Graduate Studies in the Sciences – Beyond the Science

Extending your education through a graduate degree in the sciences requires a long-term commitment. It also often incites questions from our peers about the state of our sanity. These questions are typically along the lines of “Why would you choose to pursue a PhD when job security is so bad?” or “Why pursue the academic route when the hard work may not easily translate into deserved pay?”. Despite all these sceptical questions, many of us still choose to pursue a PhD in the sciences, but do we fully understand what exactly we’re getting ourselves into? Undoubtedly, the pursuit of a graduate degree is primarily based on our curiosity and love for knowledge and discovery, and it requires sharp focus and attention to detail. In addition to the science however, we must not disregard the other important skills that we obtain from the rigorous training.

As a graduate student, your schedule generally consists of experiments, classes, meetings, experiments, more meetings and further experiments. Though this may not come as a surprise, there are many things, beyond the science, that are also important in our education and development as an individual. Here we wish to discuss some of these additional ‘annoyances’, on top of developing expertise in your field, and why they matter.

Financial Management and Budgeting:

Financial management and budgeting are very important aspects of academic science, and being able to grasp what is the most effective way to spend your budget can be critical to your training and future career. As an undergraduate or a new graduate student, you may not realise this, especially if the laboratory you are in has a manager or technician who is responsible for ordering reagents and financial management. If you are given the chance to order your own reagents however, it will soon become apparent that science – whether chemistry, cancer or virology – is labour-intensive, time consuming and very expensive.

An average bottle of cell culture media, including all the necessary supplements and antibiotics for example, costs approximately $150 and Lipofectamine reagents often used for lipid-based transfections are ~$860 for 1.5mL. Although these may be small scale examples relevant to individual projects or independent laboratories, the same principles can be scaled up and applied to the industry as a whole. A fully approved drug developed by a pharmaceutical company for example takes approximately 12-15 years of research and testing and $2.6 billion dollars of investment prior to clinical use. This could involve chemical construction, animal studies, clinical trials and much more (Mullard 2014).

Drug Pipeline

While that is the approximate expense of a successful drug that makes it to market, it is worth noting that for every drug that enters phase I clinical trial (i.e the stage where the compound is tested for efficacy in cell lines), there are tens that fail and are dropped at particular stages of the drug development process (Mullard 2016). These earlier compounds are typically shelved, but millions of dollars would have already been spent on their development.

In general, the competition for research funding in the world is immense and understanding the best way to utilise these funds is essential. It is also key to remember that the money you spend is normally granted through the government, organisations and donors. As opposed to considering the process of ordering to conduct your experiments as a time-consuming, bothersome process, use the opportunity to learn, especially if you want to lead your own laboratory.

Time Management:

Graduate school can be a hectic time that involves a steep learning curve on time management. The core schedule of a graduate degree entails research, meetings with your supervisor and lab meetings. Dependent on your institution however, you may also have additional responsibilities including ordering reagents, cleaning rotas and/or teaching undergraduate students to name a few.

For instance, a typical weekly schedule as a graduate student at the Princess Margaret Cancer Center comprises of laboratory work peppered with lab meeting, classes, group meetings, and inter-lab “Work In Progress (WIP)” meetings. Due to these commitments, some of my peers have made comments such as “I wish I had more time to do my experiments.”, “I have to leave late tonight.” or “This is why my thesis is taking forever to complete.” Awhile there is legitimacy among these comments, there is also a lack of the overall picture of your advanced education. There are always two sides to a coin. For example, I (Stanley) find meetings (if there is a concrete outline) are extremely helpful and productive in making sure people involved in the same project are on the same page, and our thoughts are aligned to minimise miscommunication and experimental delays. Days may be longer with these meetings and added responsibilities, but whatever you learn, whether consciously or subconsciously, is yours to keep for the rest of your life.

Lab Meeting
Weekly Lupien lab meeting to discuss a lab member’s recent progress, allowing internal conversations including feedback and suggestions.

If you do not feel this is the case with the meetings you are expected to attend, then speak up, brainstorm ways the meeting would be more beneficial, and propose it to the group. If it’s likely to help everyone get more out of the time then it would be silly not to. Long meetings without a concrete agenda may be a waste of precious time and productivity. A colleague of mine (Natalie) did just that. She proposed that at the end of every group meeting we have time set aside to troubleshoot any strange results, technical issues or interesting data we may have. So far, this 10 minute discussion has been useful for conceptualising new ideas and constructive feedback. With positivity, I now look forward to these meetings and the challenges and obstacles that my colleagues present.

