Saturday, September 29, 2012

Setting up your "First Committee Meeting" as a Graduate Student in Biomed

No doubt, being in graduate school in and of itself is a daunting task. If you are the type that borders on paranoia, you will forever be looking over your shoulder mentally thinking everyone is out to get you. And if you are the type that's complacent, well, let's just say by the time you realize what time it is, you will be "forced" to graduate. Needless, to say, being a graduate student is an experience best lived or better yet, left alone.

One of the most crucial decision made in graduate school - apart from choosing a mentor/lab -  is choosing a committee member. I wrote some suggested criteria to choosing committee members that you can access here. After choosing committee members, you will want to set up what I call the "first meeting".

1. This first meeting is important in starting you off on the right foot. Some of the members of your committee might not know each other, so having them in the same room is essential in  getting them to know each other.

2. It gives them a chance to know you in depth. There's something about communicating face-to-face that  overrides the communication via phone or internet. There's a lesser chance for miscommunication, and a greater chance to read body language. Introduce yourself even when they all know you. Give a brief bio, i.e where you did your undergraduate studies, your major, extracurricular activities, hobbies and clubs you were part of while in college. If you did undergraduate research or summer programs, it doesn't hurt to mention it. Shows you have a few years experience, including one or two years of grad school.

3. Print a list of classes you have taken and a CV. Yes, you told them about yourself but now they have a paper that can go in their folder designated for you. Yes, they probably have a folder on you. Best to give them these papers as they come in the room (that way they can refer back to it as you talk).

4. Give your mentor/PI the chance to talk. No brainer! Don't hog the communication channel. What your mentor/PI has to say about you is equally important if not more important than what you have to say about yourself.

5. Provide a brief intro into your work/project/thesis research, or whatever. You are the most knowledgeable of YOUR work, let them see that. Be brief, this is not your exam.

6. Provide them with a plan, i.e what are your plans in 3 months, or about a year or two from now? Hopefully, you have thought about this, if not you can always mention that you wish to master a particular technique (short term goal) or you hope that your results (whatever you have so far) will help prove or disprove your hypothesis (long term goal). Whatever you say, DO NOT say "I don't know". Not knowing = BAD. You should have a goal, no matter how small.

7. Finally, feel free to ask them questions as well. It should be a two way channel and it shows you did your homework on them.


Good luck! Graduate school can be daunting in many different ways, hopefully your rapport with your committee won't be one of them. Graduate school is also very rewarding. Remember, the goal is never far, the journey just seems slow.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Choosing Committee Members (Graduate School-Bio-Med PhD)

One of the most crucial decisions made early on graduate school is the decision of choosing committee members. This is very important in Bio-med programs and I suppose equally important in other STEM departments as well.

So who is a committee member? A committee member is someone who provides guidance, direction and monitors the progress of a graduate student. The committee members are involved in the decision of passing you after your qualifying exam (prelims, generals e.t.c.). They are involved in your passing the dissertation (thesis defense). They play a crucial part in the progression of your thesis research and can make or mar your graduate school journey.

With all these essential duties of a committee member, it is important to choose wisely and with foresight.  In choosing committee members:

1. Look for someone knowledgeable in the area of research you are interested in. This does not necessarily mean you look for the veteran in your program, nor does it necessarily mean the person must have had a dozen students graduate from their lab. What this means is that this potential committee member has an idea of what your research focus is, works or is familiar with your research interests and can contribute significantly to your progress along the way.

2. If they are all not within your area of research, then make sure they are there for a reason. For example, if you are a graduate student in a program with a focus on exposure to toxicants. Your committee members will be mostly toxicologists. However, if you are also interested in how these toxicants alter lipid regulating genes and lead to diabetes or obesity, then you might have a faculty whose work is based on lipid metabolism as a committee member as well.

