failed to going over my dissertation and helping me make sense out of the nonsense my major professor made me write. He was probably more of a mentor to me than my major professor ever was and I’ll miss working with him.

My other committee member was out-of-town, so that saved me plenty of awkwardness.

And finally, I had to go visit my major professor. I set up a specific time and everything with him, but when I showed up, I was told that he was in a meeting. I was surprised and asked what sort of meeting this was that he hadn’t told me about and learned that he was just bragging away to the poor new research associate in the lab next door. He likes to snag the impressionable ones early on to start his brainwashing. I figured that he would kick the poor soul out of his office once I showed up, but he didn’t. He just kept talking to her while I stood outside waiting. After awhile, he finally paused and asked me, “You have something for me?” without even getting out of his chair or ushering the poor soul out. So I just handed him my dissertation and left as he resumed his conversation with his victim. That was it. No “good job” or “congratulations” or “let’s work on a manuscript of your dissertation.” Sure, I wasn’t expecting much, but what he did was just shameful considering the hell he put me through. And I guess a fitting end to my ten years with him.

Throughout the whole process of writing my dissertation, he did not even manage to read my dissertation in its entirety once. He never made it past the introduction. He left all the work and editing to Dr. Happy Surgery Collaborator. And while both of my other committee members eventually commended me on a job well done, my major professor never uttered any such praise. All he managed to say was, “I’ll sign it. There are things I would have written differently, but I’ll sign it.” None of this makes me sad at all because it’s not at all surprising. His praise doesn’t mean anything anyway. I’ve actually found myself reading Dr. Happy Surgery Collaborator’s email in which he praised me over and over again because his praise means so much more because I actually respect him and I’m glad that I managed to live up to his expectations.

In the end, the path I’ve taken is one that I would not recommend to anyone unless they know exactly what they’re getting into. It sucks to no end and if you’re just a tad meek and non-outspoken, you will get lost in the shuffle and then be punished for it. Maybe it’s just my program that needs improvement. Maybe I’m just not cut-throat enough. Whatever the reason, let’s just say that if I knew then what I know now, I would have been perfectly happy with just an MD. Although, I still have to admit, the bragging rights are nice. And will be used to their fullest extent.

a phd down, only an md to go…

Rejoice! I submitted my dissertation and received my temporary degree! Yes, that’s right…it’s doctor to you now! :P

After the hours and hours of agony that it took for me to finish my piece of crap dissertation, it was almost a let-down how easy it was to turn it in and get my degree. I almost wanted to scream, “That’s all?!” at the poor guy in the Graduate Studies Office as he handed me my temporary degree and alumni pin. All of that hard work boiled down to checking off items on a checklist, making sure my page numbers were in order and going in the same direction throughout, and random checks of my page margins? It almost made me laugh out loud. And I do laugh now, when I look back at how wonderfully trying my whole journey has been. In fact, my journey has been what a substantial portion of this blog has been about ever since it came into existence. And now that part of me is done. I am a PhD. I’m halfway there. What does it feel like? Strangely empty, I must say. Nothing changes, really. I still clean up my husband’s mess. I still do laundry. I still have to see the in-laws for the holidays. But now, I suppose they’ll have to call my Dr. Bitch. :P

All joking aside, it was really bittersweet to finally be done with this nasty journey that has taken up my life for 4+ years. And while I didn’t really care one way or another about receiving my degree, other people did. I actually put off telling my dad about it for a couple of days because I just plain kept forgetting. Then one day, he called to talk to my husband and my husband let slip that I had finally gotten my degree, not knowing that I hadn’t told him yet. I swiftly took the phone away from him to apologize to my dad for not telling him earlier (and honestly, a part of me figured that at this point, no one cared anymore anyway) and I was shocked by how happy he was to hear the news. The cynical side of me figured that he was so happy because he had thought that I was never going to finish and had given up on me. And if that were truly the case, then I’m glad I proved him wrong. But I don’t really think that he believed that. I think he was just genuinely happy for and proud of me, something that he hasn’t been able to be ever since I graduated from college with my multiple honors. And I’m glad that I made him proud. I’m glad that someone is happy about this degree because, well, me, I just feel meh about it. But then again, I am done and that is something.

the revision is done!

Rejoice! The revision is done! Well, almost. The body is done. References need to be renumbered (yet again) and spelling/grammatical errors need to be fixed. But then it’s done! All I have to work on after that is re-making my tables and graphs for my Appendix sections (which shouldn’t be too hard if Excel will cooperate with me). I managed to painfully squeeze out 115 whole pages. I’m proud. Now, of course, I still have to send it to my committee members to tear apart. I’m hoping they’ll cut me some slack since I went out of my way to address every single issue that they brought up on my first draft. If they’re still not happy, I hope that they’ll just tell me what to write instead of trying to make me figure it out again. It’ll save all of us precious time.

