Grad School Experiences as Told by a Dynamic Duo
Jessie and Sarah graduated from Pitt Bioengineering in Spring 2017, and each went on to Ph.D. programs, Jessie at the UC Berkeley - UCSF Graduate Program in Bioengineering and Sarah in Biomedical Imaging at NYU’s Langone Medical Center. In their time at Pitt, Jessie pursued research in the lab of Dr. Michel Modo and Sarah in the lab of Dr. Aaron Batista.
They have answered some of our questions about Grad School and are hoping to pass down their wisdom to those members who are considering grad school!
What is the Work/Life balance like?
I would say this is totally versatile and depends on your situation at the time. At UCB-UCSF we do rotations, so when everyone was setting up their first rotation and it was just at the start of classes, my schedule was relatively free. However, many people find themselves restless and I was definitely felt weird having so much free time so I started my rotation early. Then, during classes, it also depends on how much time your classes require and how much time your lab requires. Usually it’s up to you, and people really only care if you get the work done that needs to be done. Different campuses/universities will also have different vibes. Berkeley has an undergrad population so there’s definitely a lot more “get in at 11am, leave at 8pm” whereas at UCSF it’s more of a professional atmosphere of 9-6pm. Most people will also do some amount of work or go into lab on the weekends. For me, if I work “overtime” what I usually would, it’s because it was my personal choice and I’m anxious to see the results and know what my next steps are. The perk of grad school is that you study what you love! So it’s not like I’m heading in to do histology (a relic of my undergrad research *sniff*) on a Saturday, but rather I’m going to analyze and plot the results of my latest optimized decoding model.
Certain labs will encourage you to have a work life balance while others, to be honest, won’t care. But it’s all about personality, what fits you, and what you need. You should definitely make sure to take care of yourself, not just physically but also mentally, as a PhD is a marathon and will require endurance.
Unless you are generally running experiments which have to be performed at specific times, your time (aside from classes and set meetings) is your own. Generally, nobody is going to track you. Your professors pretty much just care if you can show them progress on your work. Some of them keep strange hours themselves. Time management becomes increasingly important, as it is very much your own responsibility.
I find that my schedules change from week to week, depending on what work I have. Sometimes I will spend more time in lab because I am stuck on something and am trying to break out, and sometimes I will spend more time for the opposite reason when inspiration has hit and I am excited to try out some code. Some weeks, I will look at the clock in lab and see that it is already evening and then go home and do some homework; some other weeks, I have plenty of time to relax and pursue hobbies or even go out and do things.
I strongly second Jessie’s last point - take care of yourself! It is easy to let your health fall out of focus, but this is always harmful in the long term. It is a difficult thing to acknowledge, but sleep is important. So is actually eating real food. Sorry, I’m sure everybody tells you this - but it is crucial.
What can one expect from classes?
I think most programs might have a few requirements, but my program is just a credit requirement (i.e. you just need to take enough classes that are relevant to your research to reach a certain credit limit). This is usually reached after the first 2 years of grad school if you take about 2 classes per Fall and Spring semester. Classes are not your priority in a PhD program, although you do need to keep a certain GPA. Your focus should be on your research as this will contribute to your major accomplishments during grad school. Different classes will also have differing amounts of work. Students working in more experimental research will probably take more seminar/discussion/project based classes that focus on developing an understanding of the source material and the right questions to ask in research projects and how to formulate successful proposals. Students working in more computational research will often take more technical classes that are problem set and project based. But these are just broad categories based on my experience and they are by no means exclusive. In my first year, I will have taken 2 classes that were lecture based with a final project, 1 class that is more like a journal club discussion with lectures, and 1 technical class with problem sets and midterms. I will likely take more technical classes in the future.
My experience has been similar to Jessie’s; classes are not considered a priority. Research is. My program requires 12 credits per semester in the first two years of the program, but this is not actually true as you fill up 1-5 of these with “research credits”. The way my program is structured (we are separate from any undergraduate program) and funded, you are not even supposed to TA. There are a few required seminars which are generally short, once-weekly, and then department core courses - I’m learning a lot about imaging! My classes (aside from program-wide seminars) are quite small, and you can get to know the professors well.
