Month: July 2016

Guest Post: Maintaining Motivation in Grad School Even When Your Supervisor is Destroying It

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This guest post is written by a recent graduate in Neuroscience from the University of British Columbia who wished to be kept anonymous.

The story that I am going to tell here is not exactly the most glamorous one. During my graduate study, I failed to generate publishable results, had frequent arguments with my supervisor, and felt like I was worthless and helpless until the very end. The advice I will give in this post is based on the scenario when you are trapped in a laboratory with a toxic supervisor, and hopefully my advice here can help you avoid falling into the same kind of traps like I did.

Like the title suggests, maintaining motivation is one of the most difficult tasks to accomplish when the person next to you is constantly filling your mind with negativity. It is important that you prepare yourself to deal with harmful behaviors from your supervisors, because they can make you absolutely hate your graduate study and destroy your career. The advice I give graduate students who are dealing with toxic supervisors is to take their criticisms with a grain of salt. Students will undoubtedly hear belittling comments from their supervisors at some point during their graduate study, and it could be triggered by mistakes as trivial as forgetting to restock culture dishes in the cell culture room or errors made during experimental procedures. It is important students realize that nobody is perfect and that researchers (including supervisors) make mistakes on a daily basis. Do not allow your supervisors’ criticisms to dampen your love for research and make you miserable. If they scold you, the best thing to do is pretend that you accept the criticism and then forget about it as quickly as possible.

Almost a year after working in the laboratory I discovered that my supervisor had a poor track record in mentoring successful students and most of the problems I encountered during the program were due to his unsupportive approach and unfair expectations. It took me an entire year to realize this because I went into the graduate program assuming that every supervisor in the world had a decent amount of skill in training students, which turned out to be a grave assumption. When you are working in a laboratory, it is important to be skeptical of your supervisor’s ability, otherwise you can end up in a situation where you are spending time and effort on tasks that will never come to fruition, such as endlessly performing an experiment demanded by your supervisor even though the experiment is bound to fail. If your supervisor is making a scientific claim that you disagree with and can be disproved with contemporary scientific literature or even basic scientific knowledge, question it. If your supervisor belittles your competence or attempts to diagnose you with a psychological disorder, ignore it. If your supervisor criticizes your inability to generate the desired observation, think of an alternative explanation for your observation rather than blindly believing your supervisor. Follow their advice, but do not become their slave.

Many graduate students fall into the routine of performing experiments without properly evaluating their purpose and design. This can happen when students face heavy workloads, and consequently it can lead to a rapid loss of motivation. Conducting research without a proper grasp of its purpose is mentally and physically exhausting. Added to that, the pressure to produce results that fit in line with the supervisor’s previous findings can make for a difficult situation. The simple key to solving this problem is to read papers related to your field of research. It sounds simple and obvious, but many supervisors prefer their students to spend most of their time in the laboratory generating data, and treat them as employed research technician rather than mentoring them to become independent researchers. Reading papers can revitalize your motivation, help you appreciate the importance of all of your work and sacrifice, and train you on how to use the most important source of scientific knowledge. In retrospect, I had the most fun in my graduate study dissecting the results and discussing the implications of my favourite papers with my colleagues rather than chugging away at the microscope.

I hope the advice mentioned here can help those of you who are going into graduate study or those of you who are already in graduate study but have difficulty dealing with a tough supervisor. Competent supervisors who share similar life values and beliefs with students and can properly manage students’ learning are hard to come by, and in fact most people will never find their “ideal” supervisor. Because of this, the responsibility lies with the student to make the best out of a less-than-ideal situation. Overcome the hurdles and never give up.

Thank you to this student for reaching out and taking the time to describe their difficult situation in grad school. If you are a current grad student or recent graduate and would like to share your experience, check out this post to get the details on how to go about it.

 

 

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Guest Blog: Planning on Med School?

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This Guest Blog post in written by Liz Koblyk. She is a career counsellor at the Michael G. DeGroote School of Medicine, an instructor at McMaster University, and a regular contributor to the Careers Café blog at University Affairs/Affaires universitaires.

Along with my work in a med school, I also teach in a program full of students hoping to get into med school.  One of the most heartbreaking phrases I read in their work is, “Once I get into med school, I’ll have it made.”  Of course, being a doctor is a great path to pursue.  It’s an obvious choice if you want to help people and you love the sciences.  But it’s not the only option out there, and sometimes, it’s an option people pursue without fully considering what they’re getting themselves into.

Here’s the problem: no one “has it made” once they get into med school.  What initially feels like enormous success – getting in! – can quickly turn into a long slog.  Med students do a lot of work, get little sleep or spare time, and spend hours with angry, scared, ill and sometimes dying people.  While the med students I work with talk about extremely rewarding times, they also share challenges, like trying to connect with patients who yell at them, feeling overwhelmed by their responsibilities, and preparing to enter yet another competitive process as they hope for residency spots in their specialties of choice.

Yep – there’s more competition after getting admitted to med school.  Not all medical students land a residency in their specialty of choice (if you want to see the stats, have a look at the reports on the CaRMS website).  In fact, not all medical students land a residency spot at all.  Likewise, not all successful residents find the jobs that they’re looking for, or find jobs in places where they want to live.  There is no guarantee, just because you enter med school and pay your 6-figure tuition, that you will end up practicing as a physician.  This is not to say that no one should apply to med school, just because there’s a labour market.  People in all professions run into limits on where and whether there is opportunity to do the work they want to do.  However, there’s something about the size of med school tuition, and the fact that the physician labour market is very good, that can lead people to believe there is unlimited choice for MDs.

So, if you’re considering med school, ask yourself whether you’ll be happy in a number of different specialties.  If you’re hoping to be an emergency doc, a plastic surgeon, or an ophthalmologist, for example, will you be happy with other options if the public doesn’t need, or the labour market doesn’t support, another specialist in your dream job?

Finally, if you’re preparing for med school, there’s nothing stopping you from exploring other options at the same time.  No one is so limited that they could only be happy and make meaningful contributions in one job.  Time and again, I’ve seen people who focused initially on one goal because it was what their family wanted, because it seemed like a wise choice because of the money or status, or because they didn’t know what else was out there; they found better options once they started looking.  Sadly, I’ve also worked with clients who pursued a job for those same reasons, and who came to find themselves dreading each day of work.  From what they’ve told me, those work hours seem to stretch out into an endless parade.

That said, med school might be an amazing option for you.  But explore it before you get into it.  And give some other options you’re curious about a fair shake, too.  Nothing is lost by that: either way, you end up knowing what you’d most like to pursue.  And if your final decision is still to pursue med school, you’ve still lost nothing – you’ll be all the more able to explain your choice, and that will help you to earn admission in the first place.