Is passion with average competence enough for a research career?
April 8, 2007 7:04 AM   Subscribe

Is bio research what I should do with my life?

I'm your typical nerd, INTJ, and all that. Fascinated by math and all fields of science, not the greatest communication skills, etc. I'd say I have a very mathematical mind and have always been good at that kind of problem-solving. In high school and college I could understand the really complicated techie stuff and did well on the tests, and all of it really interested me. I'd say my mind was better suited for math and physics but thought that the cutting-edge work was a bit too esoteric for me, and I marvelled at chemistry and biology more. Eventually I chose to major in chemical engineering with a biological bent.

I'm now approaching three years into my PhD program in chemical engineering, or more accurately biomolecular engineering, and I'm starting to realize that while I like my research, I kinda suck at it. My work has gone nowhere (probably the cause of recent mild depression) and I think the two main reasons are (1) I'm not that good at bench work and (2) I'm not especially great at solving bio problems. To use a term from economics, I feel like I've lost my comparative advantage. I'm not using my mind the same way I used to and I don't feel like I bring anything to the table that any other student with a few years experience would.

My question, then, is what should I be doing? Is this just how bio research and/or grad school goes and things will get better or is there a different career or field where I can apply myself?

Realistically, I will probably graduate in a few years even though I have nothing right now. Is there some subfield I should look to post-doc in, or something else where I'm not completely throwing away my time in grad school? Or how about options if my advisor gets fed up enough to kick me out?
posted by Durin's Bane to Education (16 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Your thoughts exactly mirror the same thing I've been thinking about the last couple of days. For the record, I'm PhD compsci as well -- and like you -- I get a real thrill from it, and am competant in the sense of being able to do the engineering (coding, measurement, etc) I feel I absolutely suck at the problem-solving part.

My advice to you would be to hang in there. Remember you've only been at this for 3 years and there's been a sharp learning curve. The people who are good at this have experience -- experience tends to step up the problem-solving part. Just keep on hacking at it and hoping to get better, while aiming for the same. Then re-evaluate a year or two into the future and see where it goes.

Personally, I feel the people who succeed at research are those who aren't TOOOO introspective, because research is the one area you can kill yourself with self-comparison and self-doubt. Try and live outside yourself. Do your thing without thinking too much about the consequences or whether you're any good at it. Just plug away.
posted by gadha at 7:15 AM on April 8, 2007

I had a similar experience, although I was just getting my masters in biomedical engineering. I found that I didn't really enjoy the labwork as much as I had thought I would, and decided that it wasn't right for me. Part of the problem for me was the lack of interaction with a wide variety of people - I got bored sitting in a lab all day looking at a bunch of slow growing kidney cells.

I ended up finishing up my research, got the degree, and then decided to use the knowledge in another area entirely, and am now an analyst, looking at the biotechnology market.

I've certainly been happier for switching, but in the end you need to decide what works best for you. Just remember that there are plenty of other options out there if you decide that it isn't the right thing for you.
posted by langeNU at 7:40 AM on April 8, 2007

You should check out this article:

Lederman, Leon M. 1990. "Low pay and long hours." Physics Today 43(1):9-11. [available on EBSCO MegaHost]

Lederman is a Nobel Prize winner in Physics. The pertinent parts of his article:

". . . It was probably five years after my PhD when I began to realize I was fairly competent. By year 10, I realized to my surprise that I was as productive as those best friends who brought me into physics, even though they understood much more than I did."

"Hard work--yes, it really accounts for a lot of the success. Most scientists aren't brilliant. Some are even very slow. Being solid is important--that means really knowing what you have to know even if it takes a long time. Many "brilliant" guys are superficial. Determiniation, doggedness and hard work are the characteristics that are highly valued in a group."

So, yeah, keep going. Be solid, and you'll be fine. As long as you love it, keep your heart in it.
posted by The Michael The at 7:46 AM on April 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

If I think back to my PhD student colleagues, and myself at the same stage, there are loads of us who had the same thing. You mention minor depression, and these are the plagues that affect research students. Self doubt, depression. You've got to work through it, and you've got to assure yourself that nearly everyone else has the same problem at some point. Talk to your supervisor if you've got that sort of relationship and chances are s/he will start to reminisce about her/his mid phd blues. Otherwise see if there's a research student support group on campus or social group. It's useful to find things to do with others who are going through the same thing.

Most of us pull through it and get the thesis in and then sit back and think "Man, that was hard" then a few days later... "OK, what next?"

I suspect you'd benefit from talking to a counsellor or a careers guidance person, and maybe thinking about getting out of your head a bit - exercise, whatever - just to give yourself a bit of space. It's too easy to obsess about research work, and it's not productive.
posted by handee at 8:07 AM on April 8, 2007

Most of us go through something like this, but yeah I feel for you.

