One of the things I didn’t learn until I think my 3rd year of undergrad was that, at least for biomedical science PhD programs, THEY PAY YOU! It’s usually not a ton, especially considering how many hours you’ll put in and the fact that often these schools are located in pricey areas, but it’s hopefully enough to get by okay as you pay off those undergrad debts… Which brings me to why this was such a shock to learn. I was used to the undergrad model, where *you* pay the school for teaching you. Your professors and the school at large have an obligation to teach you (which is one of the reasons why it infuriates me that some teachers try to weed students out – they’re freakin’ paying you! do your damn job!) Assuming the teachers are good and all, if you don’t try your hardest to get the most out of what they’re offering, you’re only hurting yourself – you’re wasting your (and/or your family’s) money. Now switch to grad school where the school is paying you?! To learn? To work? What the heck are they paying me for? That’s how I felt when I first heard about the stipends, and it’s still something I struggle with.
“As a PhD student, is it okay to take a day to mostly just read papers (related to your work and potentially ones you want to cite)? I have a lot I want to read, but it never feels like “work” reading them, so I feel guilty…”
That was how I started a tweet a few days ago that ended up getting quite a bit of traction. The resounding answer – YES! Reading is super valuable, and it’s okay to take whole day(s) to focus on it, as I will get more into later in the post). Intellectually, I felt this, but emotionally, it was a lot harder to grapple with (and it’s something I still struggle with). To help understand why, let’s go back to that stipend thing.
As a grad student you work super hard, be it in classes, in the lab, or in the program’s teaching requirements, the one part that feels the most “job-ish” (these requirements often including being a teacher’s assistant (TA) for a few undergrad courses). But, aside from the T.A.-ing part, it mainly feels kinda selfish. I mean, yes, you’re advancing the lab’s research (and from their perspective you’re probably pretty cheap labor) but from my perspective I’m getting paid to do what I love. I’m getting paid to learn. To explore. To discover. And that feels so “wrong” for someone who’s used to the model of having to pay people for that and having to work more rote, or at least less “selfish” jobs to make money.
It feels so unfair that, as I get paid to read, people are literally working multiple jobs to put themselves through school or just to put food on the table. It breaks my heart that during the pandemic people, and largely people of color, have had to literally put their lives on the line to keep society going during what the rest of us have experienced as lock-downs. I think that’s part of the reason why I do all this blogging stuff and do it all for free. It feels like one small thing I can do to help give back and pay forward. I mostly post about biochemistry topics, but I also make it a point to give people an inside look at grad school (at least this one – it varies a lot from school to school, program to program).
One of the first questions I got asked a lot in grad school interviews was, “are your parents scientists?” Answer – “nope.” But based on that question, I could tell that many applicants’ parents are. If my parents worked in the world of “academia” I might have known more about it’s strange layout, the various ranks of “professor” and “associate professor” and “assistant professor” and “visiting professor” and “postdoc” and “technician” and “grad student” and “intern” and… But, my parents aren’t scientists, I went to an undergrad-focused college where we didn’t have graduate science programs and, thus, until shortly before applying I didn’t even know they’d pay you!
I can’t even imagine how many more people might apply if they knew that. So I want to help make that known. In the humanities, you may have to pay, and in some master’s programs, you may have to pay. But, at least when it comes to biomedical sciences programs – THEY PAY YOU! (again, not a huge salary, but it beats paying them!)
This is great, but it brings me back to that dilemma as to, “what are they paying me for?” One of my jobs in undergrad was as a chemistry stockroom assistant. Expectations were clearly laid out; we had lists of tasks to work through – set up for the various lab practicals, wash glassware, make solutions, inventory those really old chemicals in that cabinet that no amount of washing has ever been able to de-smell-ify. The work was often fun, but it also felt like something I deserved to be paid for. And doing that work helped me pay for the really fun stuff – taking classes and getting my first practical lab experience!
So in grad school, the whole payment thing seems totally backwards to what I’m used to. And I struggle with feeling like I’m “earning my keep.” And I think it’s gotten a lot worse over the years, especially as my research project has gotten more and more time-consuming and my outreach following has out of the blue exploded. It’s a constant struggle for me to not feel extreme guilt whenever I’m not doing anything that doesn’t feel like it’s directly “paying back” the lab (such as working on getting my research published which will go on the lab’s publication “score card” and help out in the so-called “publish or perish” world where publications are the main way in which scientists are usually judged).
So that brings me back to the whole topic of reading – and to be clear, the reading I’m talking about is scientific articles, although fun reading is also encouraged on the side. I do read papers regularly, and try to make some time each day to do so, I just didn’t know if taking a whole day to read is okay, which is why I sent that tweet.
People were super helpful and they reinforced what I already *knew* but didn’t really know if was valid from an “employer’s” perspective – reading the literature has tremendous benefits – everything from helping you design experiments, to helping you avoid trying certain experiments, to allowing you to connect ideas and come up with wild, but maybe legit, theories.
Early on in my PhD journey, I spent a lot more time reading, especially while putting together my “thesis proposal” outlining what my research plan was. At that point, the reading felt more “work-y” It was fun, yes, but at the time it was also all super new, overwhelming & stressful (though exciting). It felt completely justified to spend all that time reading because I was so out of my expertise and if I didn’t read I knew I’d be wasting a lot of the lab’s time & $ fumbling around trying to do hopeless things.
But, as I got more and more entrenched in the at-the-bench research part of my project, the wetwork came to feel like my main main priority/job. And the reading came to feel more like something “on the side” – it started to feel more like pleasure reading than work reading. And part of the reason for this was that it started to be more pleasurable!
