Don’t you see that flying saucer over there? No, I don’t see it. Why not? – “because it’s not my problem.” Douglas Adams, from The Hitchiker’s Guide to the Galaxy”
Think back for a moment on how you found your first grad school mentor or thesis advisor. How did you get to work in that lab? In my university, one needed to earn an MS before the PhD. I was in my first semester and was looking for an advisor, a lab to work in, and an interesting problem to solve in not more than 18 months of research – just about the time I thought it ought to take to do the MS coursework.
So, it came down to finding my problem – a question that could be answered in the time it took to earn the 30 credit hours needed for the MS. Not only that, it had to be interesting enough to keep me motivated, and relevant enough to a mentor so that he or she would agree to take me on. Trust me on this one – it’s was as much in the perception as in the actual plan. I had to “sell” the problem to my future mentor, making it as much his as mine so that he could see it too.
It did work out, timing and all, and I was able to stay on and do my PhD research in the same lab. For that one, my mentor succeeded in getting me to see one of his problems which, as you might guess, was an aspect of something that others in his lab were working on. We did have a written protocol for the research and statistical plan, which defined the objectives, methods, endpoints, general scope of the work and provided some assurance that there would be sufficient results at the end of 2 or 3 years to write a thesis and not have it happen too long after the 60 credits of coursework had been completed.
Why am I telling you all this? Because those experiences turned out to be helpful in getting my own grad students to see my research problems and work with me to solve them. Then, they helped me to make my own transition from academic to medical research and from there to the medical device and pharma industries, where I held non-research positions. It’s all in seeing problems and solving them, not mainly in the techniques. It’s the first that defines the second.
So what’s my message? One of the first things that many grad students learn (if they haven’t already) is to be observant of the problems that their profs and other students are interested in solving. Another is to consider why anyone would be interested, and then to consider if they might also be interested themselves. Analyze your own experiences. You might find that you took – or are taking – some of those steps too.
The conclusion? Being aware of other people’s problems, asking yourself (and them) why anyone might be interested in them, and then considering the relevance to you helps you avoid asking the question: “Seriously? I survived 7 years of grad school, and I’m still not a scientist?” Hey – not all of the many good and successful scientists out there are doing what they did when they hung their diploma on the wall, and I’d venture to say most feel like it’s been “a good job well done.”
Cheers for now – and good will hunting.
Clem Weinberger, PhD
The Stylus Medical Communications