The fourth Season of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke’s Building Up the Nerve podcast, where we discuss the unwritten rules, or “hidden curriculum,” of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we're here to help—it's our job!
In episode 4, we talk about succeeding in graduate school, including finding mentorship, performing research, and applying for funding.
Featuring Maya Gosztyla, Ph.D. Candidate, The University of California San Diego; Cellas Hayes, Postdoctoral fellow, Stanford University; and Shekinah Phillips, Ph.D. Candidate, University of Alabama at Birmingham.
Transcript available at http://ninds.buzzsprout.com/.
[00:00:00] Lauren Ullrich: Welcome to Season 4 of the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Strokes Building Up the Nerve, where we discuss the unwritten rules, or "hidden curriculum" of scientific research at every career stage. We know that navigating your career can be daunting, but we're here to help. It's our job.
Hi, I'm Lauren Ullrich, a program director at NINDS.
[00:00:25] Marguerite Matthews: And I'm Marguerite Matthews, a program director at NINDS. And we're your hosts today.
[00:00:31] Lauren Ullrich: Last episode, we discussed choosing and applying for graduate school. Today we're gonna talk about succeeding in graduate school, including finding mentorship, performing research, and applying for funding.
And there's a lot to unpack here, so I'm really excited to talk to our guests today. [music]
[00:00:49] Marguerite Matthews: Joining us today are Maya Gosztyla, Dr. Cellas Hayes, and Shekinah Phillips. Let's start with introductions.
[00:01:02] Maya Gosztyla: So, hi, I'm Maya. Thank you for having me today. I am a fourth year PhD candidate in biomedical sciences at the University of California San Diego. I work in Gene Yeo's lab, which is an RNA biology lab.
And so I'm interested in, um, a family of proteins that bind to RNA and especially their role in, um, human diseases, especially a rare disease called myotonic dystrophy that I'm very interested in. And when I'm not in the lab, I really enjoy doing aerial acrobatics classes like silks and lyra. It's a lot of fun for me.
[00:01:35] Lauren Ullrich: I love that.
[00:01:36] Cellas Hayes: Hey, thanks for having me. My name is Cellas Hayes and I'm a postdoctoral fellow and Propel scholar at Stanford University in the Department of Neurology and Neurological Sciences. I'm in Beth Mormino's lab, and my research interests include understanding how cerebrovascular disease risk factors and vascular pathology interacts with neurodegenerative disorders.
Outside of lab, my hobbies are tennis and mentoring the next generation.
[00:02:03] Shekinah Phillips: Hello everyone. Thank you for inviting me to this awesome podcast. my name is Shekinah Phillips. I'm a fourth year PhD candidate in the neuroscience department at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, where I'm in the lab of Dr. Lori McMahon. And I study a protein modification called O-GlcNAcylation and how it affects, uh, GABA A receptors in the presence of phosphorylation and drugs of abuse in the hippocampus.
So my study is just understanding the relationship, between GABA A receptors and O-GlcNAc and using, electrophysiology techniques to potentially identify new targets for drug development and improve, treatments for brain disorders like epilepsy, anxiety, and even diabetes where, um, there imbalances in inhibitory neuro transmission and O-GlcNAcylation.
Uh, outside of the lab. I love singing at church. And I love binge watching all kinds of TV drama series, like Snowfall, Succession, Yellowstone, anything.
[00:03:04] Marguerite Matthews: Oh, I loved Snowfall.
[00:03:06] Shekinah Phillips: Yes.
[00:03:06] Marguerite Matthews: Uh, so sad to see it end.
[00:03:08] Shekinah Phillips: I know. So sad. [music]
[00:03:14] Marguerite Matthews: So when you all started grad school, did you do rotations? And if so, what were you looking for in a lab or an advisor and where did you end up and why?
[00:03:25] Cellas Hayes: I did not do rotations. I got my bachelor's at the University of Mississippi and my PhD. So I was already in the lab for three years. I started as a sophomore and me and my PI Nicole Ashpole really got along. Um, and I also didn't think I would thrive anywhere else as much as I would there, so that's why I chose to stay.
