How to get your PhD in <5 years!

OK, the previous post about indefinite PhD timelines was a bit depressing… so I provide THIS, from the ASCB blog, to cheer you up.  Tips and accounts from real graduate students on how they managed to get their PhDs in 5 years or less.  Although nothing is guaranteed, in general, tips to get out quick include:

  • Pick a good mentor (and really take the time to do so)
  • Be organized… have all your data, research, resources organized
  • Plan experiments wisely and ahead of time.  And have an outline of your project, which you update frequently
  • Plan for the future EARLY: start searching for your post-grad job, postdoc, etc several months before you plan on graduating!

Obviously, circumstances vary from student to student, but planning ahead, staying organized, and thinking about your future all seem to trend towards a quicker and more efficient PhD.


Scientists discuss the Future of Research at #ASCB2014 #FORsymp

Superstar Scientists Share visions for the Future of Research at ASCB/IFCB Meeting

by Christina Szalinski

A panel of bioscience superstars tried to throw some light on the gloomy outlook for cell research Saturday at the ASCB/IFCB 2014 meeting in Philadelphia. As NIH funding shrinks, graduate programs grow, and fewer than 10% of PhDs go on to tenure-track position, Bruce Alberts, professor at University of California, San Francisco, best-selling textbook author, and newly minted National Medal of Science winner, wondered aloud, “What brilliant young person wants to become a scientist… if they have to wait until they’re 42 to get their first independent grant?” Alberts continued, “You’re supposed to be famous to get a job as an independent investigator. You would have laughed at my CV when I got hired.” Alberts was joined on the panel by Shirley Tilghman, ASCB president elect and president emerita at Princeton University; Jon Lorsch, Director of the NIH National Institute for General Medical Sciences; and Marc Kirschner, past president of ASCB and chair of the Department of Systems Biology at Harvard Medical School (HMS); and more.


HMS postdocs Jessica Polka and Kristen Krukenberg believe that it’s time for researchers to face the new realities. To that end, they initiated this panel in Philadelphia on the “Future of Research,” pulling in leaders from across the biomedical research enterprise to a special interest subgroup session at the ASCB/IFCB meeting. Krukenberg opened the session by summarizing an earlier Future of Research symposium they organized for postdocs in Boston in October. Krukenberg reported that working groups at the Boston symposium recommended a broadening of training, changes in lab structure, diversification of funding mechanisms, and rewards for scientists who interact with the public.


In Philadelphia, Alberts had his own recommendations—techniques and equipment should be freely shared to minimize waste, scientific risk-taking should be encouraged, and labs should be a more moderate size, with 9 to 12 as the maximum. “Howard Hughes (Medical Institute) chose individual scientists to double the size of their labs, thinking they’d do twice as much work, but they started doing less interesting things because they had to manage an enterprise,” Alberts explained.


Connie Lee, Assistant Dean for Basic Research at the University of Chicago and chair of ASCB’s Public Policy Committee, said while the research situation at her university wasn’t dire yet, bridge funding for PIs caught between R01s had been increased four-fold in recent years. Lee urged institutions and researchers themselves to find other sources of funding.  “Think outside the NIH box,” Lee said. Chicago now has grant writing-workshops to give critical feedback on first drafts of grants, and someone in Washington, DC, to help them identify new sources of funding. Lee said that institutions have to help create new avenues for scientists to innovate.


Kirschner said that science best proceeds in an environment of free inquiry. He cited the example of the Hamilton Smith, who was working in the obscure field of bacterial immunity and discovered restriction endonucleases, which revolutionized DNA modification and earned a Nobel Prize. “These are the kinds of things we should promote that the system is working against,” Kirschner said. “Science progresses most rapidly when scientists can focus on science. Writing grants can stimulate creativity, but rewriting them does not.”


Referring to her time as Princeton president, Tilghman joked, “I had a 12 year sabbatical thinking about binge drinking, and college football, and financial aid… In the years that I had been away [from science] the sense of optimism had been eroded… The ground conditions we’re laying out for the next generation… are not the conditions that create the very best science.” The problem, said Tilghman, is too many people chasing too little money. An easy first step, she believes, would be to require every graduate training program that gets NIH funding to post the career outcomes of their students. “I’m begging the NIH, on my hands and knees if I have to, to do this at minimum so students can make informed decisions,” Tilghman declared. She said it’s hard to say where the workforce pipeline could or should be narrowed just as it’s hard to predict who will do well in grad school. But Tilghman said one thing is clear: “We can’t afford to send 75% of students onto postdocs.”


