Education, Science

So You Want to be a Scientist

I began my graduate school program in August of 2016, and I’ll be finishing at the end of the upcoming fall semester this year, in December 2017. I’ll be graduating with a Master’s degree, in Neuroscience.

In this post, I’ll be talking about what I have learned in the program so far, in terms of skills and things I have had to get accustomed to. I’ll also briefly list out some reasons why I decided not to go to medical school.

My program has a minimum residency requirement of one year (i.e. two semesters, fall and spring), but I will be extending it an additional semester to complete a Master’s thesis. In light of my second semester coming to an end, I believe that writing about what I have learned thus far will give me an opportunity to not only explore how I have grown academically, but also to share my insights with others.

So what did you learn in graduate school thus far?

grad school_spongebob

A graduate program in the life sciences is certainly different from an undergraduate program. The courses are more rigorous, the professors expect more of you, and class sizes are usually smaller. As such, I have had to learn to adapt to some important differences, like:

  • Professors who have new or different lecturing/teaching styles
  • Reviewing class notes on a weekly or daily basis in order to understand information rather than just “know” it (or cram it, which is counterproductive)
  • Being assertive to get work done
  • How to ask questions with more confidence (i.e. not feeling completely incompetent for not knowing something)
  • How to focus on “main take-aways” or “big picture” ideas instead of on nitty-gritty details (i.e. seeing the forest instead of the individual trees)

My coursework has also helped me learn new skills, like:

  • How to use citation software to expedite proper scientific citation formatting
  • How to make scientific presentations that are informative and engaging without spewing facts at the audience
  • How to make scientific posters (and also what bad posters look like)
  • How to read journal articles in a timely manner without tearing your hair out
  • How to think about journal articles critically (and come up with your own ideas for future experiments)
  • How to do some basic data analysis in Excel

…And the most important skill of all: learning how to take care of my mental and physical health. A lot of students put their health and well-being at the bottom of their to-do list, saying they don’t have time to cook, eat, or sleep properly. As I have come to learn the hard way, if your body and brain don’t have the nutrition and rest that they need, your productivity and resilience (and immune system function) will suffer. Burnout has serious consequences, and the aftermath often lasts several days, which can make you feel further behind and thus stress you out even more.

I tell myself the following every day:

If you’re tired, sleep. If you’re hungry, eat. If you need a break, take it. The work will be there when you come back to it.

Now, let’s switch gears!

So why didn’t you go to medical school?

Growing up, I loved science. I was probably one of few kids who looked forward to the science fair, and participated in it every year. On weekends, my parents and I made trips to the public library and leave with plastic bags full of books. In a nutshell, I grew up a total bookworm, with a deep love of learning (that I still have to this day, of course). Unfortunately, I was led to believe that being a physician was the only career option I had. I didn’t know any better, so I embraced it, telling everyone who asked that I was going to be a physician when I grew up.

I got through my undergraduate career successfully, graduating with a Bachelor’s in Cellular and Molecular Biology. The coursework was tough, but I got through it, determined to overcome the so-called “weed-out” classes. This required adjusting my study methods, but I did it. The summer before my senior year, I took the MCAT exam, which all prospective medical students have to take prior to applying. Although I didn’t perform as well as I would have liked, I was determined to apply, hoping that my coursework, grades, and non-academic activities would give me a boost. I applied to 10 programs in total that summer, and after two rounds of applications, I didn’t get accepted into any of them. I was devastated, and it took some soul-searching to decide what to do next.

Throughout my childhood all the way to graduating with my Bachelor’s, I never stopped to honestly and deeply ask myself a simple question: Why did I want to be a physician? Sure, I had to answer this question on my medical school applications, but I didn’t answer it for myself. The typical answer is “to help people,” and this is usually backed up with some profound personal experiences.

Ironically enough, I went back to look at the personal statement that I had written, to find that two-thirds of it was about clinical research rather than actually being a physician. (Perhaps the admissions committees noticed this, and decided to reject me because they felt I would be better suited to graduate school?)

But why had I not seen this sooner? I re-read the essay before submitting it, and I had others read it as well. Nonetheless, after making this discovery, I went back to square one, doing as much research as I can about graduate school and research-related careers in the sciences.

From my research, I learned three important things:

  1. Fascination with science doesn’t automatically equal being a physician.
  2. Physicians need research to do what they do. Medicine doesn’t exist in a vacuum.
  3. There are other career paths involving medicine and human health outside of being a physician.

I then applied to three graduate programs for neuroscience (which I had a deep interest in during high school that I conveniently forgot in my undergraduate career), and the rest is history!

Now, when anyone asks what I want to be, I tell them that I want to be a scientist, to push the boundaries of what we know in the service of both knowledge and human health. This is my true answer. It’s important to find your own answer, which means not giving the same answer that everyone else does because it’s what admissions committees want to hear. Being honest with yourself is the first step to finding what you care about, because if you don’t care, why should anyone else?

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