Tag Archives: graduate school

Independence and Feedback, a Short Reflection

I like to think that I’m pretty good at working independently. I don’t usually need much supervision or someone to tell me to get to work or what to do. I like figuring things out myself. I have no problem asking questions and look for help whenever I see that battling an issue any further by myself isn’t productive.

That is one of the reasons why I loved my last project I spent more than 3 years working on. It started as a summer internship to try to replicate some published results using a technique nobody at the lab tried before and quite different from what everyone was doing, thus, nobody really knew how to help me and I was pretty much left to figure it all out by myself. My supervisors weren’t the type who were breathing down my neck, it was closer to ‘my door is always open but I’m not often here’ type of supervision (they made up for it in other ways). Not that I was complaining. Although it could have been scary, the folks at the lab were very nice and always helpful – there was always someone with whom I could discuss things, show me how to do stuff and help me come up with practical solutions. I would mostly only go to my supervisors when I had some nice(ish) results to share and get a ‘good job’ from them.

However, after changing labs a few months ago, I’ve been feeling somewhat different. The style of supervision is pretty similar to what I’m used to and I still like it, but for some reason I’ve also been feeling in more need of encouragement than before. I don’t know exactly why but I’ve been feeling that I’m not working enough/getting enough results. I mean, part of the reason is, of course, that I have been somewhat relaxed compared to the time when Master’s deadlines were pushing me, but that was one intense year. For the rest of it, I really don’t know. I keep working and kind of hoping it passes, but for now I’m really grateful for unexpected positive feedback I get from time to time from my supervisors even when I haven’t presented any new data (a recent comment made me think and come up with this post).

Feeling rather introspective,


Shiny Brains (and Other Things I Wouldn’t Mind Working On For My PhD)

So, the last few days I’ve been spending a fair amount of time trying to figure out and narrow down what sort of topics interest me. I don’t know if any of my thoughts will actually pan out into actual research, but I figure at least I have something to say when I talk to someone about my PhD thoughts and stuff – “um”, “I don’t know” and “anything” doesn’t make me sound like I actually want this, does it?

My process is pretty simple – I just pick an institution (a university) and go through their lists of research areas and topics. And so far my main thoughts are:

Interestingly (for me), I find that I don’t particularly feel like getting into the sort of thing that I’ve been doing so far – microfabrication, surface chemistry, biochip fabrication, that sort of thing, at leats not as the main focus of my work.

Neurobiology / developmental biology is extremely interesting. However, I’m a bit worried about the amount of genetics involved, because after photosynthesis, that’s the biology topic I find most difficult. Though that’s not necessarily a bad thing, challenges make things more exciting; genetics and epigenetics fascinate me. Plus, I would get to work with fruit flies whose brain light up in different colours.

Cell biology: stem cells, cancer, all that stuff. I have a bit of experience there now and I’ve taken quite a few university courses in that general subject, so this one feels most comfortable in a way, but there’s also stuff going on there that makes things interesting – genetics / gene expression, proteomics, and that’s just glancing through a fairly random sample during a couple of days.

Just realising that I haven’t stumbled upon any laser-tech-involving topic yet and wondering whether I even want to,


WTF Is My Area/Field/Forest of Interest?

It’s been rather slow these past few days, so I’ve been thinking a lot. Mostly about the prospect of starting my PhD studies. I’m working towards a Master’s degree right now; I’m graduating next summer. It seems quite a long time, but it’s not too early to start thinking about it, right?

There are, obviously, a load of factors to consider, and quite a few of those will probably ultimately boil down to be determined by “whichever place accepts me”, but I decided that I should at least determine what sort of topic / area / field / whatever I’m most passionate about and would like to devote 3 or 4 years of my life for.

Because, the thing is, I had never made an entirely conscious decision to choosing a research project. Let me explain. I first started looking for research opportunities when I was a freshman at university because I was bored out of my mind and because doing research was what I wanted to do, but being freshman I didn’t really know what I could do and how to find a lab and stuff. So, I simply went to my study programme’s supervisor and was, like: “Um, I want to do research, can you help me?” He asked me what I wanted to do, but I didn’t know, so we determined that using a simple process of elimination, and I ended up deciding that I’d like to work with small things (like cell cultures and stuff), and he helped me set up a few meetings. After a couple of misses and some more help from other people, I ended up at a cancer research lab which was fascinated with Nanoscience applications in cancer detection and treatment. I worked there for a couple of years and a series of baffling and unreproducible results (but I had an excellent supervisor and learnt loads). Then I found out about a summer science internship program which came with a stipend. I applied for a number of bio/chem/phys field internships that sounded interesting (a lot of them sounded interesting). Funnily enough, the only internship I ended up accepted for was one I almost didn’t apply for because the description sounded rather intimidating. And here I am, two years later, continuing and expanding on the project for my Master’s thesis, making stuff with laser light. It would seem that this slightly random process has been rather lucky for me. But I don’t know if I want to trust that same process with my PhD; I think that I should have at least some sort of sense of direction.

