Life of a Grad Student: Fourth Year

Graduate Division

Student 1

Female, Parnassus

Tell me about your experience at UCSF so far. 

I’m in my fourth year of the nursing PhD program and it’s been an interesting trip.  I came in with a specific question or area, and now it is still the same area but with different questions. The coursework is good, but that’s just for the first two years. 

The second two years you’re sort of on your own, and that’s been a little lonely.  We’re a little bit less connected as a cohort, things are a little bit harder, and it’s harder to find support — but that’s just part of the PhD process.  You’re figuring things out as you go. 

From your first year to your fourth, have there been any changes in your attitude towards the program?

Sure.  I think you come in assuming that you’re going to get everything you need taught to you or fed to you, and then you’ll know what to do and you’ll be clear. It’s not really like that. The last two years of the program have been a lot more self-taught, but I think that’s because when you come into a PhD program it isn’t always clear what that really entails.  We come frequently to nursing from clinical backgrounds; the clinical Masters degrees that we get are very structured, and the PhD process isn’t structured — and it shouldn’t be.  You’re developing, you’re learning, you’re creating and they can’t make that structured because everybody needs different things.  So I feel that my view has changed because in the first two years I expected to be taught everything I needed, the third year I realized I didn’t have everything I needed, and the fourth year I realized that’s probably okay, because it was part of my job to figure out what I needed and to learn it myself. 

Are you in a lab? 

No, our research is not lab based.  Something we have found at UCSF is that nursing PhDs a lot of times will talk to people (about their program) and they will ask “what is that?” with a blank look on their face — and that’s fine!  Nursing research is different because it is both clinical and it’s social — it’s always combining those two. 

So we have the social sciences program (at UCSF) — medical social sciences — but they’re looking at things from a very sociologic perspective.  We aim for those perspectives at times but we need to be able to look at it with a clinical outcome — useful in some general way to the nursing knowledge body.  But nursing’s incredibly broad. We have people in our cohort who do bench research. We have people who do qualitative interviews with focus groups.  So it really depends — there’s a huge range of research in nursing.  It’s very similar to PhD programs in that you take some classes, but then you don’t go to a lab.  You set up your own studies — whether it’s recruiting and interviewing your own patients, or whether it’s secondary data analysis, but you’re asking a broader sociologic question that has medical and nursing implications. 

I think sometimes we in the nursing PhD program feel like we’re in this world where nobody really knows what we do — they think of us as clinicians, but we’re sitting here doing research that isn’t all bedside — it isn’t all monitor based.  A lot of it is about experience, about prevention of medical problems — spanning what should be medicine and what should be sociology — and we have our fingers in every pie. 

Is your current experience what you expected it to be? 

No, and I think that was partly because none of us know what the PhD experience is supposed to be until we’re in it.   I expected it to be farther along, maybe asking a different question, but I’m ok with where it is. 

Any obstacles that you’ve had to overcome

Funding is tricky in nursing.  In a lot of other PhD programs you get taken under the wing of somebody, and you’re included in their lab, and some of your cost is covered, and it doesn’t really work that way for us.  We have mentors and advisors, but you have to find your own funding or pay out of pocket. 

The other thing that’s different about us is that a lot of nursing PhD students enter the program later [in life] because we practice clinically for a while.  And that’s not technically a requirement — we now have a lot of people going straight from their bachelors or a masters into the PhD program — but in general there’s this clinical time period that makes us come into the program a bit later, so often we have kids, are married or have mortgages.  So the loss of income that the PhD requires is a huge barrier for some people, and I think that’s another thing that sort of separates us and makes us less visible — we can’t really go to things like Trivia Night — we have to go home and take care of our families.   

In some ways that makes it a bit trickier.  For me, I’m not married and I don’t have kids yet, so it hasn’t been quite as bad, but I have had to quit my full-time nursing work, which is a nice wage, and go back to living the way I did as an undergraduate student, eating ramen noodles and things like that, and searching for my own money. 

I actually applied for NIH funding, and a lot of us applied for fellowships and training grants, and that’s a huge undertaking. I’m not sure that everybody does that, but it’s all in the Ph. D. program at UCSF.  There’s sort of a funding issue that’s been a little overwhelming at times.  And some people just choose to continue to work full time while they’re in the Ph. D. program, and then it takes them much longer. 