That being said, there are still opportunities to take great classes. You are in grad school, surrounded by people with (combined) centuries of expertise in science, so take advantage of it! You will likely not have too much time to take classes unrelated to your work/department, but it does happen - I am currently taking a quite unrelated, but rare and interesting class in the mathematics department, and some of my classmates jumped at the chance to take intro classes in the hot fields of machine learning and deep learning.
Sarah makes a great point to take advantage of the classes that are available to you, whether it’s something that is very much related to you work or something less related. For me, I’m starting in a very different field from my undergraduate work, so I’m really grateful that I have access to courses that will teach me the fundamentals. But I also know people that are auditing classes at Berkeley on poetry and language because it’s a hobby that they have. In the future, I’m strongly considering auditing a language class if I can fit it into my schedule.
Coming from Pitt Bioengineering, where the graduate students seem to mostly know their lab right away, I went into the process with the idea in mind that I must find my PI immediately and stick with them forever. But the program I ended up in requires three rotations during the first year. This has turned out to be a great opportunity! I think it especially turned out to work for me, as I went into a program with a focus (biomedical imaging) quite different from the research I pursued during undergrad (computational neuroscience). Approaching the field from different angles has been especially important as a newcomer to the field; it has allowed me to start to build a nuanced perspective, which was almost nonexistent when I started. Rotations have also facilitated my meeting, interacting, and working with a wider range of professors and older students, and have led me to pick up skills and undergo trainings that will be useful to me in my thesis but that I would not have been exposed to had I started in my final lab right away.
Unless you’re 110% sure what you want to do, I highly suggest programs with rotations. Even I, who thought I knew what I wanted to do, went into a completely different field. I originally interviewed for my program to do magnetic resonance imaging research. However, I was taking a computational neuroscience class (shoutout to Aaron Batista and BioE 1586) during my last semester and completely fell in love with it. So all the labs that I’m rotating in this first year are actually labs I never even talked to during my interviews. I think an important takeaway from that, especially for people interviewing now, is to keep an open mind. I happened to interview with one neural engineering PI during my visit weekend and that also sparked the idea in my head that maybe that’s what I wanted to do.
I agree with Sarah that this has been probably the greatest academic opportunity of my first year. Through my rotations, I’ve been able to try a variety of things and confirm whether I liked or disliked them, instead of being locked into a lab from the start (but this totally works for some people, just not for me). I’ve also had the chance to expand my skill-set immensely. Because of my rotations, I’ve learned a new programming language, started working in a new field that I had no experience in, and really become more versatile to quickly changing environments. Rotations also give you the chance to meet lots of different postdocs, grad students, and PIs and really see what lab culture you fit best with. In the end, I personally will be much more confident and excited to start working in whichever lab I commit to.
Best parts/worst parts:
I would say the hardest part is adjusting to routines. Every lab will have it’s own way of doing things, and most often it’s not that it’s bad, it’s just different and takes time to get used to. Other than that, it is frustrating when I have homework due for a difficult class but also have a lot of work to get done in the lab. The class will affect my GPA, but doing well in my rotation could potentially affect where I end up. So it’s sometimes hard to decide what to prioritize.
I think the best parts have been 1. Working on something that I didn’t know I was so passionate about and 2. The people. During my undergrad, I largely worked on regenerative medicine for stroke and image analysis. While that was very much in the area of what I wanted to do in the first couple years of undergrad, it’s quite different than what I want to do for the rest of my career. I knew that I wanted to apply more of my engineering background while still having a foundation in biological applications, so computational neuroscience has been a dream. I still get to think about how the brain does what it does but I also get to have fun with programming and machine learning (sorry not sorry if that’s incredibly nerdy).