Kenneth Gibbs, a Cancer Prevention Fellow at the National Cancer Institute, expressed concern about the “shearing forces inside the biomedical research pipeline.” At NCI, Gibbs investigates biomedical graduate student and postdoctoral training. He said that his data indicate that many PhDs entered graduate training with poor knowledge of career options and that over time in graduate programs, students move away from the goal of reaching a faculty position.


Lorsch, whose NIH institute is the primary source of federal funding for basic cell science research, wants to change the way grants are awarded. “RNAi wouldn’t have been discovered if the PI had said, ‘That’s not one of the specific aims, so you’d better get back to working on those so we can get the grant renewed,’” Lorsch said. Soon NIGMS will be piloting a program called Maximizing Investigators’ Research Award (MIRA), which aims to provide one grant per PI that’s bigger and longer than R01 averages and not tied to specific aims, according to Lorsch. The review will be based on track record and overall research ideas and there will be modified review considerations for early-stage investigators. “NIH is taking seriously all these problems, but without reciprocal changes at institutions it won’t work. Everyone is going to have to change what they do in order to right the sinking ship,” Lorsch said.

*This article is from the ASCB Post

How competitive should science be?

We’ve posted frequently on the negative effects (ie fraud) resulting from the current hyper-competitive nature of the American science enterprise.  From the ASCB COMPASS blog, another thoughtful perspective on how hyper-competition may be influencing science.

“Is the pressure created by 9% paylines and a scarcity of stable jobs stimulating academic science, or squelching the creativity necessary for innovation?”

American Society for Cell Biology Awards

The ASCB COMPASS (Committee for Postdocs and Students) is offering several awards and opportunities to show off your talents!  Win up to $500 with the “Share your Science” video contest or Comic Strip Contest.

Additionally, if you have great outreach ideas, apply for up to $1,000 with the Outreach Grant.

These are great opportunities for scientists to communicate with the community, show off their creativity, and display their passion for science.  For a full list of awards, go here.

A cause worth fightin’ for

Shameless plug here, check out my latest post for the ASCB COMPASS blog, Science, a cause worth fightin’ for.

A lot of conversations are taking place about the current biomedical research funding crisis and how to tackle this issue.  I stress that a key step is advocacy… especially from my generation of current graduate students and postdocs.  It is important for scientists to explain their research in an effective manner, not only to politicians, but to peers, family, and the community!

Is there a shortage in the STEM workforce?


STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education initiatives are so hot right now because of claims of shortages of good students going into these fields (including minorities and women, post about that). However, some people claim that the sources making shortage claims are slightly to heavily biased. Michael Teitelbaum is one person that doesn’t believe the clamor of shortages in STEM fields and wrote a great piece for the Huffington Post. As a scientist that has seen over and over again different graphics showing the dismal job outlook for scientists in academia, I would have to agree with him. However, I do believe that STEM initiatives will be crucial in attracting minorities and women to these fields, which is extremely important. Below are the five points brought up in the article, obviously with more explanation in the original.

1) Almost all objective analysts have been unable to find evidence of broad-based “shortages” in the science and engineering workforce.

2) There is a long and damaging history of “alarm/boom/bust” cycles initiated by such shortage claims, going back at least to World War II.

3) Public discussion of these issues is remarkably garbled — even “STEM” is invoked with wildly different meanings.

4) The performance in international science and math tests by American 15-year-olds is a matter of legitimate concern, but has little to do with education of sufficient numbers of US scientists and engineers.

5) Recent political and media discussions of the science and engineering workforce have been dominated by interest groups promoting shortage claims.

Flying through Dulles? Check out their latest exhibit!


An airport is probably the last place I typically think of when I hear the words “art” or “cell biology”… however, that’s no longer the case.  Starting today and going until November 2014, Washington Dulles International Airport features a new exhibit titled “Life: Magnified.”  Brought to you by a collaboration between ASCB, NIGMS, Washington Metropolitan Airports Authority, and Zeiss, the exhibit displays 46 stunning microscopic images from cell biology.   You can check out the exhibit in the Gateway Gallery in Concourse C.

Just incase you are not flying through Dulles, you can check out the images here!

Dulles gets a LOT of traffic.  What an awesome way to show off cell biology!