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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: Twitter: Dereklowe

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June 27, 2006

Academia in Summertime

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Posted by Derek

When I was in graduate school, I had a law student as a neighbor for a while. We were both pretty quiet, and got along fine in our respective dinky efficiency apartments, but we couldn't help but notice some differences between our studies. The biggest one became clear around this time of the year: he left, and I stayed. I still remember the look of surprise on his face when I told him that we didn't have any time off.

Well, I know that law students don't generally go off and laze around on the ol' hammock during the summer, but they at least get to go somewhere else for a while. But grad students just keep banging away, and if they're in the sciences, they're up there nights, weekends, and holidays.

Ah, those holidays. I still have in my files a memo from my old chemistry department, reminding everyone that the university (undergraduate) vacation schedule most definitely did not apply to us. Do not attempt to take these holidays was the very pointed message, because we will notice if you do. I sure didn't. I did take off some time at Thanksgiving and Christmas, and I didn't work every single July 4th, but otherwise it was a rare, rare day when I wasn't in the lab.

I've written before about my physical surroundings during that time, but things like this memo didn't add to the festive atmosphere very much, either. On the university level, it became clear pretty quickly that we weren't students, and we weren't staff - well, not all the time, anyway. We were whichever caused the least expense and inconvenience to the school at the time you asked the question.

But the biggest factor was the work. It was a strain. I like variety up here in my head, and this was the first time I'd ever had to do the same thing, think about the same thing, day after day (and night after night). It brought on, eventually, the mental equivalent of a leg cramp - I know for sure that I was in a much crabbier mood during my grad school years than I was afterwards, and I'm sure that it was largely because I was venting off some of the pressure. My project had the usual twists and turns, which during one point just about had me tearing my hair in frustration, but the real problem was that there was no escape from it.

Every hour I spend doing something else, besides necessities like eating and laundry, I found myself thinking about how I'd just added another hour to my graduate studies. When I could have, you know, been back in the lab trying to find a way out of the place. That is to say, doing something useful with my time. In the end, anything that didn't directly involve getting out was classified as a luxury, and I tried to ration such things. I remember going past a TV set at one point that had a golf tournament on, and I found myself amazed at these people - not the golfers, the spectators, these people who felt free enough to just wander off and spend the whole day in a sunny park watching a sporting event, without having to worry the whole time about what it was taking them away from.

All of which is why I reiterate my advice to my grad-school readers, who may be watching the summer weather out the windows of their labs (if they have windows, that is): get out. As far as it's compatible with taking a reasonably honorable and complete degree and not leaving any bad blood behind you, get out. The whole point of graduate school is proving that you can make it out of there.

Comments (21) + TrackBacks (0) | Category: Graduate School


1. Jonathan Gitlin on June 27, 2006 5:36 PM writes...

Maybe it's because I'm not a grad student these days and I can look back on it with rose tinted glasses, but summer is the best time to be on campus. No undergrads getting under your feet, parking is easy and there's a laid back atmosphere around the place.

Then again, in the UK at Imperial we were even supposed to get 8 weeks a year off, although in practice we took 6 like faculty or staff.

You can find more of my thoughts and advice on undertaking a PhD in an article at Ars Technica.

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2. Jeremiah on June 27, 2006 5:43 PM writes...

I get the suspicion that if you’re serious about chemistry, you would want to go to a school that has that mentality: every hour counts and an hour wasted is an hour lost. The general reasoning behind standing in your hood 16 hours is nonsense, but the outcome is perfect. You’re not going to get 16 hours worth of work out a 16 hour day; there are mountains of studies that back me up on that. Some schools exist, and they produce outstanding chemistry, in which the average workday is not 14 or 16 hours - it is less than 10. Hell, who works at a bench for 14 hours in industry? But at the end of the day, who are you going to ask when you have a question? The senior grad student with a work ethic similar to yours leaves, are you going to ask the professor or bug someone in another lab? That’s hardly tenable. It’s also embarrassing and annoying. This mentality of working 16 hours a day isn’t about actually working in the hood for 16 hours. It’s about being so devoted that you would actually stay there 16 hours. It is that devotion that makes you a better chemist and I just don’t see a decent substitution for it.

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3. Milo on June 27, 2006 6:56 PM writes...

You know, I get twitched of angst when I think about the hours I used to work in graduate school. I don’t know about people here, but anything over 9 hours and I start getting fuzzy in the head.

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4. Canuck Chemist on June 27, 2006 7:49 PM writes...

