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By Christiana Crook | November 14, 2019
Christiana Crook | City of Hope Christiana Crook
During the past few years, I’ve talked with family members, friends, and acquaintances about being a graduate student in a biology program. From these conversations, I’ve found that there are a lot of assumptions people make about graduate students and scientists. These are the top five misconceptions I’ve heard about being a science-based graduate student.

1. We have a schedule of classes, just like in college.

This is true on some level. During the first year of City of Hope’s PhD program, students spend half of our time on classwork and studies. However, the other half of our time is spent in the laboratory; after the first year, time spent in the laboratory increases to virtually 100%. The overall dynamic of a science-based graduate program is different from that of a college campus. Learning takes place at the laboratory bench instead of in a classroom. We are trying to add more knowledge to the scientific field through our experiments, which isn’t something that can be found in a textbook or taught in a lecture.

2. We know exactly what we are studying for our dissertation.

Science is unpredictable. We may have an idea of the process or pathway we want to investigate, but who knows if next week we’ll read a paper that has published exactly what we were going to study? Six months from now, what if we analyze our data and conclude that something needs to be added, removed, or changed entirely? These scenarios are not infrequent in science (just ask any scientist who’s been in the field for any substantial length of time), and there is a 100% chance that they will continue to happen. The only question lies in if, or when, it will happen to you.

3. We know when we’re going to graduate.

How many times have you been asked, “So, how many more years in the program do you have?” Science doesn’t work on a linear schedule: experiments may work and we might be making a lot of progress, or, more often, we slog along for months with not much to show for our efforts until we receive a burst of inspiration and figure out everything (or at least some things) all at once. My answer to this question is usually along the lines of “Oh, at least a few more years.” Two years, three years, ten years, who knows? (Well, hopefully not ten years!)

4. We know what we’re going to do with our PhD.

This assumption used to bug me a lot, primarily because I still don’t know what I’m going to do after I graduate. After a while, though, I started to realize that a scientist with a PhD isn’t limited to professorships or a lifetime spent doing bench work. PhD scientists can also be writers, entrepreneurs, policy-makers, or advisors (to name a few). There are so many science-based jobs out there that we simply may not know about our dream job yet. Just because we are in the process of earning a PhD in science doesn’t mean that we have the rest of our lives figured out.

5. We’re going to singlehandedly cure cancer/reverse diabetes/find the solution for world peace.

Science is always revealing new understanding and ideas to researchers. However, these revelations require a lot of people and a lot of time. One student’s dissertation may provide insight into step 14 of a pathway composed of 31 steps, and the next student may investigate step 15. One laboratory may elucidate the mechanism of a disease-causing pathway, and another laboratory may work on engineering an antibody for a critical receptor protein in that pathway. Science is a team effort, not a solo pursuit. It is also a marathon, not a sprint. One graduate student can (and hopefully will) make a small contribution to the field as a whole, but expecting one of us to solve a problem that thousands of scientists have been investigating for decades just isn’t realistic.
The bottom line is that science has a lot to offer, but it also comes with a lot of uncertainty. The rest of the world might not understand this, but hopefully we, as graduate students in biology, can help those around us understand these misconceptions and give them a more accurate glimpse into our world.