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The Value of Time Away from the Bench

I love graduate school. I use genetics and cell biology to study the mechanisms by which cells change their shape in response to chemical cues. In any given day, I might delete a gene to learn more about its function, make time-lapse movies of growing cells, analyze patterns of protein localization, teach a new technique to an undergraduate student, discuss a paper with my advisor, or summarize data into a presentation for a departmental seminar. It’s slow and detailed work, but it’s also a good fit for my personality.

It’s also extremely hard. There are many reasons for this, but I want to highlight two. First, graduate students in the biomedical sciences encounter lots and lots of failure. Biological systems are notoriously variable, and so some experiments never work consistently. Those that do work must be repeated several times before we can be confident of a result. And, of course, sometimes we discover, after lots of time at the bench, that our hypothesis was incorrect. That’s a useful outcome, but it rarely leads to a publication, which we all need to graduate. Complicating this further, during our first few years in graduate school, most of us are surrounded by people whose skills are far more advanced than our own – experienced lab technicians, senior graduate students, postdoctoral fellows, and, of course, our own advisors. The fitful nature of progress in science, coupled with our junior status, can shatter our self-confidence and lead us to wonder if getting a Ph.D. was really a good idea after all. And the slow pace of the work (and often, the example of our mentors and lab mates) can lead us to feel that we need to be constantly at the bench.

Last spring, I found an opportunity that sounded interesting: spend three hours a day learning about a new topic for one or two weeks over the summer through Duke’s new Summer Doctoral Academy initiative. I’d long been curious about science policy, and I thought that understanding how policymakers make decisions about science (including funding) might be valuable, especially if I stay in academia. I’d considered taking a class, but I was hesitant to commit to an entire semester-long course outside my specific discipline. I thought a Doctoral Academy class might be a low-risk way to try out something new: it would meet for only three hours a day, which would leave me plenty of time in the lab. Importantly, my advisor supports my exploring topics that I find interesting or otherwise valuable, even if they aren’t directly related to my thesis research. So I signed up for two classes – “Science Policy” during the first week and “Effective Presentations” during the second.

The courses themselves were great: I got a solid introduction to each topic, insight into resources at Duke if I want to explore anything more deeply, and a larger professional and social network (including both course instructors and other graduate students). But the best value was one I could not have predicted: the Doctoral Academy allowed me, for a few hours, to step away from the bench and its demands to see how much I’ve developed intellectually as a graduate student. I was gratified to recognize those nebulous-sounding “transferable skills” in critical thinking, problem-solving, and effective communication in my class participation. My focus on my dissertation research had made it impossible for me to notice how much I had gained. For perhaps the first time, I began to see the value of the Ph.D. outside of the very narrow contribution that I hope to make to the scientific literature.

Far from being a distraction from my work, my experience with the Doctoral Academy has clarified the value of graduate school and increased my enthusiasm for it. I would encourage any Ph.D. student who is curious about a course to participate. You will certainly learn something about a new topic, but you might also, like me, learn something new about yourself.