Time Balance as a MD/PhD Student

Q (from ask.fm): As a MD/PhD student, do you have any time for yourself? For family and friends? To just take a break? I would like to do a MD/PhD program, but I want to enjoy my 20s…

A: Of course you have time! I fully want to enjoy my 20’s as well so even if I don’t feel like I have time, I MAKE time to enjoy it. When you’re in the graduate portion of your PhD, your free time is really based on how much your PI will push you (or how much you push yourself). It is an important consideration when you pick a lab. If the PI is understanding and aware that people are not robots who just work 24 hours a day to produce data, then you should be granted the time that you need. In fact, I’ve had PI’s tell me to go home because I’m in lab too late or I’m there on a weekend!

I actually just read a blog post today about this culture of pushing scientists too far (in response to a sad situation), and a particular quote from it stood out to me:

“The best (and more importantly, happiest) scientists I know are people who are interested in many things, who approach all aspects of their lives with engagement, purpose and openness.”

There seems to be a cultural shift away from pushing students too hard, which makes me glad. Obviously, we want to be successful and have a lot expected of us (which only increases as we progress through our careers), but we have to appreciate our own limits as well.

As someone who enjoys writing for fun, watching sports games, enjoying my weekend nights out with friends, going home to see family and friends (which requires an eight hour drive one way for me right now), playing musical instruments, and many more leisurely activities, I believe that doing so makes me better at what I do by keeping me happy and healthy. I believe that everyone can make time to have a life if they work hard enough to do so. Not only that, I also believe that they all SHOULD. It may take a little work to figure out how to balance everything, but it can be done and it is definitely worth it. As long as you find a program and an advisor that understands that you need to have a life outside of school, you will have the time that you need.

Getting research experience as an undergraduate/post-bacc student

Research is essential to advance our knowledge of the human body and to develop improved ways of treating diseases. Without the innovation of researchers, we still may be doing things like putting leeches on people to heal them of their illnesses or cutting holes in people’s heads to release “evil spirits” that were believed to be the cause of their ailments. To show your devotion to the medical field as a premed, you can get involved in research so that you can get a better understanding of how it is done and a better appreciation of the hard work that goes into the knowledge doctors use to diagnose and treat their patients.

So how do you actually go about getting involved in a research laboratory? If you go to a large research university like I did, it’s a little easier. You find professors that you’d be interested in working with from the university’s website and contact them asking if they’d be interested in taking on an undergraduate student. Your advisor will also be a good resource to contact for help with this. Expect to at least start off volunteering as putting money into an inexperienced undergraduate isn’t the most logical for someone working hard to maintain grants to fund their lab. Depending on the professor (also called the PI or primary investigator of the lab) they may ask you to take a directed research course to verify that you’ll spend enough time in the lab or they’ll at least expect you to be in the lab for a certain amount of time each week. Often, you’ll be paired with a graduate student or postdoctoral student who will be your mentor. You may just assist the student or once you’re more experienced you will get your own project that they will simply advise you about. If you don’t go to a large research university, you can still contact professors at your nearest university to see if they would be able to take you in their lab.

Also, keep your eyes and ears peeled for professors saying that they are looking for undergraduates for their labs. This is how I managed to land both of my research positions in undergrad. I found out about the first lab I worked in because the professor was a guest lecturer in my freshman genetics course. He began his presentation with talking about the importance of research for undergraduates and said that if any of us wanted experience, his lab was always willing to take more undergraduates. I emailed him the next day and he told me to come in and talk to his lab manager whenever I was ready to start work. I found out about the second lab I worked in from an email the professor had forwarded to the chemistry majors by our advisor that said she was looking for undergraduates. As this lab was in a more convenient location and was much closer to what I wanted to do, I jumped on the opportunity. Nonetheless, if you pick a lab this way, you may not be working on something that you would want to go into (like for me, genetic engineering of livestock, which I helped with in the first lab).

Another option is to apply for a Research Experiences for Undergraduates program, REU for short. These are summer research programs that let you to go to another school for 10 or so weeks to get full time research experience. The best part is that you get paid for it! To find more about these, search for “Research Experiences for Undergraduates” on your favorite university’s website or simply google it to find schools that are offering such programs. They are  highly prestigious programs that are highly competitive, so it is suggested that you apply to quite a few of them!

If you’ve graduated from college, there are still opportunities to get research experience without pursuing an advanced degree. One incredible opportunity that I wish I had known about before I applied to med school is the Post-baccalaureate Intramural Research Training Award (IRTA) offered by the NIH. This program is for college graduates who received their bachelor’s degrees less than two years prior to the date they begin the program who intend to apply to graduate or professional school during their tenure in the program. Essentially, the program consists of working in a primary investigator’s lab at one of the National Institutes of Health facilities. It has rolling admissions with just 10% or so admission rate, but it is a fabulous opportunity to try for! I applied in the late early spring of my senior year in case I didn’t get into medical school and had a PI contact me about working in his lab just a few weeks later. Unfortunately (or fortunately), I had been accepted to an MD/PhD program at that point, so such a backup plan was not needed. There’s a general application on the site, but it will help to contact PIs that you’re interested in working with to help you get into the program!

Surely there’s other places to get research experience such as individual study or at a hospital. When in doubt, your advisor is your best friend and can surely help you land a great research experience!


Featured image: Hanna Erickson