Collaboration, Collaboration, Collaboration:

A beautiful facet of scientific research includes the collaboration between colleagues, ultimately driving progress. It is critical to note that it does not mean approaching others with a casual mid-day thought, as chances are that you may be ignored. An idea with specific objectives, supported by incremental gains you have made yet lacking a particular expertise, however, may be much more attractive to a potential collaborator. Collaborations often begin with an intriguing idea that progressively precipitate through the likes of peer introduction and attendance in seminars, talks and meetings as previously mentioned. Truly, these events that provoke communication sparked key discoveries in the past that continues to impact our research and daily lives.

The discovery of the double-helical structure of DNA by Watson and Crick aided by Wilkins and Franklin is a fascinating example of this. In 1946, Maurice Wilkins, a physicist by training, was appointed to be the assistant director of a new Biophysics unit at King’s College in London. During his appointment, Wilkins was fascinated with solving the three-dimensional structure of DNA through the means of x-ray crystallography, and ended up working with Rosalind Franklin when she visited King’s College.

DNA Xray
X-ray crystallographical depiction of DNA taken by Rosalind Franklin. *Note: This was not the image Watson saw at Wilkin’s talk. Instead, this is known as Photo 51, a picture taken by Franklin and her PhD student Raymond Gosling which gave the clue to Watson & Crick that DNA has a double-helix structure. Credit: Ask A Biologist

In the Spring of 1951, Wilkins gave a talk about his work on the structure of DNA in Naples, and a young man named James Watson was in the audience. Watson was 23 years young when he fell in love with the x-ray image of the DNA structure Wilkin had presented. Shortly after, he moved to Cambridge joining the Perutz lab, and met Francis Crick. Despite initial struggles including the thought that DNA was triple-helical structured, the rest is history as Watson and Crick were able to model the structure of DNA in 1953 (Crick & Watson 1953) (Wilkens et al. 1953) (Franklin & Gosling 1953).

Collaboration between pharmaceutical companies and the academy can be a win-win situation:

Collaborations that precipitated through meetings are not limited to academic research either. The exchange of ideas has also led to commercialisation. A prominent example is the isolation and purification of insulin that founded Genentech by the late venture capitalist Mr. Robert Swanson and biochemist Herbert Boyer in 1976.

Boyer grew up idolizing Watson and Crick for partnering up with Stanley Cohen, Boyer worked with recombinant DNA. Keeping up with his scientific interests through reading, Swanson approached Boyer in 1975 about the idea of using recombinant DNA technology for both commercialisation and impact patient health. At that time, purified insulin was an important protein needed to treat diabetic patients. Using recombinant DNA to produce and isolate insulin, the two founded Genentech. The statue below depicts the iconic first meeting between the two.

Statue of the infamous first meeting between Swanson and Boyer outside of Genentech. Credit: StaticFlickr

Academic researchers have in-depth knowledge and expertise of a particular field regarding a system, protein or molecule. On the other hand, pharmaceutical companies typically have tremendous financial abilities and the specialised skills honed to translate academic knowledge into a therapeutic that can more directly impact patient care. Despite often depicted as the antagonists that demand speed and money, the unique mix between financial capabilities, drug development experience, manufacturing and licensing that pharmaceutical companies have, ultimate put them in a more favourable situation to dramatically improve the likelihood of a successful transition from bench-to-bedside. Overall, increasing amounts of collaboration between the academy and industry can synergistically accelerate the personalised medicine paradigm.

Societies and Networking:

An important aspect of your PhD training is to build up the necessary skill set to become an expert in your chosen career. As discussed, a big part of successful training  may depend upon collaboration with colleagues. Your work will often lead you down unexpected paths where you might need to lean on the knowledge and expertise of others. To do this, you need to develop a network of colleagues and professionals to help you in these times of difficulty. To be able to ask for help in itself is a skill that requires time to learn. On a personal level, both of us have benefitted from professional and personal development opportunities which have come from our network of colleagues and acquaintances. This blog post brought to you, in itself, is an international collaboration upon networking through social media (i.e Twitter).

As a new graduate student with seemingly little to offer to world-renowned experts but your youth and enthusiasm, building a network of contacts around you can be a daunting task. But everyone starts somewhere, and a good place to begin can be those regular team and department meetings. Given that your colleagues presenting at these meetings dedicate a lot of time to their work, they appreciate your questions and feedback. Understandably, overcoming shyness can be an intimidating challenge, but the more you engage in these conversations, the more confident you will feel and the more connections you will make.