On a completely unrelated note, how cool are the new MacBooks? Too cool. In fact, I’ve already ordered one to replace my current much-hopped-on-by-my-corgi-puppy one. I’m hoping it’ll come before I finish my thesis because otherwise, what would I use it for? Blogging? :P

one step forward, three steps back…

The good news (I think): I’m finally almost done with my dissertation revision. I could have it done by the end of this week if my thoughts didn’t keep fluctuating and then focusing on how ephemeral life is. That and the fact that all I have left to finish is the discussion. One section doesn’t sound tough, but it is the section that needs the most work and the one that is the most difficult for me to write.

The bad news (or maybe not so bad if you really think about it): I’ve been asked to consider stopping my clinical work (read: my third year) and starting up again with next year’s class so that I would have my dissertation completely behind me and be able to start completely fresh instead of jumping back in with now super-experienced third years with only psychiatry under my belt. I have mixed feelings about this particular strategy. On the one hand, I do need that extra time to “prepare” myself as best I can by reviewing things like the physical exam and clinical reasoning, which I never was very good at in the first place. Also, since I’ve already done one rotation, I can take my last block off and study for Step 2, which I need to do well on since I’m going after Radiology. Oh yeah, and if I were to really return on rotation 5 as planned, I would be so far behind that I would not have any time to do any away rotations during my fourth year before having to apply to programs. I really believe that this extra year will be advantageous to me in helping me become the best possible Radiology applicant I can be. And, of course, I’ll have no more dissertation hanging over my head. On the other hand, now I’m going to be yet another year behind. One more year of not being done. Of not moving on with my life. Of not earning enough money to afford as many Chanel handbags as I want (though, really, in the grand scheme of things, I realize that life is far too short to spend coveting overpriced designer handbags). Oh yeah, as if it wasn’t hard enough to join the current class I’m in, I’ll have to do it all over again with a new batch of people. Not to mention that I’ll have to start the warm-and-fuzzy doctoring class all over again. I suppose I’ll just make sure to take on an early case since I’ll know what they’re all about.

Hmm…now that I’ve listed out all the pros and cons, it’s perfectly clear that taking the rest of this year off and starting again next year really is the best thing for me to do. Now, it’s not set in stone yet. There’s going to be some headbutting between bigwigs over this plan, but we’ll see where it goes. Until it’s decided, I’m sure as hell going to enjoy my carefree days. There’s nothing like tasting just a tiny bit of the third year of medical school to make me appreciate the finer points of doing nothing 10,000% more than I ever did before.

on second thought…

I’m kinda screwed. Let’s count the ways:

1) My hypotheses suck. In my defense, I knew they sucked and I didn’t want to go with them, but my major professor made me. And now I get to look like an idiot when my committee member calls them “naive.”

2) My results suck. It’s not good when your baseline measurements are significantly different from each other.

3) My discussion sucks. That would be because no one told me how to write a dissertation discussion. And also because my hypotheses and results suck.

So yeah, I spent a week sulking over these sad facts. I finally got off my ass and started working on my revision today. And it’s not fun.

whoo hoo it’s revision time

Just the thing I was waiting for. Revisions. Do I sound excited?

It was hard enough getting the damn dissertation out. Now I have to revise it? I’m not actually as incredulous as I might be sounding right now because I know that my writing and my logic are not perfect and I expected that I would have to make massive revisions. I’m actually glad that the comments are pretty mild and that I don’t have to rewrite the whole thing as I had feared. But that doesn’t mean that the task doesn’t seem daunting to me. Especially because my world has just been turned upside down by issues I would rather not discuss. Just when I was getting back on my feet, shit happens to knock me back down.

In any case, one of the reasons why I’m just a tad annoyed at some of the comments I received is that a lot of them are about things that my stupid major professor told me to say or do that I disagreed with but that he said were fine. And when they got called out and I pointed out to him that it was him who suggested them to me and forced me to write these things, he tried to deny it or imply that I had misunderstood what he had told me to do. He actually criticized me on something he himself told me to do and which I hesitated to do! When other reviewers point out these things, it’s not like I get to defend myself and say to them, “But my major professor made me do it!” I just get stuck with these reviewers believing that I’m an idiot when I’m not. And that’s why this whole revision stings a little bit. Not because I think I’m perfect, but because not all of the mistakes are mine.

But what can I do, right? It’s always been like this with my major professor. If I just suck it up this time around, then I can be done with him for good!

yatta! it’s done!

FINALLY! I completed my first draft of my dissertation last Thursday, just in time to go on vacation! I can’t believe it took so long and all I wrote was 94 double-spaced pages. Looking back, it was really my own inertia that prevented me from finishing…the task just seemed so monumental that there was no point in starting, even when I had already finished everything but the discussion. I literally sat on my ass and watched my puppy for three weeks instead of working on it. When I finally did start writing again, all it took was a week for me to finish! Of course, it’s not done until I get my committee’s signatures and turn it in, which will probably require several painful revisions, but at least I’m over the first hurdle. I just hope my major professor can put his narcissism aside for a moment and not nitpick every word I’ve written. Not likely, but I can still dream…