I'm a post-doc now (organic synthesis), working pretty much the same hours I did in grad. school. I've had the good fortune of working for supervisors who've given me some freedom to develop and explore my own ideas. This can be very satisfying, and it tends to make you more enthusiastic, but it can be quite overwhelming when you spend half the day exploring your ideas on paper and in the literature, and then you need to do ALL the grunt work yourself to try to make it happen. There are other groups where the students contribute mostly just the grunt work, and this can be even worse, depending on your inclinations. It can be a very crappy feeling washing flasks at midnight in the lab to set up more reactions, but this situation is definitely more palatable with a supportive supervisor and friendly coworkers. I'm not sure that there is another scientific field as demanding as organic synthesis in terms of both intellectual and physical labour. On the upside, in synthesis you can often test an idea or hypothesis in a matter of weeks, rather than years as is often the case in the biological sciences.

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5. SRC on June 27, 2006 8:10 PM writes...

Excellent advice, Derek.

Grad school was easy compared to being an asst. prof., by far the worst time of my life.

Pretty much the same hours in the lab, but in addition I also had to teach freshman chemistry and/or graduate courses, write papers and grant proposals, serve on committees, and of course teach brand new grad students how to work in the lab, all the while being scared @#$%less that my career was going down the tubes. Not fun. I literally did not bother to turn on the heat in my apartment, even in dead of winter, because I only spent about 30 waking minutes a day there. My landlord couldn't believe his luck.

But that princely asst. prof. salary more than made up for it all...

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6. Lauren on June 27, 2006 11:49 PM writes...

Glad to know that I'm not the only one that feels that they are crabbier since they have started graduate school - I find myself thinking back to when I was fun and interesting and had more than one major topic of conversation. I also remember working 9 hour days at my old (masters chemist) job and thinking I'd put in a looong one - now 14 hours at school isn't a big deal.

It's just nice to have it affirmed it's supposed to be like this, for a little while. And then I can have a back yard and a chair and a beer like people with real lives can, as well as (I hope) an interesting and fulfilling job.

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7. Greg Hlatky on June 28, 2006 4:31 AM writes...

I was told during the first-year student orientation that I'd look back on being a grad student as the happiest years of my life. Of course, he was right. Of course...

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8. RKN on June 28, 2006 9:04 AM writes...

I'm forty six and recently returned to grad school to get a PhD (Pharmacology). I'm doing my research in a proteomics lab. Before this I worked in industry (unrelated to life science) for twenty years. Crazy? Perhaps. But I loudly agree with your advice to students to "get out." I see students around me working long hours without a break to the point of diminishing returns. I wouldn't be the least bit surprised to find a causal link between fatigue and a rise in the number of mistakes. I'm guessing students receive little to no counsel from their P.I.s on how to "balance" their lives. Returning to grad school this late in life is challenging, but I think I have one up on my younger fellow students by having come to this with an appreciation for the importance of experiences outside work and science. Heck, even Feynman played the bongos.

Having said that I had to return to the lab late last night to stop an experiment on time. Even at 11 pm there were still a few people there. I don't whether to admire them or feel sorry for them.

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9. JSinger on June 28, 2006 9:04 AM writes...

You know, I get twitched of angst when I think about the hours I used to work in graduate school. I don’t know about people here, but anything over 9 hours and I start getting fuzzy in the head.

Same here -- I drag in on Monday morning and find myself wondering how I ever survived years of 6- and 7-day weeks.

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10. Demosthenes by day on June 28, 2006 9:07 AM writes...

After I had graduated and went back to my school to pick up my degree in the year-end ceremony I went to visit my old group. Of course everyone asked what it was like out in industry. So I told them the following. I go to work about the same time as I did when I was here. But after 5, I was told to go home, they explained to me that this was called the evening. I asked what is this evening? What do you do? My co-workers explained you could do anything you want, go to a movie, read a book, watch TV; anything. Then after I had five of the work days and five of the evenings they told me there was this space of two days called the weekend. These are like extended evenings. On some specially decided times you even got three day versions of these weekends.
As you can imagine, the reaction from the students and post-docs was laughter. My advisor? He wasn't as amused.
Let me second Derek's advice get done and get out. For those of you headed to industry it does get better. For those of you headed to academia it probably doesn't get better until you achieve tenure but it does get better.

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11. jim on June 28, 2006 11:24 AM writes...

"...but in addition I also had to teach freshman chemistry and/or graduate courses, write papers and grant proposals, serve on committees, and of course teach brand new grad students how to work in the lab..."
Do you mean you didn't have to do this stuff as a grad student? Sounds easy, alright.

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12. GATC on June 28, 2006 4:37 PM writes...

Next to getting married and assisting with the birth of my three children, I'll have to say that the most fun I've had was my four years in graduate school. Where else and at what other time in life could a young kid concentrate fully on one particular scientific problem while being funded on a graduate fellowship? Back then, our department was very rigorous, PhD track only (the MS degree was the exit out for folks who didn't pass their second year qualifying exams). We worked hard and played hard, and I feel especially fortunate to have been working for a great advisor (

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13. SRC on June 28, 2006 6:49 PM writes...