So I feel like there are some implications about the way that funding is given in the university overall.  You want people to be able to finish, and you want them to be able to finish in a reasonable amount of time so that their lifetime as productive researchers is greater.  I’m in my 30s.  Some people are entering in their 40s or 50s — they have maybe 10 years, maybe 20 or 30.  But if you spend 10 years getting your Ph. D. now your functional productive lifespan is much shorter. 

A sociology Ph. D. student told me that while you don’t want to be here forever, you do want to be here as long as you need to be here.  And that’s also a funding issue — if you can only get funding for five years, you’re forced to finish in five years.  You may need seven to be the best researcher that you could be, and if that’s not available, then you’re stuck.  So some of us are finishing too slowly and some of us are finishing too quickly, and it’s all related to funding. 

What advice do you have for students starting out?

Form tight groups from the beginning and stay in contact with people. Living nearby and having friends in The City has really been helpful. Being able to get help, hang out, have emotional and moral support — those have all been important things.  You have to form your own support network.  Make sure your advisor is a good fit.  In our program you don’t go into a lab necessarily, but sometimes (advisors are) your only lifeline.  Also, make sure you’ve thought about the monetary implications. 

Student 2



Tell me about your experience at UCSF so far. 

It’s been good. I’ve learned a lot. I’ve grown as a scientist, and I’ve met a lot of great people.  Not to say it’s been without its troubles, but overall it’s been positive. 

How is your current lab experience different from what you expected going in? 

I feel like when I was rotating, I maybe didn’t pick up on the interpersonal dynamics as much.  To be fair, I didn’t know if that was a fault of my own because when you’re rotating you’re balancing classes, you’re learning new techniques and stuff, but I feel like that’s been the most interesting thing to kind of adjust to. 

I’m not in a huge lab, and I’m also not in a tiny lab. I’m in a medium-sized lab and I feel like if you get that many people working that closely together there are going to be personality conflicts.  So learning to deal with that has been the most different from what I expected.  Also, the lab I was in [before] coming to grad school science-wise was a little different.  Now I’ve had to deal with science just not working, and trying to figure out why. I don’t think I had to do nearly as much of that in my previous lab. 

Are there any specific obstacles that you’ve had to overcome?

There have been nitty-gritty science ones.  We’ve been wanting to answer this one question so we go about it this way, but we just can’t do it this way, so we go about it this way — but we can’t do that either.  I think my biggest obstacle has been doing this science — stuff’s not working and I’m not quite sure why and things just keep piling up, which is grad school, right? 

Any advice for grad students or those thinking about grad school?

In my first year I was kind of afraid to talk to a lot of faculty.  But most of the people here are nice and want to help you, so don’t be afraid to talk to them.  At the same time, make friends with upper years because they can help you. 

It’s awesome hanging out with your class because you’re all going through the same thing, but knowing upper years helps because they’ve been through what you’re going through and if you get multiple people’s opinions on what’s worked for them, you can figure out what would work for you.  They can also get you the inside scoop on which faculty to not have on a committee, for example, or which faculty members are easier to approach. 

And if you’re considering grad school, just be sure this is what you really want to do.  Talk to someone in the third or fourth, or even fifth, year of grad school — someone going through the “slump.”  It’s important to hear what they have to say to make an informed decision.

Also, make friends outside of grad school.  I have hobbies and things that I do where I hang out with people with whom I can’t talk about work because they won’t have a freaking clue about what I’m talking about.  I’ll say “oh, I did this really cool thing,” and they’re like “oh, that’s neat,” and that’s as far as I can go.  It’s nice to have a life outside of lab. 

Editor's Note: Although no two grad experiences are identical, there are many common threads that simply aren’t verbalized. In this new "Life of a Grad Student" column, we hope to illuminate some of these similarities. Grad students from all walks of life and all stages of their education have agreed to anonymously, candidly speak with us. They’ve shared stories about the difficulties they’ve encountered as well as the great passions driving their work. We hope to highlight the incredible people working in UCSF laboratories.