Now that I’m nearing the endish of my PhD, all the jargon and everything feels much more comfortable, so I’m able to relax & get more out of the papers. Kinda like how over time I got more comfortable at my committee meetings as I started to become the expert on my tiny slice of the tiny world. And I got able to talk about it more like scientist-to-scientist than griller to grill-ee. And that allowed me to really benefit from back-and-forths with them rather than break down in tears (yup, that happened… and yet I’m still here!)
In addition to being able to better understand what the authors are talking about now, it’s cool to try to view everything through the lens of what I’ve learned through my own wet work. A unique lens I didn’t have (and couldn’t have had) 4 years ago. In each article I’m reading I’m thinking about how my teeny slice might fit in and/or open up new pies. And getting excited about how it might help others fill those out.
Bottom line: I ended up taking a day and a half to allow myself to “just” read (and take notes, import citations, etc.). And I’m soooo glad I did! And I’m soooo grateful that the Twitter-verse helped me be able to do it with a clearer, less guilt-ridden, mind. Even if I’m embarrassed that the post got such traction, exposing me as a clueless grad student still trying to figure out academia. Despite that embarrassment, I decided to share the story here too, because I hope it can at least help others who might be in a similar boat.
Before I go, some more thoughts on things that might be useful to people on how to make the most out of the reading-while-PhD-ing experience.
One thing I found really valuable was taking a more “historical” dive into my field, going back to the early 2000’s when the protein I work on was first discovered, and seeing how the knowledge built up. It’s easy to get swarmed by new papers, but this foundational stuff is so valuable and helps to see various strategies that’ve been used. I’m always afraid when reading older papers that I’ll be using “outdated” information, but I’m using a browser extension called scite_ that helps me see where it’s been cited & context so I know if it’s been validated, refuted, (not a paid endorsement, I’ve just found it helpful).
Sometimes I come across papers that I don’t have access to because they’re “paywalled” (they want your money). You can find out more about this here: http://bit.ly/openaccesspreprints
At schools and research institutions (or your local public library library) this happens less often – the library subscribes to various journals, so *you* have access to their articles (you might need to be on the campus’ WiFi or VPN) but that doesn’t mean that everyone does. If you want to know if everyone does (i.e. it’s open access) look for an orange unlocked lock icon. You can also install a browser extension called unpaywall which will put a green lock icon on articles that have a (legal) freely available version somewhere on the web and direct you to it. https://unpaywall.org/products/extension
If you come up against a paywalled article you really want, ask a librarian! They can often get the article through “InterLibrary Loan (ILL)” (they can do that for books too). You can also try e-mailing the paper’s contact author (papers usually provide an email address). Or asking people on Twitter (which I’ve successfully done on multiple occasions).
As for keeping up with the newer literature, I use a website called Meta to keep up to date so I don’t miss things & I check that daily. Time permitting, I usually read after I get done with my experiments (but by that time I’m often already really exhausted so not ideal). I try to deep-read papers that seem especially relevant to my project and usually skim-read-skim-read others. Lately I’ve been trying to deep-read more because I’m working on my own paper and trying to get a better sense of how I should be formatting things & what’s good/bad. https://scite.ai/
Speaking of bad, a browser extension from PubPeer can help you weed out really bad papers. PubPeer is a site where people can comment on papers. The comments can be good or bad, but most of the time these comments are drawing concerns about figures potentially containing altered images, etc. You can install a browser extension that will give a popup if articles on a page you’re on have comments on PubPeer. It will also tell you if articles have been amended or retracted. https://pubpeer.com/static/extensions
I keep notes on what I read – usually I copy & paste the citation & link into my e-lab notebook and then make bullet points (doing it in the e-format makes it easy to search). I make sure to copy & paste all the info on authors, journal, year, etc. because often people will refer to a paper by one of the authors or the year and journal (they often don’t remember the paper name and you can’t blame them!). The most important authors to note are the first author & the last author. In my field at least, the first author (sometimes there are co-first-authors) is usually the person who did the wet work (e.g. the grad student) and the last author is the PI. But it varies from field to field and sometimes is just alphabetical, etc.
As for what else to write down, I especially note when people are the first to name or discover or propose something so I remember that this is the “original source” if I want to cite that thing in my paper. If I’m not sure about first-ness, I’ve also been using the scite_ tool to see what others have cited the paper for. Speaking of citing, I use a free reference manager and citation generator called Mendeley. It has a browser extension that lets you add articles to your library from the article page. It also has an interconnected desktop version and a Word plugin so you can insert citations from your Mendeley library into your Word document. https://www.mendeley.com/reference-management/reference-manager
I’ve been using that feature a lot lately because I’m working on my first paper, which is currently at the “third draft with my PI (lab boss) for review” stage. It’s weird – I spent so much time working on this draft that I “never wanted to look at it again” but then while I’m waiting for feedback from my PI I start to miss it… I think it’s just cuz I’m so eager to get my 1st paper out that I’m excited about another round of edits. Although it’s been so incredible to let myself experience that unbridled joy of learning without “studying,” this day and a half of “catching up on the literature” has me missing my draft even more. It’s so exhilarating to think someday someone can might get that joy from reading my work. And maybe they’ll even get ideas from it like I’m getting from the papers I’m reading!
Sorry for that rambling post, but I just wanted to get my thoughts out there because they’ve been swimming around in my head and I figured they weren’t doing that much good just swimming around in there 🙂
more general tips on reading science articles: http://bit.ly/readingsciencearticles
more on lab structure: http://bit.ly/labstructureterms