Post written by Joe Ballenger
Your Name: Catherine Mitson
Your Bug Question: Hello!
I am an undergraduate student studying Conservation Biology at the University of Exeter but my main interest is in insects and I would love to go down the Entomology route! Do you have any experience/advice that could help me in pursuing a career in all things insect related? I have always imagined that I would stay in research (and so right now I am looking at Masters programmes) but I am clueless in how to gain more experience and knowledge.
Thank you for your time!
Through this blog, our personal Facebook pages, and the groups we moderate, we get a lot of questions about how to traverse the educational process. It’s a really tricky system, because you can go to school and still have no clue how to get into career field you want to get into. Getting into undergraduate isn’t particularly difficult, but there’s significantly less guidance for what to do once you decide you want to continue your education.
There are a lot of things to consider, from the internal pressures which come from this sort of job, to things as simple as navigating office politics.
So where should you begin?
It all begins with us telling you some deep, dark secrets about ourselves.
You, too can be a genius!
Nancy and I write about a lot of really complicated topics on this blog. We’ve tackled everything from biotechnology to biophysics. A lot of our co-workers seem to think we’re geniuses because we seem to know the answer to just about everything everyone asks us. But here’s the thing, and it’s a deep dark secret that we hide from pretty much everyone…
We’re not particularly intelligent.
Everybody has the assumption that scientists have some sort of superpowers. The fact is that we really don’t, and I think this hurts everybody in the long run. A lot of scientists do present themselves that way, and I think that causes some people to have a superiority complex which makes some scientists come off as condescending. Stuff like this makes the public doubt the intentions and sincerity of scientists, which makes it hard to tackle a lot of really important issues.
The sort of negative discourse in the blog post linked above also has the effect of discouraging people some people who would make really great scientists from joining the field. People (including scientists) can be wrong, and should be corrected without feeling attacked. That’s why I try to avoid confrontations with folks when talking about certain subjects.
I don’t think scientists should be on a pedestal, and I don’t think that people should look at scientists and think that what we do is impossible. We’re not magic. We’re smart.
In reality, we’re a lot more like athletes*. There’s some natural ability involved, but in reality it’s all about how much you’re able to train. We train for thousands of hours to master techniques that few people really seem to care about. The end results, however, are the sorts of things which can save entire nations. Or, you know, sometimes we poke penguins with sticks to figure out when they sleep.
Scientists are…a really weird bunch.
Either way, you’re probably going to feel like you’re the dumbest person in the room at some point. Everybody does, and everybody struggles with it. I’m no different. It’s something called Imposter’s Syndrome, an inferiority complex suffered by most academics. The trick is to ignore that and push on. Yeah, it’s easier to say than to do…but it’s the only way you’ll be able to succeed.
Don’t ever let anybody intimidate you. Don’t ever get starstruck. Don’t be afraid to ask questions you think are really dumb, because this is really the biggest impediment to learning.
Build your network
Science is like most jobs, where you need to know people in order to meet people in order to find a job. If you’re an undergraduate, you’re basically starting from nothing. That’s just the way it is. There are a lot of ways you can build a network, though.
Read the scientific literature
The first step in building your network is that you need to be able to talk to people. The first step in this is to have a little bit of self-confidence, but that won’t get you everywhere. You need to be able to talk to scientists about what they do.
The first step in this process is to read the scientific literature. Science is categorized in peer-review journals, and this should be your first step in figuring out what you want to do. You’re not going to figure you what you’re interested in until you have a good idea about what’s going on in the science world, and the only way to do that is to know how to find out about what’s going on in the science world.Finding scientific literature can be tricky, especially in the age of predatory journals.
Truth be told, I’ve had colleagues who my senior by decades ask me about how to decipher this practice…and it’s really not easy. It takes a lot of legwork to know what’s going on, although Beall’s list can help.Fortunately, there are some indexing services like Web of Science or Pubmed which are very good at sorting this thing out. Unfortunately, some of the broader search engines like Web of Science require an institutional subscription to access.
