length of grad. student careers

William Wu wwu at shriners.mcgill.ca
Fri Aug 2 08:20:42 EST 1996

Mary Songster-Alpin wrote:
> Sarah Boomer wrote:
>  > How do other dept's perceive issues like weeding the garden (masters
> > doorprizes), equalizing committees?
> >
> I guess that is what has happened to me.  I entered my Ph.D. program
> in August of 1994 and I have performed poorly from the onset.  I entered
> a molecular virology lab with no molecular skills yet seemingly excellent
> credentials.  I graduated with a bachelor's degree in biology and a 3.9 gpa
> from a small college in upstate New York.  I had worked on different research
> projects during my sophmore, junior, and senior years with one project cummulating
> in a first author publication.  Yet, I've felt behind from the onset in my
> graduate program.  Classes aren't a problem at all - I have one B in 36 hours.
> However, when it comes to original thought - I suck.  Basically, I've been
> here for two years and have no research to show for it.  My lab notebook
> consists of a semester's worth of cloning attempts and a year's worth of
> a failed expression system.  My boss has advised me to pursue a masters
> on an entirely different project within our system (I don't have meaningful
> results on my original project).  I've been trying to
> design experiments to run through Dec. to make up a meaningful thesis and I'm
> having a difficult time.  I see alot more interaction going on between other
> students and their advisors so I'm not sure whether it is all my fault but I think
> it is.  It really worries me because my ultimate career goal is research.  It
> it possible to learn original thinking or are some people always "book
> learners"? I don't mean to criticize my advisor - he's a wonderful guy - but
> I'm not sure where the line between hand-holding (meaning he sets up all
> the experiments) and advising (where he assists me in my project) is.  He
> blames my heavy course load and extensive teaching assignments (a TA and
> an entensive teaching mentorship required for my fellowship) for my lack
> of progress but I think he realizes what I fear - that I don't have the
> ability to pursue a PhD.  I have a committee meeting
> soon so hopefully things will improve.
> Mary
>                 ----
> Mary S. Songster-Alpin
> Dept. of Micro., Path., and Parasit.
> North Carolina State University
> College of Veterinary Medicine
> Mary_Songster_Alpin at ncsu.edu

That's too bad that you feel swamped. I feel that it is very important to understand concepts and biological 
questions on a whole than being spoon fed and just doing experiments. Anybody can do experiments but not 
everyone can ask questions. At mcgill we had tons of "keeners" students who had great GPAs but when they got to 
work on their own, they were sunk because they couldn't memorize it anymore. Just churning out experiments are 
useless. You have to ask yourself, what I'm I doing, what is the questions I'm asking? WHat are the critical 
experiments I have to do to prove my thesis?? Don't waste time doing thousands of experiments that don't mean 
squat. Why is your supervisor holding your hand? How many students has he trained?? Courses are one thing and 
teaching, but you have to ask yourself, CAN I ask important questions, novel questions except redoing things 
that have already been done in different systems etc.. Good luck. Ask your commitee for help, they are there to 
advise you not belittle you. I hope!

William Wu
PhD student
McGill University
Dept of Experimental Surgery
Shriner's Hospital For Crippled Children
1529 Cedar Ave. 
Mtl. PQ. Canada
H3G 1A6


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