Another great way to make professional contacts, is to join a scientific society. Joining these societies gives you the opportunity to meet influential people in your chosen field, and also allows you to stay in touch with the exciting science outside of your narrow research focus. Society memberships are typically free or at a reduced rate for students and graduates; in return, these societies can provide invaluable support and opportunities for their members. I personally (Natalie) have been a member of the British Society for Gene and Cell Therapy and the Royal Society of Biology for a number of years now and have benefitted on numerous occasions from career-progression opportunities, including abstract reviewing, poster presentations and co-chairing symposiums. Attending the annual conference hosted by the British Society for Gene and Cell Therapy was also a brilliant experience which greatly increased my network of contacts in addition to providing development opportunities and showcasing the upcoming research in the field. I even got approached about a potential PhD opportunity!

Credit: BSGCT, Simon Callaghan Photography

Leadership Skills:

Pursuing a graduate degree in science encourages training in many facets of life that go beyond the realm of pure scientific training itself. It is almost ironic that your peers and your family may perceive you to be a very knowledgeable individual, yet one of earliest lessons you learn is that you know very little – a hurdle that can be hard to accept. Your mentality on a daily basis is therefore critical to your training. Let us view our lack of knowledge as an opportunity for open mindedness and flexibility to explore and to discover our interests. It is during this time of your graduate degree that you have the ability and criticality required to not only learn about your field of interest, but also contribute to it. Your training allows you to pursue ambitious ideas that can be tested with the help from experts in that field, locally and internationally.

It is also the fact that you know you do not know, that allows you to accept and learn from temporary failure and criticism. The ability to welcome temporary failure and criticism is a very tough, but necessary, lesson. Quite literally, the majority of your attempted experiments will fail, as majority of the time conducting experiments is to optimise the protocol. Imagine how frustrating it can be for you to test a hypothesis with a protocol you never worked with before, yet you feel too confident in your abilities and not listening to the criticism of others who may be experts with what you are trying to accomplish.

All of these skills are transferable and can help you in most walks of life. It often feels like the unspoken taboo but there are many people who start a graduate degree only to realise that a career in research is not for them. With these skills that’s not a problem. You’ll be desirable to many fields.

A Final Message:

The recurrent theme of this post has been looking at every aspect of your graduate degree as an opportunity to improve as scientist and as an individual. From time-management and budgeting to networking and collaboration we hope to have either given you, or perhaps reminded you, of the “beyond the science” perspective. Focus on the present before you jump ahead to the next stage of your life.

The science, the added responsibility, the fatigue and the stress, none of it is supposed to be easy, we are chasing after an advanced degree after all, but it achievable.

Final Message
A photograph of a talk by Dr. Anthony Fauci at the Gairdner Awards 2016.

The photograph above depicts a talk given by Dr. Anthony Fauci , one of the very first clinician-scientists that made significant contributions to the field of HIV/AIDS, where he presented his story at the Gairdner Awards 2016 (Toronto, Canada). As opposed to speaking about his achievements, he spoke directly to the trainees in the audience, and I paraphrase:

It is okay to take risks and it is okay to go where no one has before. If you are passionate and willing to collaborate, you will go to places you never thought you could.

About the Authors:

Stanley Zhou is a graduate student from the Department of Medical Biophysics – University of Toronto working on cancer epigenomics at the Princess Margaret Cancer Center. Follow him on Twitter @StanInScience.

Natalie Hamer is an undergraduate student at Newcastle University currently on placement at GlaxoSmithKline in their immuno-inflammation department studying the effects of epigenetics on disease. You can also follow her on Twitter @SciShot.


  1. Mullard, A. New drugs cost US[dollar]2.6 billion to develop. Nat. Rev. Drug Discov. 13, 877–877 (2014).
  2. Mullard, A. Parsing clinical success rates. Nat. Rev. Drug Discov. 15, 447-447 (2016).
  3. Crick, F. & Watson, J. A structure for deoxyribose nucleic acid. Nature 171, 3 (1953).
  4. Wilkins, M. H. F., Stokes, A. R. & Wilson, H. R. Molecular structure of deoxypentose nucleic acids. Nature 171, 738–740 (1953).
  5. Franklin, R. E. & Gosling, R. G. Molecular configuration in sodium thymonucleate. Nature 171, 740–741 (1953).

Photo Credits:

Photo 51- Ask a Biologist

Statue of Swanson and Boyer- StaticFlickr

Conference Photos- BSGCT




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