If you don’t have access to Web of Science, Pubmed is the best place to start.In a very broad sense, there are two types of scientific article. Primary literature describes a series of experiments, and gives a snippet of background information. Review literature talks about results from an entire field of study. The sorts of papers you should be looking for, initially are called ‘review articles’. They’re called this because they synthesize results from a bunch of experiments into a comprehensible narrative. Their purpose is to get folks up to speed on a topic very quickly.
Figuring out a new topic isn’t easy. You’re going to trip over a lot of long words and awkward sentences. Be patient, look the words up, and don’t feel bad about taking a week to read a paper. If you feel like a penguin who just discovered rope, this is completely normal.
It’s called a learning curve. We all have them. It’s cool. Be patient with yourself!
After you’re somewhat well read, the next step is to…
Speak Up, Reach Out!
This entire section can be summed up in one sentence: You need to talk to people…
If you’re interested in going to graduate school, you really need some research experience under your belt. A lot of research is really cool, but actually doing the research can kind of suck.
I do molecular genetics, which means that I get to look at how bugs work at the cellular level. It’s really cool stuff, but the work I do basically involves transferring different liquids between different test tubes.
It’s not easy work, either. Many times, the liquids have to be transferred in sterile environments. If I’m working with RNA, I have to wear a bandanna over my face to avoid breathing over my tubes. Avoiding contamination is really hard, and it can be frustrating.
You need to figure out what you like to do, and more importantly, you need to figure out what you’re good at. The only way you can do that is to actually get in the lab and do some experiments.
If you do a good job, the person you work for will help you get into graduate school…you need recommendation letters. If you’re studying at a university, your instructors are probably scientists. You should talk to them and ask about research opportunities around campus.
Once you have an idea of what you’re interested in, feel free to reach out to scientists. Most primary literature papers will provide contact information to the authors, which will allow you to talk to them about their work.
You should always be considerate of their time, and not send too many or too long of messages.
I don’t want to get any angry messages from colleagues who get dozens of messages from curious people (although some might welcome that), so here’s a good starter message:
Dear Dr. Scientist,
My name is <your name>, and I’m interested in graduate school. I was reading a paper about <topic>, and I was wondering if you could tell me bit about <topic>. Specifically, I was wondering about…
<One or two very short, open-ended questions>
Catherine’s message above was perfect, and this template is about how long your first message should be. If you’re lucky, you’ll begin a conversation about science. If the PI wants to take you on, they’ll invite you to apply and walk you through the process. Most places require you to have an advisor in mind, so this is the place where you should start. The school’s website will guide you through the process.
Oh, and don’t be afraid to straight-up ask if the PI sounds interested.
…or through social media
This option wasn’t available to me when I was just starting school, and the blogosphere offers some really great opportunities for exploring your field of study. If there are scientists interested in the things you’re interested in, you can usually hang out with them.
One of my friends, Valerie Swenson is a bioengineering major. About a year ago, she went back to school and started contacting scientists to see what they did. She asked me a few questions, and we became close friends pretty quickly because we have similar backgrounds.
After awhile, she met Kevin Folta and has done a really great job of leveraging her contacts to meet new people and make new friends. She recently guest hosted Folta’s podcast and interviewed people who are making transgenic salmon.
Val has done an excellent job of reaching out and making contacts in the scientific community, and this is definitely an option to consider. Facebook, Twitter, blogs…all great ways to get contacts in the field of science.
Don’t be afraid to run
Scientists are just like any other group of people. I’d like to say that every person working in the field today was great, and most are great people. However, these are people we’re talking about so there will occasionally be some bad apples. This happens in any other job you could possibly have, and science is really no different.
So how can you avoid these bad apples?
Visit the lab
There’s a lot you can tell on the first visit, and you should really make a checklist before you go. Ask whether the equipment is in good repair, take a look at how the animals are raised, and just generally see if things are on the up-and-up.
Talk to the students
Take some of the students out for beer, and drill them about their work and their boss.
