How I spend my time in the lab

The strange thing about medicine… You’d think that “prestige” would be tied to how well you care for patients, how few complications you have, or how many people would recommend your services to others. But really, like any other academic field, it’s all about the research. I have to say, until this past January, I never thought that I would be taking a year off to do research. I had always been a “straight-through” kind of girl (there’s probably a dirty joke in there somewhere), and by that I mean, I entered college right out of high school, entered med school right out of college, and didn’t take any breaks in between. Maybe it’s because everyone always calls it a “year off,” as if you’re taking a break from life so you can bum around on your ass for a year, but I always felt like I didn’t have the time. Fast forward the better part of a year, and now I’ve been lab-bound for almost 3 months. Go figure.

Whoever thought that a med student such as myself would be qualified to work in a basic science lab was probably mistaken. Of course, I could have opted for the Excel-monkey route and signed up to do clinical research, but sitting in a cubicle all day was exactly the kind of the work that I was trying to avoid by going to medical school. My “project” so far has felt like one long string of mistakes, set-backs, and dumb moments on my part. I was supposed to get around to animal studies, but so far, I’ve just been muddling my way through cell culture. But I’m learning, right? And what an expert I’ve become at the art of pipetting fluid volumes, small and large! Except that I really hope that I’ll pull it all together in time to have a thesis (and hopefully a few publications) by the end of this thing. And impress my professor somehow. Who happens to be chief of the-amazing-field-of-medicine-that-I-want-to-go-into. Who I’m pretty sure doesn’t even know my name at this point. Who I would really love to get a glowing recommendation letter from in a year’s time. I see her once a week at lab meeting, where my role is usually to say an apologetic sentence or two about how I’m still failing at doing the thing I thought I would have had done by now. She intimidates me (though really, I’ve gotten every indication that she is, in fact, actually very nice).

Anyway, back to what I talking about before. Lab work is quite a change of pace from 3rd year. A few months ago, I was regularly working 60-80 hour weeks. Now, I think 30 hours would be a generous estimate. In theory, I can waltz in whenever I want and leave whenever my work for the day is finished. And my “work for the day” usually takes no more than 3-4 hours. Apparently you can’t prod cells into growing any faster than they want to. I’m enjoying the break. Except for the part where, probably out of residual 3rd year guilt, I feel the need to stay and sit in my office after my “work” is done because, really, 1:00pm is much to early to go home. Of course, I rarely do anything more useful than mindlessly browsing the internet when I do this. But I’m there, so it should count for something, dammit!

So far, I’ve realized two things about myself. The first is that I’d rather work the long hours, as long as I’m not sitting around bored for any length of time. The second is that I never would have made it in grad school. By the way, I never realized how true PhD Comics were until now.

10 thoughts on “How I spend my time in the lab

  1. I thought you spent a summer doing the Excel-monkey thing. Did you get out of your experience less than you hoped for? What specialty are you interested in now? I’m contemplating Excel-monkeying for people in the department that you previously worked in, but I don’t know who’d be good to ask for such an opportunity.

    • Yes, I did spend a summer doing the Excel-monkey thing. It was my first time doing clinical research, and I wanted to try it to see what it would be like. Maybe I was too harsh… allow me to clarify. While I think that observational clinical research is important and worthwhile, I personally did not enjoy doing it very much and would prefer not to do that kind of thing long-term. I should also say that my PI in that department was very supportive and an excellent teacher. Feel free to email me if you have more questions.

  2. Maybe it’s time you found something like a hobby or a research you’d want to do on your own, if you have afternoons off! Or volunteer in hospitals for experience, or any places related to your future work, but without the stress of it being related to your courses and degree. Or prod your cells to grow faster! (I suggest some steroids :P)

    I’m a special education major, but because I have Monday morning and Wednesday afternoon off because of my wonky scheduling (I had to drop a few classes and student teaching last year because I was having too many seizures & had to get brain surgery, but kept a few classes to finish after I recovered, so I’m taking random classes to fill up the time), I’ve taken on working as a job coach/tutor for a young man with Down Syndrome, and involving myself in random clubs like Neuroscience Society and Active Minds (mental health advocacy group on campus) and such that I have interests in during the evenings to keep myself busy.
    I get so lost when I don’t have concrete things I should be doing, so I need to keep myself occupied. XD
    But if I were healthy enough and had transportation, I would have loved to do soup kitchen or can drive or something in DC… But unfortunately, because I’m still in recovery phase, my parents and I didn’t think that would be a great idea.

