As a second-year student in the pathobiology graduate program at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, I joined a thesis lab this past August. During our first year, we do three research rotations in different labs to get more experience doing research at the graduate student level, in addition to getting a feel for the lab. Ultimately, the goal is to join a lab that you did a rotation in by one year after matriculation. Some of us had joined the lab we had most recently rotated in, so it was more of seamless transition, and others joined a lab they hadn’t been in for several months, since it was an earlier rotation. Every one of our projects is quite different, and every one of our labs operates in different ways. Therefore, it is only natural that there would be some variation in terms of our day-to-day lab lives.
My lab life is a bit unique because my interests led me down a path that requires me to collaborate between two labs, as well as apply for funding to pursue my project. Normally, a student will have one thesis adviser, but the nature of my project requires collaboration between two vastly different disciplines, and each adviser brings their own distinct expertise to the table. Additionally, once you join a lab, your stipend is traditionally paid for by your adviser, also known as the principal investigator (PI). However, since my research was a new idea unrelated to my PI’s existing funding, she couldn’t fully support my stipend and we had to search for other mechanisms. Sometimes I feel like I am doing my Ph.D. backward. While many others spend their first year in their thesis lab collecting preliminary data and later might apply for a graduate fellowship, right off the bat I am trying to apply for as many grants and fellowships as I can in order to have an opportunity to pursue my dream research project. So, while my classmates have been toiling away at the lab bench over the last five months, I feel like I have done little besides run a few simple experiments and mostly clack away at my computer’s keyboard.
For a while, I felt guilty about this. My program is far from competitive in nature. Actually it is quite the opposite — everyone has been extremely supportive of me pursuing my interests, especially my amazing research mentors. However, with the innate, ingrained personality traits that are characteristic of so many high-achieving students in academia, I feel as though I am competing with myself. Often, I’ve felt guilty, believing I wasn’t doing enough, wasn’t smart enough, or wasn’t on the same level as the other students in my program and in my lab.
Recently, my program had its interview weekend for students who hope to join the program this upcoming fall. Many of the prospective students asked questions about graduate student work hours, whether students work at home, what the work-life balance is like, etc. I realized that everyone’s hours and schedules and the ways they worked were wildly different, and no one was any better or worse of a student than anyone else! As a grad student, it’s so important to remember that everyone’s Ph.D. journey is different. It’s almost never a straight line, but it’s also not the same, squiggled path for everyone. In the end, it’s better to pursue your passions and interests in whatever form that takes, rather than try to align your course with others. The workload required to obtain that Ph.D. will ebb and flow in different patterns for everyone — so don’t be worried that your squiggly path is the wrong one!