In many ways, getting a PhD is like running a marathon. A marathon with hurdles positioned at every mile mark to be precise. It is not a “pleasant” experience per se, but you will come out a finisher, which is pretty much the same thing as a winner in my book. Here is my story.
In what feels like a lifetime ago, I started my PhD journey with the hope of studying gene therapy. Unfortunately, due to funding issues, I was not able to join the lab of my choice. In fact, six rotations later, I found myself in an immunology lab that consists solely of my PI and me.
Despite the excitement of making new discovery, to get the full experience of obtaining a PhD, one must learn to jump through a few hurdles. One of those hurdles appeared when we had to get rid of all our mutant mice because they were susceptible to severe parasitic infection that could potentially endanger the entire mouse colony housed within the same room. So there it was, two years of work quickly went down the drain. As a result of the loss of the mouse model, I switched my focus to a completely unrelated side project at the end of my second year.
Currently, I am studying the repertoire of intestinal antibodies at the genetic level. These antibodies are important in regulating the beneficial/neutral bacteria that naturally live in our digestive system. The imbalance of these bacteria could contribute to some of the common intestinal diseases like Inflammatory Bowel Disease. Our lab believes that the antibodies that recognize the beneficial bacteria are generated through a different mechanism than those that bind to harmful microbes. Using single-cell sequencing, which is a technique that allows us to obtain genetic material from individual intestinal cells, we were able to “recreate” these intestinal antibodies, produce lots of them, and test them for their specificities
Despite the relatively unique lab situation, there are some upsides to being the only person in the lab, as well. Since my PI is very hands-off, I can maintain a relatively flexible schedule. This allows me to pursue interests, like writing this blog post and working part-time as an editorial intern, which will hopefully develop into marketable skills when it comes time for job hunting. I can even fit marathon training in my busy life as a PhD student (Gasp!). Additionally, having to plan everything on my own from start to finish means that I am as heavily involved in every aspect of my research project as I can possibly be. Most importantly, I developed into an independent scientist who is able to persevere and remain motivated through challenging times.
Besides doing experiments and reading up on latest research, my typical day in the lab also involves some administrative duties like ordering supplies. Being at a medical campus in the great city of Boston also means that there are countless opportunities to attend talks given by some of the topnotch scientists in the field. The number of excellent universities, research institutes and companies in the Boston area also makes it quite easy to meet other scientists and to form collaborations.
A PhD experience is more than just performing experiments and analyzing data. It is not just about building an impressive record of publications. The ability to realistically analyze a situation and make the most out of what you are given is going to help you succeed in the post-PhD world. Yes, you will have to jump over a lot of hurdles to reach the finish line, but on the bright side, if you manage to finish a PhD, you can pretty much persevere through anything. Next time when your experiment refuses to work, try looking at it as an opportunity to polish your problem-solving skill. You will certainly feel better, I promise.