The other best part of all of this has been all the incredibly amazing and inspiring people I have met in the process. From my cohort to my PIs to other upper-years in the program, there is a slew of people that I wouldn’t have met any other way. It’s exhilarating to be surrounded with people who are just as passionate about research as you are and who are also cool, chill people who will cardio dance with you at 10am on a Saturday, go hiking, go out clubbing, host empanada parties, and fan girl about Aeropress with you.
The hard parts: For me also, sometimes there are weeks in which classes are demanding, and simultaneously a lot of things are happening in lab. It is easy to get overwhelmed, and it’s extra tough to enforce those good habits.
A lot of the work I do, I do on my own. My PIs have been quite accessible, but it is also easy to dig myself into a hole and/or be unsure which labor- and time-intensive direction I should pursue in my projects (in a field which I am quite new to). This is especially anxiety-inducing since rotations are short, and it is easy to end up with some good leads but lots of loose ends.
The best parts: the science, the learning, and the people.
In imaging (for example), there is the potential and access to have a real impact on clinical care, which is fulfilling. But the technical, chemical, biological details are fascinating in and of themselves.
Classes so far have been great. In addition, there are always talks and seminars to go to, within my own department as well as all the others. This is true not just within the university, but within my entire city, which has multiple major research institutions. (Quick plug - lots of stuff happens in NYC!)
My department is amazing. Professors, even ones who have made major advances in the field and are widely known, tend to be helpful and open to questions. People are very collaborative - I set up a collaboration for my own project when I spoke with a professor who was not my PI, but who was interested in pursuing work similar to mine. Due to the nature of the field, we have people who trained as physicists, chemists, clinicians, and engineers working together. The older students have been happy to take me under their wings, and the techs are fun to work with, as well.
Overall rating of experience so far:
In my (admittedly fortunate) research experience (which has included my lab at Pitt, the rotations I’ve done so far here at NYU, and a summer in a lab at the Technion in Israel, as well as interactions with visiting students from various schools and countries), researchers in science and engineering tend to be enthusiastic about their work and love to share the knowledge and enthusiasm, and tend to want students to learn and succeed. The students who surround you will likely have a variety of life stories and paths to the program, but they will be interested in and excited about the things that also drove you to research. (Some of them will also not be opposed to exploring/going out/hanging out/having a good time, if you’re into that sort of thing. ;) ) If you love to do research and to be around people who also thrive on science, grad school may be the place for you.
Of course, there will be frustrations and obstacles; getting a Ph.D. is intended to be difficult. It has been pointed out to me that you will probably encounter frustrations on whichever path you choose in life - it depends on whether the reward makes those particular frustrations worth it, and that is a very personal experience.
In conclusion, 10/10, would recommend.
I remember when I was deciding between PhD programs and it was between 2 programs without rotations on the east coast and the UCB-UCSF program here. The east coast programs felt a lot less scary at first because I would be close to my family and friends (I grew up in New Jersey), but I knew that the opportunities and the fit in this program was so much greater than the other 2 for me (though they are both great programs in their own respect). Just like any other Pitt BioE, I turned to my advisor for immediate advice. Dr. Shroff said the following quote, which at first I didn’t realize was going to be so important to me, but has become a phrase I think about a lot.
“If all else is equal, go for the new experience.”
I’m so glad that I took his, and many others advice and chose this program. Yes, moving across the country to a place where I had no family and had never been to before my interviews was scary, but it has also been one of the best and most rewarding decisions of my life. I was afraid I wouldn’t have as great friends as I did at Pitt (and still do!), but the BioE program here, much like Pitt, is so friendly, welcoming, and accepting--I’m so thankful for all the great friends I’ve made out here so far and look forward to all the new ones I’ll make in the future.
I’ve been immensely happy in the program so far, though it’s not without its difficulties. But in your cohort, everyone is in the same boat of trying to figure it all out and you’ll all band together in it. I’m also so glad to be working on something that I’m passionate about and to make progress that I’m proud of. 100% would do everything the same!