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What I Wish I Knew in Graduate School
If I could do it all over.
Somehow summer has turned into fall, and I’ve been neglecting this newsletter more than I should. I’m filled with nostalgia right now for my experience in graduate school as the temperatures drop. Being a doctoral student was a time in my life where I was the most mentality fragile, full of anxiety, felt like I had little to no support, but I was also full of optimism and curiosity. I finished my PhD in just under 4 years and this is the advice I wish I had before I started. Further, this whole Cheeky Scientist thing has me kind of fired up about going doctoral candidates going into “industry.”
If you are a struggling doctoral student know that you aren’t alone and I hope this helps you. If you need someone to talk to just reply to this email, find me on LinkedIn, or find me on Twitter (@tpolymerist).
If you are here for me to explain some chemistry topic or write about a start-up or offer up an opinion about the chemical industry, I hope you’ll stay. That stuff is coming!
Three Papers and Out
The Advice: If you can meet the minimum requirements for defending your thesis well before some anticipated defense date—take some time and do some higher risk work or spend some time understanding the industry where you want to get a job. You could file a patent, start a company, or start an internship. Work outside the lab is just as valuable if not more valuable than work inside the lab. Create space and time for yourself.
I was under the impression that running up my publication count would result in better job opportunities. I didn’t have any data to back hypothesis up, but it seemed like the thing that was most in my control to maximize. While I don’t think I was publishing useless papers (you can see the list here and be the judge for yourself), I do wish I had taken my foot off the gas pedal. My first year of graduate school was 2012-2013 and I essentially had a finished a full thesis with three first author papers that came out in 2015. I would go on a publish a bunch more papers, but in terms of a thesis I didn’t necessarily need them. Most thesis advisers and committees will accept three first author papers as your thesis provided you write a good introduction (essentially a review paper) and a conclusion that ties all your work together. I was effectively finished in 2015, but I still spent much of 2015-2016 publishing more papers. All the industry jobs I interviewed for and got never cared about how many papers I published nor the impact factor of the journals.
I wish I had spent more time trying to understand the commercial market for thermosetting polymers and synthetic polymers in general while I job hunted. Starting this newsletter in graduate school (or a blog back then) I think would have been useful too. At a minimum it would have been a way to hold myself accountable in learning about the commercial side of chemistry as opposed to spending so much time in the lab. Even if I did none of that and I just spent a bunch of time not constantly putting myself into a pressure cooker would have helped. Being burned out or on the cusp of burning out from graduate school is a terrible place to be.
Talk about this stuff early and often with your thesis adviser and/or your committee if you feel like they are supportive enough to provide useful feedback.
The Advice: Much of the work you do as a graduate student is rooted in project management. You are communicating and coordinating with collaborators, core service laboratories, undergraduates and high school students, and presenting your projects. I wish I had sought out more formal training earlier—even a LinkedIn Learning course would have been helpful.
It wasn’t until almost 4 years after I defended my thesis that I received a somewhat formal training course on project management from a former Project Management Institute (PMI) certified scientist (she is retired, but I hope she starts her own substack soon) and the pieces of the puzzle clicked in my brain. From starting my own graduate work until that point, I had been a pseudo project manager of my own work. I just didn’t fully comprehend what the skillset meant until I received the training.
To distill project management in chemistry/chemicals it is overcommunication of information to the team and turning the complexity of commercializing chemistry into something that anyone can understand—usually the CEO. You need both technical skills to understand the challenges of the R&D team, but you also need to understand all of commercial aspects such as supply chains, manufacturing, regulatory compliance, profitability, and a quality system. Even if you can understand all of that stuff you also need to be a great writer, listener, PowerPoint slide creator, and have enough judgement to know when to delegate and when you should be doing the work.
A lot of these raw skills that you need as a good project manager can be acquired in graduate school. Great communication is essential and shows up in your writing of papers, presenting at a conference or your group meeting, working with collaborators, and explaining technical complexity to a high school student. If you can, you might also understand when it’s best to let a mentee of yours do their own work or when you need to intervene and help out.
For myself, I think there was an expiration for how long I could spend my life working in a lab. I’ve spent 15 years working in a lab in some capacity so when I had a chance to escape in 2022, I took it. Guess what skills carry over into my non-laboratory position? Project management.
Here is a link to PMI, a Google Certificate, and a LinkedIn Learning Courses. Here is a video on how to make slides like a big consulting person and if you don’t like this guy there are plenty of former consultants trying to make it as YouTube creators with very similar content.
Learn How to Network
The Advice: Networking at its most basic level is trying to make professional friends with no expectation of reciprocation. My network has grown over the last 10+ years, but the strongest people within it are people that I met and worked with in person either in school or in a company. Networking is a bit like investing—it takes time for your investments to compound, grown, and yield opportunities.
People telling you to “network” as a skill is one of the most annoying things to hear about and I’m not here to tell you about why networking is so useful. I think that’s obvious. Here is the St. Louis Federal Reserve’s take on it:
After analyzing survey data from the U.S. and Europe, the authors show that networks shorten the time it takes to find a job, which is not much of a surprise; but they also show that jobs found through networks have higher wages and last longer than jobs found through direct contact with a firm. In fact, network job searches are inherently different from direct job searches.
I’ve both helped my network get jobs and have had my network help get me jobs. Now that we have established that networking is a good thing let’s get into the actual practice of networking.
Look around your laboratory or your classroom. There are probably people there who are similar to you. Consider reaching out and talking to these people in a friendly manner. Maybe you can go get some pizza together or a coffee or even a beer. Keep things friendly. Don’t try to have sex with anyone. Make friends. Get to know these people and help them out whenever you can either through introducing them to people you know or helping them navigate the local area. Here are some examples of me helping people with no expectation of anything in return:
A post-doc was joining the research group I was in and he was moving his entire family (multiple kids + spouse) from Europe to work this post-doc for 2 years. He needed to find an apartment for his family, but he couldn’t fly over to the United States and apartment hunt. I did the hunt for him (got to feel like a real estate agent for a minute) because if I was in a similar situation, I hope that someone would do it for me. Especially now that I know what it means to have a kid. We keep in touch still to this day almost 8 years later.
I became friends with a graduate student in the lab next to mine who was 2 years behind me. We would often just go to bars with each other and just get into the general shenanigans that are common to people in their mid 20s with very limited funds. The first year into my 2nd job post thesis defense I had a customer who needed a polymer chemist and this friend needed a job. I put them in touch (the job was never formally posted online) and he took it. I think he makes more money than I do now and I’m so happy for his success and that I could help. I just hope I get to see him again soon because he’s a cool dude.
Before I ever went to graduate school, I got a chance to work with a chemist who had a PhD. She was really nice, smart, and we got along really well in the lab. We never hung out after work, but she ended up getting laid off around the time I went to graduate school. We connected on LinkedIn, kept in touch periodically throughout the years, but for the most part we went on with our lives for over 10 years. One day, I was on LinkedIn and sent a message asking how things were going and it’s how I got the job I have today. I never expected or thought that a job would come out of messaging someone with a, “Hey, how have things been for you? This pandemic has been crazy.”
Please Add On
This is all stuff I wish I had known with my current experience.
If you have anything to share or add please do so in the comments. I’d love for this to be something that people can share and refer to and add on. If you have a position you need to fill, please post in the comments.
Thank you for reading and subcribing!