Is it too late to go back to graduate school?

May 19, 2007 at 8:52 pm (Life before med school)

I mentioned earlier that before coming to medical school I used to be in a graduate student in engineering. I went to a highly ranked school and worked in one of its top labs. When I was interviewing for a research position with this group, one of the associate directors told me that they were among the best in the world in their field. Naturally, I was excited about joining a group that pulled in nearly $5 million a year in funding. Unfortunately, I realized soon after arriving that everything was not as it seemed.

We had so much money because so many professors were lumped together in this group. We had multiple labs where anyone—from undergrad to post-doc to janitor—was free to come and go as wanted. We ran into several problems with this mentality. The first was that we had no accountability. A person could make a mess in a lab and then leave because the support staff (i.e., me!) never knew who the culprits were. I got tired of baby sitting 30-year-olds who would mix acids and organic solvents together not knowing that they were creating bombs. I’m all for building weapons and blowing stuff up. But if you don’t know that putting multiple chemicals together is a safety hazard, you shouldn’t be let out of high school.

The next major issue was the director of our research center. He did some pretty big research in the past and earned a spot on the National Academy of Engineering. Unfortunately, there seemed to be an inverse relationship between his people skills and his laboratory skills. For example, when I arrived, he had been director for 10 years and was currently on his 11th secretary. If that doesn’t scream, “Run!” then I don’t know what does.

During meetings he routinely insulted students, called their research “crap”—seriously, from a 50-year-old man—and constantly yelled at us to work more. I felt like the horse in Animal Farm: I will work harder. By the end of my first year, I was putting in 60 hours of work each week, even though I was originally hired to work 30.

Our director had everyone scared. People furiously scrambled to get as much done during the week as the could. Many of us came in on weekends to run experiments. Every week, each student was expected to give a presentation on the progress of his experiment. Therefore, I had to spend one afternoon a week creating a PowerPoint presentation when I could have been working in the lab. Therefore, I had to spend additional time at work so I could finish everything.

The moment he went out of town, we all took a sigh of relief and many people went on vacation. In fact, our director went out of town quite a bit throughout the year. He was gone so much to various conferences that he eventually lost track of what was happening in the labs. Although we gave him progress updates via our PowerPoint presentations, he hadn’t actually stepped foot in a lab in nearly three years. He ran no experiments of his own, yet by virtue of being the director, his name appeared on every paper that the center published. In fact, he was a co-author on several papers that he never even heard of. He taught me a very simple rule: he who works the least, gets the most notoriety.

Coupled with his ignorance of experiments was his arrogance that he didn’t actually know things outside of his field. For some strange reason, he one day decided that we should move into bio. Before that, I had been modeling the oxidation of gold surfaces. Now, I needed to run animal experiments.

The result was a disaster. We were laughed out of every conference we attended. I didn’t know what apoptosis was until I got to medical school, yet we somehow mentioned “apoptosis” in every presentation and poster we gave. We tried forming ties with researchers in the medical community to give credibility to our work. Unfortunately, our director treated the Ph.D.’s in the medical community much the same he treated students. Before long, almost every outsider dropped off of our project. We were left in the same position we had started almost a year prior—no results and no clue of where to go next.

During the spring of 2005 I graduated with my masters and immediately fled the university. I was gone never to return. When I was offered a chance to stay on for a Ph.D., I balked and said that I would never come back.

I mention this story because even though grad school was hell for me, I think that I was treated with more respect there than I have been in medical school. When I went through my M.S. program, I met students in other labs who were happy with their advisers. To date, I have never met anyone who hasn’t been treated like a child by medical schools. Sometimes I wonder: is it too late to go back to graduate school?



  1. ProtonDense said,

    Nice post Half
    Reading your story brought me back to my research lab I worked at prior to MD school. My experience doesn’t sound quite as bad as yours, however similar in many regards. I was so excited to get out and into med school only to realize the abuse was only about to begin. Sad but true. To all you Phd’s who look down on MD’s as glorified plumbers etc,… You know you are out there because I was one of you. Let me say this. You have no idea

  2. idcrossroads said,

    Nice post. I like your writing. I’m going to blogroll you, if you don’t mind.
    I have a friend who actually finished her PhD, and THEN went to med school. She always said that grad school life was more flexible and encouraged thinking and questioning things. It was a real culture shock to her in med school. Also, she really liked her lab, but she didn’t think she could do that for a living. Anyways, hang in there. Med school sucks, the only good thing about it were the friends I met. Try to make the best of it. It gets better.

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