But in general for all students, there's no rotations. You interview with a specific professor and either they say yes or no for being their trainee.
[00:03:57] Shekinah Phillips: So, for our graduate school program, we are required to take at least three rotations. So I did three rotations, but coming into, uh, graduate school I had in my mind that I did not wanna do electrophysiology, um, 'cause it was just something that I just felt like I wasn't equipped to do. [laughter]
[00:04:16] Marguerite Matthews: I can relate.
[00:04:18] Shekinah Phillips: [laughs] Um, but, um, as far as a mentor, I knew I wanted to be in a lab environment that fostered safety, where, everyone in the lab had respect for each other, supported each other because I knew that graduate school was gonna be challenging and I needed to be in a supportive environment. And so, um, as far as lab culture, that's what I was looking for.
Um, and for a mentor, I wanted someone who would meet me where I was at and really push me to my fullest potential and help foster a sense of independence, when it came to my projects, but also, um, someone who was, able to guide me along the way when I faced any difficulties, when it came to my project and just what were some courses of action to take when I faced those, challenges.
And so, once I rotated in my current lab, which is Dr. Laurie McMahon, and she does Ephys. And so, uh, it kind of came to a point where I found everything that I needed in a lab. I found everything that I needed in my mentor, um, even though it was a technique that I was like terrified to do, I really had to just conquer my fears and say: you know what? This is the best place for me and I'm gonna learn ephys, and I need to just hone in on those skills and try to thrive in this environment. And so, I know oftentimes people try to choose a lab based on technique. Um, but I chose it based on the culture, the mentorship, and where I felt safe, where I felt supported, um, and where I felt heard.
And I found that in my lab, even though I'm doing a technique that I thought I wasn't capable of doing.
[00:05:53] Marguerite Matthews: So, are you trash at electrophys or nah?
[00:05:56] Shekinah Phillips: I'm not trashing it. I love Ephys. Ephys is the best thing. I'm a supporter. I Stan for it, you know, but coming in I was just like, "I don't wanna do this. Like, this is the worst thing ever."
And then once I got into a lab and like had people teach me the technique and they were patient with me, I was like, "oh, this is, I like this." Um, so now I love it. I'm not trashing it, no. [ laughter]
[00:06:22] Marguerite Matthews: I was really asking if you were trash at it, but I like that answer.
[00:06:26] Shekinah Phillips: Oh! No, for a year I was trash at it. Like it was, it was bad, y'all. It, [laughs] it took me a minute to like, get a cell every time. Now I can, like, I can get a cell.
[00:06:37] Marguerite Matthews: That's dope.
[00:06:37] Shekinah Phillips: But woo, in the beginning it was, it was rough. It was terrible.
[00:06:41] Lauren Ullrich: We'll come back to that, I think later, right? It's like that, that hard part, like how do you push through the hard part of graduate school, but let's put a pin in that.
Um, Maya, what about you?
[00:06:52] Maya Gosztyla: Sure. So I did three rotations as well. I actually was planning to do some more rotations, but that was right when COVID hit. So I decided that was not the ideal time to continue rotating, so all of the labs were closed down. Um, so yeah, when I was rotating, I didn't have a super strong research interest in mind.
I was pretty broadly interested in just biology and the brain and human disease. Um, so like Shekinah, I was definitely prioritizing finding a lab that had a good culture, people seemed to like each other and be happy and have hobbies. I also ended up joining a very large lab, which was something I, um, wanted going in as well. I kind of like the, um, both the social aspect of getting to meet a lot of different people, from many different backgrounds in a big lab. And I also like how generally in a big lab there's just a little bit more space and independence just because there's so many people the PI can't necessarily micromanage everyone even if they wanted to.
So, um, it's like definitely something that some people really don't like and some people really do. So I think it's a good idea when you're rotating to maybe try out a few different sizes of labs because the type of mentorship and type of collaboration you get in different size labs can be very different.
[00:08:05] Marguerite Matthews: That's a great point.
[00:08:06] Lauren Ullrich: Definitely. You know, this podcast's all about the sort of hidden curriculum and the things that you wish you knew. So especially in the first few years, did you really understand what was expected of you? I'm thinking about things like balancing coursework and research, passing your comprehensive exams, like, knowing what all the different program milestones were. How did you find out what was expected of you and do you feel like you kind of knew what was going on, or you were just a little bit at sea?
