What I learned in grad school, part n

So getting a Ph.D. in chemical engineering takes a long time and costs a lot of money. What else did I learn in six years? Here’s a short list:

1. My own limitations. I know I need supportive players working with me to keep me going. And I don’t just mean cheerleaders who drone on about what a great job I’m doing. A give-and-take attitude to doing science is healthy. I often have impulses to jump on to the next grandiose idea, even before I have fully worked through all the ones already on my plate. I’ve met other people who I feel dwell too much on the details, inching their project forward uninteresting bit by uninteresting bit. Real value, and real progress, comes from finding the middle ground.

2. The process, and not so much the project, is important. I now realize, after the long slough through grad school, that excelling at research does not depend on picking the best project. It’s about sustaining and pouring out your creative energies into the project, it’s about dreaming up experiments rather than dreaming up results, it’s about evaluating the data you already have without prejudice and following it where it leads. A lot of grad students lose interest in their project at some point during their doctorate. I did too, and in retrospect, it was in part due to a misplaced belief that researching an inherently great project that leads to success.

3. The magic of MIT. This place is awesome. When I see freshmen quizzing each other on the details of the biochemical pathways they have to memorize for 5.07 as they walk to lunch, I smile. When I look at MIT’s events calendar, sometimes I fantasize about taking a week of vacation to just attend lecture, talks, symposia, conferences, and discussions. I could have a beer and talk energy with folks in the MIT Energy Club and then drift over to Sloan and hear a talk about sugarcane agriculture in Brazil. While I’m at it, why not stop by one of the many venues at which undergrads show off their wacky creations, inventions, and ideas? There’s just so much. Maybe all big-name universities are like this. I don’t have much to compare my MIT experience to, but it’s been an absolutely marvelous experience.

4. Expectations about reality often disappoint. Research is the most fun when you don’t have strong expectations about the result of your experiment. The disappoint of having an idea proven wrong can seem worse than the excitement of being proven right. A related lesson for impatient people like me is that it also works best when most of your laboratory manipulations are experiments. For example, complicated assembly of synthetic gene constructs can take a long time and could easily bore me, if I were doing was following protocols. For me, making an experiment of each step was a great way to keep things interesting. What’s the best concentration of DNA to use for a ligation in step 7 of my one-month-long cloning procedure? OK, maybe it wasn’t the most groundbreaking science, but at least it was a scientific question. And keeping scientific questions in my mind helped stave off thoughts that I was just a brainless “fluid transfer specialist” pipetting fluids from one eppendorf tube to another.

5. Time is a scarce resource. Professors are very good at managing their time. If they can’t bring their full attention to a long, individual meeting with me, they don’t. Most of the faculty I interacted with had no reservations about telling me they didn’t have time to meet with me this week (or month). But, this is the key point. It’s almost always better to bug someone and have them shoo you away than to never have approached them at all. Visibility is good, and asking for someone’s time keeps you on their radar screen, even if they don’t give you any. Maybe this is true in big labs run by overstretched, always-traveling, hands-off PIs, and not in others, but the tales of many friends and colleagues, in addition to my own experience, vindicates this truism.

6. The sign of the progress derivative is more important than the magnitude. The most important thing in research is progress. In part, this is because your PI, your thesis committee, your grant manager, and your collaborators all expect you to make progress. But mainly, constant progress is a must for mental health and motivation. It goes without saying that great progress is better than no progress, but letting the perfect get in the way of the good is a mistake I think many graduate students make, especially when starting out. I know I did.

7. I learned a lot about chemical engineering and biotechnology, too, of course, but if you want to know what all those lessons were, you will have to get a Ph.D. in these topics yourself.


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