Grad School Grindhouse

The new semester swings right back around. My bike ride to the gym now passes frat houses filled with burly blokes in vests & flip-flops, lounging on their porches to gangsta rap. If I get a craving for bad Mexican-style food at 11pm I only need to walk to the student centre to sort myself out.

This semester will be less hectic. There are no classes that I need to take any more. My teaching assignment is lighter: the lab I’m overseeing is a specialist one that only the more-experienced science students can take.

The main spectre looming on the horizon is my qualifying exams. In the US PhD system the 1st & 2nd year PhDs are more like Masters-level students (in that they do coursework and attend compulsory seminars) – the qualifying exams (AKA ‘Quals’) are what allows the PhD students to advance to ‘PhD Candidacy’. Once you’re a PhD candidate you have done all your coursework and can become a full-time researcher. At our university the Quals are divided into 2 parts, one per semester. They are less intimidating than the Quals at other universities – but there is an oral knowledge exam that can get quite dicey. I would like to avoid messing them up.

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My research is humming away at a constant tempo. In previous ‘researcher’ incarnations I have been given a single-stream project: develop 1 new reaction, get to Compound C in a total synthesis, make X series of analogues for pharmacological testing. Right now I’m dealing with a more challenging thesis-esque beast: poke around within the loosely defined parameters of a particular subfield (in this case, asymmetric organocatalysis)…and we’ll publish the nice findings as we uncover them.

At times this can be really frustrating as I struggle to balance up all the threads I’m working on. When do I stop to really sink my teeth into a particular reaction? When do I explore broadly? Can I sense which of my strands is going to yield publishable data quickest? In asymmetric organocatalysis, the watershed for “publishable data” is a reaction with >90 %ee (%ee is a quantitative measure of how asymmetric a reaction is, with 99 %ee being the best possible value). When a reaction gets above 70 %ee it probably means that it is publishable with enough fine-tuning…but getting the %ee up to the 70-90 range is the hardest part.

Project management is a bitch, but I feel that I’m currently focussing on the right things. My big fear is that an asymmetric reaction will resist all attempts at optimisation – that I will get stuck at something like 60 %ee and not be able to break past that.

What keeps me going? The thought that gets me out of bed in the morning, that calms me to sleep at night is that if I work hard I’ll get more publications within the next academic year. A publication is solid proof of scientific competence; the currency of academic research. I would need a minimum of two first-author publications to get my PhD – in my subfield 4 or 5 first-author papers prior to the PhD defence is do-able. I already have one first-authorship, it brought a lot of calm and security with it. I hope to build upon that.

Last academic year was a productive one. I’m hoping the same will be true of this.

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