3. Look for someone with a matching personality. I do not mean looking for someone who is as sanguine or melancholic as you, rather, I mean look for someone that fits into your personality frame. A quick-tempered, bossy, sharp-tongue professor who will tell you outright that your research is crap and is not going anywhere and you should give up grad sch is not exactly ideal. Unless that's what you are looking for. This point is subjective however, as some people can work well with any one. If you are the type, then feel free to choose on other merits than personality.

4. Look for someone that finds your ideas stimulating. A committee member who finds your ideas stimulating will have an interest in knowing (almost as much as you) where your work is headed. While you are giving presentations to your committee, it is always a good thing to see that they actually listen to you. You can tell because they will offer suggestions, criticize your lack of a valuable control or advise you on a different technique/method without being catty or with an overly know-all attitude.

5. Look for the perfect number of committee members for you. Obviously 2 might not be quite enough, and 5-6 might be too much. Too little and some programs might not even recognize your committee, too much and there's a higher chance of never being able to get them all together due to conflicting schedules. The right number is subjective and personal. Good luck.

6. When you have all these potential candidates on your list, then email, or schedule a meeting with them individually. Be ready to ask them a few questions, such as if they are willing to be on your committee (obviously the reason you are there but ask any way, you might be surprised how many students assumed that faculty members know exactly what's going on in the minds).

7. After all these, and you have your committee set-up, DO have a preliminary/official first meeting with them all together in one place. This is good because they can get to meet each other, you can provide a general bio to them and get their expectations of what they require of you. You can also talk about your research, not in depth but provide a general background. This might also be a good time to select your committee chair. And if you are lucky, you might even be able to set up a date for your qualifying exam.

NOTE: These are simply suggestions that I gleaned from my experience while selecting my committee members. It worked and I couldn't be more pleased with the group that I have. Based on experience, talking and making conversation with the committee at a regular interval (in my own case about 2-3 times a year) helps eliminate conflicts and miscommunication, helps put you all on the same page and none of them is left out of what I call the "communication loop".

I might edit and add some more information as I see fit.

Good luck!

Monday, September 10, 2012

Travel, Work and Fun: Bio-Med Conferences

One of the best things about graduate school (in my opinion) is the conferences. I get to travel to different conferences in different locations and present my research to fellow graduate students and faculty. It's a very good way to receive feedback and questions that I haven't thought about yet. Sometimes, as a graduate student, I can get very subjective about my research and going to these conferences helps me regain objectivity. Since it's just me working on it day in day out, I sometimes overlook something crucial like a control group or a treatment group or even a minor error of some sort and by presenting my work to others, they can easily see the things that I might have miss, thereby making my project stronger.

Conference in Phoenix AZ . 2009

 Another reason attending conferences is good is because I get to see other students and colleagues, which reminds me that there are other people out there doing something similar to what I do. Someone using the same methods as you to solve different problems. Or someone asking the same question as you are in a different organ or model organism. Networking is another crucial reason to attend conferences as a graduate student. In fact, I got to know someone (faculty) in the graduate program I am currently in through networking at a conference few years back. The program director of the program I was interested in was at the conference, we met and talked. Turned out he was an alma mater of the undergrad college I was in at the time. Networking puts me in touch with faculty, potential mentors and potential employers in both academe and industry.

At the closing banquet at the 2008 ABRCMS conference in Orlando, Fl


In addition to all these, conferences are typically paid for. Well, so far for me, all my conferences have been either paid for upfront or reimbursed after attendance. Which for me is like icing on a cake. So I've attended different conferences every year since when I started in 2008, except for my entry year into graduate school in 2010.

Going to conferences never feels like work because:

1. I get to travel,
2. I get constructive review of my research and
3. I get to network.

So where am I going off to in the next couple of months:

Newport, RI. The New England Society of Toxicology


Raleigh, NC. Superfund Research Program


San Jose, CA. Annual Biomedical Conference for Minority Students


There are also a couple of conferences coming up next year.

So excited!