Today I put on my power outfit because I had a thesis committee meeting (okay, I didn’t wear the cape *into* the meeting!) But seeing me in “dress casual” is more of a shock to those who know me than seeing me in a lab coat cape is! I’m usually all about comfort – but for the “special occasions” I have a couple of outfits I can turn to (I think this one was from my 8th grade graduation… although I was super excited to find a sweater (with pockets!) a couple weeks ago to go with it). And today was a special occasion because I had a thesis committee meeting – that 2x-a-year progress update talk I have to give my committee to show them that I’m on track – and I say “surviving” – but it’s actually a really great way to get feedback and ideas for my project!

I keep going back & forth between happiness it’s over & seemed to have gone fairly well overall & replaying in my head the cringeworthy moments & hoping my committee members aren’t replaying those! Seriously, I don’t know why people like being politicians and stuff where people watch & listen to you over and over! But anyways, who are the people I’m worried about disappointing? What makes up a thesis committee?

Every grad school and program is different – but how it works here is that we have a thesis committee made up of 4-5 scientists. Their role is to to help provide guidance and advice throughout the PHD-pursuing process – then at the end they have the final say about whether you get to add “Dr.” before your name. The end of grad school is you writing a dissertation describing the work you’ve done, giving an oral presentation of that work (which the “public” can go to), and then standing up to a grilling from the committee about your work (this part’s in private so I’m not sure how it actually goes)

But we’re not there yet! I’m only now starting my 4th year – the only thing I’ve had to *officially* “defend” to them was my thesis proposal before I officially started working on my thesis research. Today’s meeting was just a progress meeting – we have these every 6 months (at some schools they’re just yearly) or so – “or so” because the people on your committees are usually super busy so it can be hard to find a time when they can all meet. But who are these busy people?

The “well, obviously” person who’s on your committee is your “lab boss” – the head of the lab you’re in – they’re commonly referred to as your PI (principal investigator) & they serve as your “research advisor.” More on who’s who in a lab in my Bri*fing from a few weeks ago:

At my school we also have an “academic advisor” – I don’t know if other schools have this because their initial role is because of something pretty unique about the program I’m in – in most biomedical science type programs you take classes *while* you’re rotating in labs (trying out different labs (usually 3) to see what’s the best fit). 

But here, we start with our core classes in an intensive, accelerated few months before we do our rotations. So when we do our classes we’re in full-on study mode & then during our rotations we can focus on lab full-time. I really like this set-up (of course I’ve never experienced anything else…) but one consequence of it is that during those coursework months you don’t have a research advisor. 

So instead, we get to choose an academic advisor. They don’t even have to be a research scientist (and neither do you – you can do lots of things with a PhD) – it can be someone who works here in publishing or communications or anything. Their role is to provide you with one-one-one guidance in those limbo-y months – and beyond. You continue to meet with them at your & their convenience (and in a relaxed setting) when you want advice, support, etc. over the years (I’m planning to meet with mine next week). They’re also on your thesis committee and therefore at these more formal meetings.

Then we get to choose a couple more scientists to serve on our committee. You want to choose people that know a lot about the area you’re researching and/or you think have particular knowledge about techniques you’re using, etc. Sometimes people choose even choose “external advisors”- scientists who work at a different school but know a lot about things you want to find out a lot about. You want these knowledgable people on your committee because the committee members provide feedback, suggest alternatives – maybe even experiments you didn’t know about – and sometimes they’ll even “know someone” or “know someone who knows someone” so you can make connections and get access to more knowledge and resources. 

A week before the committee meeting we have to submit a written report – 5ish pages long describing our progress since the last meeting. When we first propose the research we lay out “Aims” and “Sub-aims” then in these reports we say how we’re progressing on those aims.

Then at the meeting they meet without you for a few minutes – I heard the phrase “bumbling biochemist” come from the room and got a little nervous they wouldn’t take me seriously but hopefully I convinced them that I really am working hard! I got the opportunity to do that convincing because after they meet without you they invite you in and you give them your prepared presentation. During the presentation they stop you a lot to ask questions – sometimes you’re not sure if they’re asking to test you or because they’re really asking! And then at the end they kick you out again to talk for a few minutes (this came as a surprise to me the first time and freaked me out a bit) – then they let you back in and they give you a brief “overall thoughts” chat, sign off on a form, and then you’re free! 

One of the committee members isn’t quite free yet, though. One person serves as the committee chair and they have to write up a report of their own – but unlike the report we have to write, they just have to do a brief summary that goes in your records. But I’m free for now – so I’m trying to relax a bit (super hard for me) before following up on all those great suggestions my committee gave me! 

Because even though I make it sound scary, and I do get really nervous about them, instead of a grilling these meetings are really meant to be more like conversations between scientists – including you! And they usually have really great ideas and insight to share so it’s definitely worth it. 

Back to my “power outfit” – I’m usually all about comfort – when you’re on your feet all day, tennis shoes with cushy soles are a toe-saver (and, whatever shoes you choose, make sure they’re closed toe!) I didn’t give those up today… And I don’t think I’ve attempted heels since the days of toddler dress-up – I trip enough as is! Also, you don’t want to have to worry about things like dripping cell goop on your nice outfit when you’re doing a protein purification. So, basically I think comfy clothes are great

And don’t forget your “cold room survival kit” – I keep a bag filled with fleece leggings and undershirts and hats and arm warmers and leg warmers and instant hand warmers to help me confront my nemesis – the cold room – that refrigerator of a room that I have to do some of my protein-purifying procedures inside. Speaking of which, the cold room knows no seasons! So If you see someone wearing a coat in the summer, they might be a biochemist… And if they’re also wearing a lab coat cape they might be the bumbling biochemist!

This isn’t meant to be an “anti-fashion” post – I’m all for people being princesses and scientists if that’s what they want – and I know that some people *do* find power in traditional “power outfits” – but that’s just not the case with me. I’m really self-conscious and I actually feel more self-conscious when I make an effort to look nice than when I make it clear I’m not even trying! So my “power outfit” makes me feel less powerful but it’s what other people think a powerful person should look like so I dress up when needed (one of the best things about grad school is that you can dress casually and no one says anything! though I probably push it a bit far…) 

When it comes to business-casual-y outfits, find pants with pockets! For some reason designers seem to think women don’t have stuff they need pockets for – or they probably think we’ll just stick it in a purse or something. The worst is pants with fake pockets!!!! Why?????? 

Some pro advice direct from the President-Elect of the IUBMB  – if you’re giving a talk “you may need to attach the transmitter part of the microphone in your pocket.  You can also clip on to belt.  Always wear either a belt or a pocket.” 

Even when pants for women do have pockets they’re often really tiny – so I was super stoked to find a long sweater cardigan that had nice big pockets and is really soft – AND WARM! Conference rooms can be soooo cold! So I bought 3 (in different colors) and now hopefully don’t have to go shopping again for a long time!

This post is part of my weekly “broadcasts from the bench” for The International Union of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology. Be sure to follow the IUBMB if you’re interested in biochemistry! They’re a really great international organization for biochemistry.

more on topics mentioned (& others) #365DaysOfScience All (with topics listed) 👉

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