    My boyfriend is applying for medical school now, after a year in graduate school as a bio medical engineer (though he’ll still get his degree since he’s gotten this far), because he doesn’t want to spend the rest of his life doing research, apparently… XD

    • I’ve been asking to take on some side-projects in the lab, which will hopefully get going soon. I exaggerated a bit about my schedule– it’s more like 9am to 3-4pm on most days. I’ve been trying to channel my extra time toward studying for USMLE Step 2, which is surprisingly close now.

      Volunteering in the hospital as a med student isn’t something that’s really done. Pre-clinical students will occasionally shadow doctors in a field of interest, but by the time you’ve finished 3rd year, you’ve mostly figured out what you want to go into, and after having worked for a year as part of the medical team on the wards, it becomes awkward to go back in as a volunteer to tidy bed sheets and greet visitors. I do occasionally volunteer at our student-run Saturday free clinic, which is usually a lot of fun.

      Good luck to your boyfriend! If he still wants to get his PhD, he should strongly consider an MSTP program, where you will get a combined MD/PhD, a tuition waiver, and a small stipend.

  3. “Few months ago, I was regularly working 60-80 hour weeks. Now, I think 30 hours would be generous estimate. ”

    You’re the reason that med students are a joke in science. You come in for a summer, you do nothing, and you leave. The worst part is, even though you’ve accomplished nothing, you leave with a sense that science is “easy” or “boring”.

    A real scientist? A real scientist would have filled his or her time with something other than waiting for 3-4 hours for his or her cells to grow. A real scientist would have done some research, read some articles, really *thinking* about the problem, instead of “still failing at doing the thing [they] thought [they] would have had done by now”.

    You’re right. You never would have made it in grad school, but not for the reasons you think.

    • I’m not sure why you were so offended by what was meant to be a light-hearted and self-deprecating post, that you felt the need to tell me how much of a joke I am. My use of humor and hyperbole seems lost on you.

      I never implied that science was “easy” or “boring”– just that I don’t like the hurry-up-and-wait pacing. I have a lot of respect for the grad students, lab techs, and scientists who can take the frustrations and setbacks in stride, since patience is not a glowing virtue of mine. Maybe it was obscured by the tone of my post, but I’m legitimately invested in my project, I have been doing quite a bit of reading, and most of my setbacks have actually resulted from some combination of bad luck and the fact that I’m an inexperienced technician (contaminated cell cultures and the like; not really the kind of thing you can fix by thinking and reading more). I should also point out that I’m delaying graduation (and ultimately an attending’s salary) for a year (not using an otherwise idle summer) in order to have this experience, and I’ve been trying to make the most out of my relatively light schedule by asking to take on additional projects, helping with writing, etc.

      I don’t know what med student wronged you in the past, but you seem like you have quite the chip on your shoulder.

    • It seems like you had the misfortune of working with some medical students who may indeed be as you described. Nonetheless, I think most medical students enter research willing to learn and contribute, especially those who have committed a year or more of their time. Yui is just poking fun at herself and sharing some laughter with us.

      And as an MD/PhD, this post got me to smile.

  4. I love the pie chart! It completely describes how I use my time, just replace the two of the medical pie cuts with waiting for paint to dry and waiting for afternoon classes to be done so I can work in the computer labs.

    I could never imagine myself in the medical field, save for when I watch House (but I just want to be in it if Hugh Laurie is the doctor…), so I am at awe of your will to go through with it. Your research will definitely pan out, Yui. You’re thinking about your research a lot it seems, and soon it will become a string of success and all things good! Good luck! And those professors that we all want to be – I have those too! Talk to her more! She sounds like an amazing professor and your intuition that she’s super nice probably means she is.

    Haha! That’s the first time I saw the PHDcomics site. It’s hilarious and I don’t even know the environment!

  5. That sounds like research to me! My research has been one string of failures after another with the occasional success, and that’s how most research goes because when doing research, you should think of yourself as exploring the mysterious unknown, and who the hell knows what’s there? But despite the failures, my adviser understands that it takes a while to code something up and that it takes a while for cells to grow, and is very nice about not having results all the time, as every good adviser is. The important thing is that I’m learning something, and knowing what “doesn’t work” can sometimes be as enlightening as knowing what “does work”.

    PhD comics is hilariously true, though. If I see my adviser in public, I will run away before he sees me. I believe that Celia is also spending a lot of time surfing the net. :P

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