It's only been three years and no, your supervisor will not "throw you out". If anything, they'll keep you around longer than you need to be for your cheap cheap cheap labour.

From the "throw you out" comment, it sounds like you haven't had a nice sit-down chat with your supervisor recently and specifically about how you feel. I'd recommend that you do so - either with your supervisor or someone else. Any new faculty or junior investigators in your department/area that you're on friendly terms with?

I highly recommend that you have that chat, but if you don't feel comfortable enough about doing it face-to-face, the second thing I'd recommend is to ask your supervisor for a week's leave - and get the hell out of town for a week. Go camping or go on a roadtrip across the country. It's about time for tax returns and - as a PhD student - that should be a thou or two in your pocket. Go burn it. Give yourself a little time to put things back into perspective. I haven't had a day off for months now and I really should be taking my own advice and go AWOL after the last formal class-type exam I'll likely ever have to take.

As to "have nothing right now" there's a guy in my lab who's 3&1/2 years into his PhD and he still haven't had his first committee meeting because, to use a popular phrase, "[he's] got nut'in" a couple of project didn't pan out, now he's attached to someone else's mostly successful project before taking something else on.

As for post-docing, it's a little early for you to worry about it. Do you have a grant with travel allowances? Even if you don't, lots of conferences have travel awards. Apply for them. Or even ask your supervisor if they'll sponsor you to go to conferences. Conferences are where you get to see what other people are doing and a place to make connections. If you find a lab doing something you think is way cool - hey, there's your subfield. Historically, these are the kinds of places where one figures out what and with whom they want to do their post-docs with.
posted by porpoise at 8:30 AM on April 8, 2007

Part of the problem for me was the lack of interaction with a wide variety of people - I got bored sitting in a lab all day looking at a bunch of slow growing kidney cells.
That's exactly how I felt with bio-research. The material was and still is absolutely fascinating to me. However, during a couple years of research, I learned that I need more human interaction than the industry typically lends itself to. That, and the repetitiveness day after day got old. Now I work with computers where my life revolved around telling people what to do and it works out well.
posted by jmd82 at 9:00 AM on April 8, 2007

This thread over at Cosmic Variance may be worth reading. The comments especially.
posted by atrazine at 10:17 AM on April 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'm a PhD student too (in the biomedical sciences) and I can sympathize. Some ideas that help keep me going:

- a PhD is a marathon, not a sprint

- Success in science is often about who works the hardest, not about who is the smartest.

Like you, there are many days when I'm not sure that a life of research is for me (and other days when I love it). There are lots of things that you can do with that PhD, though, that don't involve being a lab rat forever. The knowledge that I'll have options when I graduate is comforting.

Oh yeah, and PhD comics help keep me sane.
posted by chrisamiller at 10:45 AM on April 8, 2007

My work has gone nowhere (probably the cause of recent mild depression) and I think the two main reasons are (1) I'm not that good at bench work and (2) I'm not especially great at solving bio problems. To use a term from economics, I feel like I've lost my comparative advantage. I'm not using my mind the same way I used to and I don't feel like I bring anything to the table that any other student with a few years experience would.

So basically you're feeling like you aren't good enough to be in grad school, and you're just one among many students, you don't stand out any more -- maybe you only got where you are because of luck. This sounds to me like what's known as imposter syndrome. It's extremely common among phd students, and is probably only exacerbated by mild depression. It's also typically not based in reality (though hard to get out of, perhaps).

Also, a lot of people have a slump some time around their 3rd or 4th year (for me it was after finishing my qualifying exam). So this too is common, and probably not worth basing long-term decisions on.
posted by advil at 11:51 AM on April 8, 2007

I'll add my voice to the crowd saying that mild depression in your 3rd or 4th year of grad school is extremely common (I spent several months of my third year considering applying to culinary school). When I was a biophysics grad student, that slump was something we all used to joke about (mostly after we'd passed through it). Another extremely common experience is fighting with a non-working experiment / instrument / protocol for 6 months or a year. I spent 6 months troubleshooting an assay only to discover that certain lots of BSA inhibited the protein I was studying. Now (6 years after my PhD) we periodically have pissing contests about our horrible and bizarre artifacts and problems in grad school.

My one piece of advice is to figure out what you enjoy and find a way to do that. After 10 years in biology I recently came to the realization that I didn't really like biology, I liked the technical side of developing instrumentation and techniques. I was fortunate to find a position as director of a cutting edge microscopy facility and I'm much happier than when I was doing experiments and trying to figure out how I was going to spin my results in my next paper.