Thus, I come to my problem – I find the whole frigging world fascinating. Nice problem to have, when you come to think of it, isn’t it? Well, at this point I probably won’t head into Geology or Astrophysics. But the part of Nature that replicates is still rather wide open. Though I can narrow that a bit further because I don’t fancy field work much, I prefer the controlled environment of the lab bench or even laminar-flow hood for cell cultures (which, after 6 weeks of internship I hardly ever find annoying anymore). But where to go from there? Do I try to decide what problem I find most pressing in the world? That would be climate change, I guess, but that’s largely a political problem too and I just get frustrated by that sort of thing very easily. I don’t know if I’d like it to be my job. And at this point it occurs to me that perhaps the advice to not do a PhD until you’ve figured out what you’re most passionate about is not so bad (even though I actually decided that I didn’t want to wait, though I reserved the right to change my mind). At the very least, it gives you time to explore (maybe I’d find that environmental science or solar panel development is actually something I’d like to do). But what if several years from now I still won’t have found THE area? Because I know one thing right now – I know that I love doing research, I love learning, I love exploring how Nature works, be it in the form of a bundle of cells growing in a flask, or tiny balls of atoms glowing in the dark. And, ultimately, I want to share it with other students, and I pretty much need a PhD for that (or at least be in the process of getting one), so why wait? Perhaps THE area isn’t so important because I’m fascinated by so many things? I also must consider the fact that if I narrow in too much*, I won’t have much choice and the chances of not finding a position increase. And it’s not like I’ll be stuck with whatever I do my PhD in for the rest of my life, right? Perhaps I should just trust that the slightly random process that led me here, will continue bringing me to cool places? Are there any options I haven’t considered?

Lost in thought,


P.S. Yes, I realise that I started the post with the decision that I should determine an area of interest, but ended up thinking that it’s not so important after all. That’s how my thought process works sometimes – I’ve just been turning this around in my head for a while now and wanted to get it out there (and hopefully get some feedback), so I can move on.

*And I don’t want to narrow in too much at all – I chose to major in Biophysics (partly) because it covered the widest range of subjects in the first place.

Noodle vs Grad Schools of the World

So this back-to-school thing is kind of taking over the world right now (well, Northern hemisphere at least, I’m not sure about the Southern one), and it‘s swept me along as well. Not that I’m sad that summer‘s over, quite frankly, it‘s a relief that the heat of hell is gone, and I’ve always been the weird kid who counted down the days left to September 1 (that‘s when we start school around here). I always get excited at the prospect of learning new things, meeting old teachers again and new professors for the first time (this started with university), getting nice new notebooks and stuff (and no, I‘ve never been beaten up in my life – if there‘s one nice thing about the middle of nowhere that is my home, it‘s that bullying of smart nerdy kids doesn’t seem to have made it here yet, at least not the wonderful school I went to).

However, this year my feelings about September 1 are kind of mixed. I’m starting my final year as an undergrad, and it‘s come way way too soon. I don‘t want to think about graduating yet, I want to bury my head in the sand and just stay put… choking and suffocating… OK, that‘s not gonna work. Anyway. I’m still kind of wishing to always remain undergrad.

I actually forced myself to start looking into prospective grad schools last weekend (yay my strong will). And it is SCARY. I mean, you would think that a simple google search couldn’t possibly be scary, and yet it is. Every time I type in a name of school I‘d like to check out, I get this rush of fear of the unknown and student loans, sense of complete loss, doubt in my abilities and grades and feeling that I’m about to fall into a bottomless black pit. But there‘s also excitement. Just a teensy bit of it, but it‘s there. There are also people encouraging me to shoot for my ultimate dream, which is… OK, I‘ll tell you too, my invisible (and possibly non-existent) reader, it is MIT – I know, I’m crazy! What the hell am I thinking?! I’m not very good at probability theory, but I know that the possibility of me getting into MIT is, let‘s say, finite. However, that‘s not going to stop me from trying. If just for kicks, because doing things for kicks is fun, and I want to have some fun in this otherwise very frightening experience.

I’m just glad that I’m NOT coming into it completely unprepared (and applying for undergrad studies doesn’t really count because the system in this middle of nowhere is very different from US, UK and other countries where my top grad school choices are). I’ve done a semester abroad on an exchange program. Granted that‘s simplified compared to actually applying to a university, but I still had to research schools, subjects offered there, apply for the exchange program and stuff. And then I got to spend a semester at one of the top 50 universities of the world (according to this site I‘ve been using to help me in my school search). Sure, it is closer to 50 than to 10, but still. I found out that I can do it very well, in a foreign country, foreign university and pretty different teaching system. And I learnt some pretty valuable things (not necessarily study-related). For instance, that I can‘t stand not understanding what people are talking next to me in line in a shop or wherever. It‘s so bad that I’m actually only looking in countries where I speak the language and making an effort to learn a new language, because I love the university in that country. I’m also getting a lot of support, advise and useful tips from friends all over the place (God bless them and the internet!). And who knows, maybe around this time next year I‘ll be moving to some university town in US and at the same time a lot closer to some of my friends. And this thought alone is exciting enough to make me actually want to go google those schools!.. Oh no, here comes the fear…

Kind of wishing that I always remain an ickle undergrad,