Are the students happy? What do they say about the professor? Does the lab have a history of success?
If your colleagues aren’t happy, you probably aren’t going to be happy. If the graduate students are away from their boss, they’ll tell you anything you need to know if you ask the proper questions.
Listen to the PI
You should talk to the PI at length about the project you’re interested in. If they have ideas, they’ll tell you what they want you to study and give you direction.
Listen to what the PI says about their colleagues. If the PI says no good things about their colleagues, or former students, then they likely won’t say good things about you when you’re gone.
Don’t worry about money; you shouldn’t go into debt
Graduate school is an exciting experience, but it’s a little bit different than undergraduate. Instead of tuition, you have student fees which are about 1/10th that of your undergrad tuition.
You also have research, which is typically funded through your PI. The PI will pay you a small salary, which depends on whether you’re a PhD or a MSc. You’re not going to be investing in the stock market, but you won’t be starving.
Another thing which should be mentioned is that you shouldn’t need to find funding for your own research, unless you’re a PhD student. However, it’s definitely possible to get grants. Since you’ll be working with someone who’s running their own lab, they can guide you through the process.
Another option is to crowdfund the research. I don’t have time to go into the pros and cons of the approach (that discussion can be found here) but there are definitely right and wrong ways to go about this approach.
MSc student Erika Bueno funded her Master’s project at UCSF through crowdfunding, and her successful campaign is a great example of what crowdfunding looks like when it’s done correctly. She explained what she was doing in detail, and didn’t oversell her work.
There’s a graduate school culture you need to know about
Graduate school is tough. It’s stressful, to the point where many have joked that you can’t spell postdoc without PTSD.
You’re not alone, though…and examples of graduate student culture are numerous. I’m a big fan of PhDComics.
This type of humor carries a deadly serious message: you’re not alone.
When I was in graduate school, I overworked myself and went a little bit crazy. Don’t do that.
The Bottom Line:
I don’t normally do this section in a list format, but I thought this was the best way to wrap up this article.
1.) Don’t be intimidated.
You shouldn’t feel like anybody will dismiss you for reaching out to them. Most scientists are eager to talk about their research with people who are interested, and the only way you can get into graduate school is to ask.
.2.) Get research experience.
The only way you will know what you’re good at, and what you like to do is to get your hands on some science. There are a lot of people who choose their careers based on how much money they think they’ll make, only to find out that they hate the work or aren’t good at it. There’s a bit of a learning curve to everything, but ultimately you need to choose what makes you happy. Otherwise, you’ll never be productive.
3.) Reach out to scientists.
Or, put another way, you need to know how to reach out to scientists. You can find their contact information through the papers they publish. You need to be considerate by knowing what their field is before you contact them, and be appreciative of their time.
Also, be patient. They’re busy people and may take awhile to get back to you.
4.) Choose your lab wisely.
Don’t get in a bad situation right off the bat. A graduate student position is temporary, and a bad experience in your formative years can follow you for decades. Even if a lab looks great, the science is solid, and the PI is world renown, don’t settle for a potential nightmare experience.
5.) Don’t worry about funding right away.
You’re gonna be poor in graduate school. You’ll be able to find money while you’re there. Don’t worry about that when you’re applying.
6.)You’re not alone, and you need to take time for yourself.
This one, I think is the most important. Don’t get so ambitious that you feel the need to basically sleep in your lab. That’s not the way to success.
One of my favorite ‘grad school horror stories’ involves a friend who flew off to Mexico for a week to marry his longtime girlfriend. He had planned the trip well over a year in advance, but his professor decided that he needed him in the lab despite the fact he was at a good temporary stopping point in his research.
So he went anyways, against the wishes of his boss.
His major professor was very angry at him, but he eventually graduated with a PhD. Even though his boss was very mad at him, he didn’t get fired.
I’m not saying that’s a good idea, but if you’re lucky enough to get into graduate school…you need to do what you gotta do to stay sane.
*I can imagine my old major professor is laughing that I made this comparison. Shout-out to my old lab!