Do you mean you didn't have to do this stuff as a grad student? Sounds easy, alright.

No comparison, my friend.

Being a TA is a sinecure. Lecturing to hundreds is a horse of rather different color, especially the first time through, before one has lecture notes and is accustomed to the month in month out grind of lecturing three times a week (and being videotaped, so any gaffes are recorded for posterity). Zero comparison to being a TA (of which I usually had at least a dozen, sometimes close to two, in lower division service courses). For a new course, figure at least 15 hours a week (four hours prep/hour lecture) gone right there to do a decent job.

Grad students don't normally write proposals (mine didn't); at most they assist a bit, and the likelihood is that what a grad student would write would be very rough indeed. Again, not the same thing.

Nor is teaching first year students. Teaching ONE - as most grad students do, or at most two - is one thing, teaching a bunch (and establishing a good group ethos) is again a horse of a rather different color. At the beginning, when they're all in the lab at the same time it's rather like trying to put puppies into a basket (put one in, two climb out the other side!). That rapidly gets easier as a group gets established, but at the beginning there are no experienced people to help.

PS: I don't what happened to the rest of my post, but ...

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14. Mike-east on June 28, 2006 9:04 PM writes...

Amen brother!

The best advice I got before starting graduate school was to make sure I had a hobby - a reason to be anywhere else except the lab. Over-dedication to ones vocational pursuits can make Jack a dull boy.

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15. Mark on June 28, 2006 10:20 PM writes...

The biggest benefit of being a grad student in Texas in the summer was a lot of short shorts on campus.

You dont have to work all night long EVERY night in grad school........

But then, some cities are just more fun than Durham, eh Derek?

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16. Anonymous on June 29, 2006 7:27 AM writes...

"Every hour I spend doing something else, besides necessities like eating and laundry, I found myself thinking about how I'd just added another hour to my graduate studies."

Ahh, I completely remember this feeling. I too was always fascinated that people were actually capable of spending the whole day out in the sun, throwing a frisbee around, playing with their dog, etc. It's been 5 years or so since I was in grad school and at first it took some time getting used to not work 7 days a week. I don't think the 7 day work week was forced upon me, I believe I did it by choice, which I fear might be worse! But I definitely felt that every hour not spent in the lab was another hour added to my grad student career. And let's face it, I missed my friends back home and having a "normal" life. You can't keep up the 7-day work week forever. At least I couldn't.

Every 4th of July I look back on my grad school days where I spent this holiday viewing the fireworks from the balcony of my 8th floor lab. It was actually quite nice. You could see both the Oakland and San Francisco fireworks going off at the same time. Pretty sweet. And then it was back to the hood. Good times.

As stressful as it was, I do miss grad school sometimes. I had a great advisor so I can't complain too much. (But who am I kidding? Spending my weekends casually shopping and hanging out with friends is pretty nice.)

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17. Shelley on June 29, 2006 11:25 AM writes...

I just want to point out that not all departments and mentors are so stingy on the vacation time. Here at UM Neuroscience, my mentor is ok with me taking a month off to go to China to visit my parents. Two weeks off to travel Europe. Spring break. He encourages it, saying that you're only young once, and right now i don't have anything tying me down.

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18. Anonymous on June 29, 2006 2:16 PM writes...

Hmm, 8th floor of Latimer Hall? I'm there right now... The view of SF is pretty amazing, but all I can see from my hood is downtown Oakland. Only 4 more years for me!!! Hopefully.

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19. JW on June 29, 2006 4:59 PM writes...

This post certainly brings back memories. My department (big New England school) had an expectation of 60 hrs/week minimum for PhD students. But I never saw evidence that people working longer hours were more productive than those who were more slack about it -- time wasted due to exhaustion, not thinking clearly, etc. would often more than make up for the extra hours worked.

I also remember feeing envious of people actually doing leisure activities... the worst was watching people on the subway on an evening or weekend, on their way out to have fun, while I was on my way back to the lab.

I worked shorter hours than many of my classmates during my PhD, but I was able to stick with some hobbies that these classmates wouldn't have had time for. It took longer for me to finish up, but I think I ended up less depressed than I otherwise would have been had I worked all-out for five years.

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20. Dave on June 29, 2006 8:29 PM writes...

The goal should be to work smarter, not longer!

I got my Ph.D. in chemistry from UCSD and spent plenty of time in the water surfing and on the beach catching waves and people watching. My experience was probably unusual in that I was fortunate to get first author on a solid paper in my second year. I managed to coast on this result until my third year qualifying exam. Life after this exam and prior to my defense was no fun at all and I was truly relieved to get the heck out of there when all was said and done.

Derek offers sage advice to current graduate slaves: get out as soon as possible and move on with your life! Oh yeah, and check your head if you're seriously considering an academic career path!

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21. Aracely Manzer on March 16, 2012 7:34 AM writes...

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