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Jeff the Graduate Student

Question: 

By my interpretation, a PhD symbolizes a person who is able to identify problems or questions and design practical approaches to addressing them. I prefer to think about it in this general way because I feel it allows me to apply myself more broadly than just my areas of specialization, neuroscience and molecular biology.

I entered my current PhD program because I knew I wanted to impact society in a positive way and I thought PhD training will help tap my human potential and elucidate new opportunities to be able to apply myself in a way which will allow me to impact society. As a kid, I was always inquisitive and curious about the natural world. I always admired inventors, scientists, teachers, doctors, engineers and like them, I too wanted to understand the world while simultaneously improving society. 

I’m a strong advocate for educational outreach and education reform. One of the opportunities that graduate school affords is educational outreach. It can be useful for people who enter into a PhD unsure if they would like to pursue a career in academia or not. I volunteer on a semi regular basis because I think I can bring my excitement for science and general hunger for knowledge to people and hopefully inspire someone. Personally, I find that teaching is actually very rewarding and can be just as much of a learning experience for the teacher as well as the students.

Because of my positive experiences teaching, I have more or less decided I will follow the academia career path. As I approach the end of my graduate school career, I am planning on continuing on in academia with hopes to become a full professor. Teaching opportunities helped me decide on the next phase of my career, but graduate school also provides networking opportunities in the private sector through symposiums, product shows, career panels and collaboration. 

I think often times, graduate students in the biological sciences tend to see their career paths as bidirectional; either they stay in academia or they move on to an industry job. This is another reason where I think my general interpretation of a PhD comes in handy. Good PhD training should prepare you for just about any career path because it teaches the scientific method, teaches one to identify problems and develop solutions, it teaches you critical thinking and the ability to take constructive criticism. These are life skills, not just skills for any area of specialization. 

Slowly, I am learning to apply these skills to my personal life to improve my person, health, outlook, environment and relationships with others. This is just one example of the value of a PhD. Thus, there is no reason why people who have completed this training are only suitable for either a career in an academic setting or an industrial biotech position. Some alternative career paths I have considered throughout my training have included governmental regulatory positions, government lab positions, starting a non-profit for science outreach, scientific political activism organization, patent law, science consulting, or creating a small start-up biotech company. 

Graduate school can make people very cynical and bitter about science, academia, and the world in general. Once you have immersed yourself in the system it is easy to identify minor flaws. I think incoming students often hold science up as a method which transcends humanity (rightfully so), but become disenchanted when they realize that it’s not perfect and some not so pleasant aspects of humanity can manifest in the system.

To bring it all back, if you think of a PhD as a tool not just for your career but for your life, it is empowering and provides a way to shape the world even if it seems minimal in the grand scheme of things. Training for a PhD should generate a person ready for the modern world. In my case I will continue on in academia until some other opportunity presents itself. I am very interested in education reform and would love the opportunity to be a full professor in charge of shaping a curriculum and shaping students. Maybe I won’t like it, maybe I will love it but I won’t know unless I try. Besides, even if I fail I will have plenty of other directions to go in, as will most post-docs. 

At this stage in my career, I no longer fear failure. I think PhD students fail constantly and that’s part of the experience to learn from your mistakes and improve the next time. At the end of the day, with a PhD you will get whatever you put in.

BIOGRAPHY:

Jeff is a proud product of the public education system where he was fortunate enough to have excellent high school teachers whom challenged and stimulated his intellectual curiosity. He received his BS degree from the University of South Florida where he got his start in research science. Jeff worked in a neuroscience lab which focused on Alzheimer’s disease. It was in this lab that he learned many important techniques and what research was really all about. It was this experience which afforded him the opportunity to attend graduate school at a respectable public research university, the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He currently works in the lab of Su-chun Zhang using human embryonic and induced pluripotent stem cells as a model to study human neuro-development and disease modeling. His thesis is focused on Alexander Disease, the only known disease of astrocytes. He is using patient derived induced pluripotent stem cells to understand how mutations in the glial fibrillary acidic protein impacts all neuronal function resulting in Alexander Disease.

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