Good luck!
posted by pombe at 12:06 PM on April 8, 2007

Hi, you're me.
I was always really good at math, but it seemed so pointless at an academic level (apologies to the mathematicians on here), and I went from Chemistry to Biochemistry. But at the bench I'm no longer good, I'm just average like everyone else, because there are no more of those exams that I could ace just by "getting it". Suddenly who's best depends on who gets their results published first, and that wasn't me. I'm the one who spends weeks trying to get stuff to work and feeling like I'm just wasting time. Working hard is no longer related to performance, and that sucks.

It didn't get better (I'm 5 years into the PhD program, and need at least another year) but it didn't get worse either, and it's just very humbling to realize that all those years of excelling at math and physics and weird subfields of chemistry mean nothing in a biology lab.

As a subfield, maybe you'd like bioinformatics, which is more thinking than bench work?

And seconding PhD comics. If someone draws cartoons about your exact problems, and thousands of people read them, you KNOW you're not the only one.
posted by easternblot at 12:54 PM on April 8, 2007 [1 favorite]

I also had a similar background/also similar personality wise and I had a hard time with bench work (from boredom). The courses were easy but research could not hold my attention.

If you truly 'enjoy' research, I would stay with it and try a post-doc. If you think you may do well in another research area related to your field, start perusing the literature and talk to people at conferences. I have a friend who was horrible in a few of her grad school rotations but she did find a lab she did well in.

I knew I could not stay in academe and found a book -"Alternative Careers in Science Leaving the Ivory Tour" - it was a great book in that it described the typical work day/highs/lows/and other people with a PhD went that same route. If you identify something you find interesting, try to get bits of experience now so that can translate to a job when you finish.

Also, believe it or not, if you identify something you want to try - informational interviews can be helpful.

Also, if you become committed to finding a job outside academe, forums devoted to discussing such topics were helpful. Most people in academe see that as the end all job and may not understand the desire to even leave.

Hang in there - a few more years and you have the PhD. The PhD will help you obtain other positions even if you want to leave research. Good luck.
posted by Wolfster at 1:17 PM on April 8, 2007

I also in a similar boat to you, and agree with most of the advice you're been given in this thread, so I only have this to add:

Going from theoretical work to bench-work is a tough journey. Most people only start to get really competent at it in their final year of their PhD. So I suspect you're under-selling yourself a bit. I don't know how much practical experience you have, but if it's only 3 years, then don't judge yourself too harshly. If that's what is worrying you, I would say stick with it.

The more important question is, do you like it? I was always better at physics and maths as well, but I find biology infinitely more interesting (not least for its complexity). And whether you are good at it in the future will really depend on whether your heart is in it. Research is hard, and it pays poorly. We do it for the love of it.
posted by kisch mokusch at 5:39 PM on April 8, 2007

Hey, another PhD student voice (microbiology) to add to the choir! I think what you are currently feeling is par for the course...I spent a year spinning my wheels during my third year after I passed my quals, and contemplated dropping out and doing something different almost every day. I spoke to a former boss and role model of mine about my concerns/bleak outlook/sense of failure, and she said "Grad school is nothing more than four years of failed experiments and one year of experiments that work. Everyone goes through this phase. Don't worry about it."

Although in my case, it's more like five years of failed experiments, I think she was right. Things will get better. Do you love science? Do you want to be a scientist? Then stick with it. Even if you don't want to be a bench researcher or PI, there are many things you can do with a PhD. However, if you honestly hate it, not because of your own self-doubt, but if you really, truly hate research, then yeah, quit, do something else. But if you have the passion, stick with it. It will get better.

Good luck and feel free to email me if your misery needs some company.
posted by emd3737 at 5:57 PM on April 8, 2007

Response by poster: Poster here,

Everyone, thank you for your advice and sympathy. It helps to know that others have felt the same way in grad school. I don't think I'll mark a best answer because they have all been helpful. I especially liked the Lederman article and the Cosmic Variance link. I'll try, if I can, to have a chat with my advisor about this and also to just stop worrying about it so much. I really do enjoy biology and lab work, just not when my experiments continually fail.

Oh, and I've loved PhD comics for awhile now. Truly brilliant.
posted by Durin's Bane at 7:52 PM on April 8, 2007

A couple of things I try to remember when I am beating my head against the brick wall that is science when it isn't working.

1) If it was easy, I wouldn't have a job (or PhD, in your case).
2) Whilst someone with more experience would probably fix the problem faster and more efficeintly, I am the one working on it, so all I can do is keep plugging away, hoping for inspiration.
3) Things not working is how you learn things, frustrating as they might be.
posted by kjs4 at 4:31 AM on April 9, 2007

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