[00:08:38] Cellas Hayes: I'll be the first to admit I was so naive. I had no idea what was expected of me. 'Cause I kind of was functioning as like an RA for three years in the lab and just doing experiments, never having to essentially write anything except an abstract or something I was gonna present. So I was completely naive of like, I thought once I got in, that was it. They'll just do a couple years and I'm done. But no, then it was like, oh, I got classes and experiments at the same time. Oh, I have a qualifying exam, I have a prospectus and then I gotta defend?
So it was overwhelming, um, but I'm like a very, I guess strategic planner and very type A personality. So within the first, I guess six months kind of everything was planned out as far as the next four or five years. And it ended up not being four or five years, so it kinda worked out for me, but I had no expectations. And I think that's a lot of what people go through. They don't understand like getting fellowships, the qualifying exam, and then how many classes you actually have to take, um, and all of that.
[00:09:43] Lauren Ullrich: And was that something like in the program handbook or your mentor was telling you these things or your peers?
[00:09:50] Cellas Hayes: I'll say mentor because, our program is largely like international student based. So like even them coming from overseas, like their first time in the US is usually like two or three days before classes start as first years. So none of us knew anything coming in. So it was rough that first year. And then of course, like as a first year, I'm not gonna read the handbook like I didnt. [laughter] So I can admit that.
[00:10:15] Marguerite Matthews: The truth comes out. [laughter]
[00:10:16] Cellas Hayes: The truth, I didn't read the handbook didn't touch it, didn't find it until like my third year. I think my PI like, was like, okay, year two, this is what you have to do. So I think she laid it out more so in a simplistic form and I was like, okay, this is what I need to start preparing for six months, a year ahead.
[00:10:34] Shekinah Phillips: Yeah, I, I kind of can piggyback on what Cellas said as well. Um, I came in naive. I actually left medical school to come to graduate school, and so that transition of, studying was very different.
Um, so having to manage that [cough] and then having classes on top of experiments was just really hard. But I'm also very Type A, so immediately I like went online to see what are the requirements to graduate, what are the milestones that we have to hit? So I had like an Excel sheet, it was color coded, you know, sat down with my mentor and was like, here this is the plan, talking through experiments. And so I think in the beginning, definitely very naive, did not know what was going on. But once I was able to come up with a plan, and I think we used the IDP as well, um, talking through that with my, uh, PI and figuring out, just the milestones that I have to hit, um, throughout the program, that gave me a sense of security and kept me on top of things to make sure that I was like doing everything I needed to do to progress through the program.
[00:11:38] Lauren Ullrich: And for our listeners, IDP is an individual development plan, and we talked about it a lot last season in our mentoring season.
[00:11:47] Maya Gosztyla: Yeah, I definitely agree with Cellas and Shekinah that I think I, like most people, had really no idea what to expect going into graduate school.
I think for me the biggest kind of thing that wasn't expected was how hard it is to know if you're doing well or not in graduate school, like, unlike an undergrad, there's not really a lot of grades; at least in my field the classes aren't super important in graduate school.
Um, and there also aren't a lot of milestones in my program. It's kind of just, you know, good luck, try to graduate within six years. So it's just hard to know along the way if you're doing well and like what it even means to do well in graduate school. So I think that was a big hurdle for me to figure out is defining what, like what do I want to get out of graduate school, what are my goals, and then what are kind of the goals that others have for me as well, like my PI and my program.
Um, and those have actually evolved a lot over time. I don't think my goals are even the same now as they were during my first year. But just having some kind of evolving structure of, you know, big picture, what am I trying to accomplish today? What am I trying to accomplish next year? Has been really helpful for me to kind of guide what I'm doing day to day.
[00:12:50] Marguerite Matthews: How did you go about finding your thesis committees? And were you looking for specific people to be on the committee? Did you have guidance from your advisor or did you take it upon yourself to find people with the right discipline and expertise to sit on that committee?
[00:13:08] Shekinah Phillips: As far as, uh, finding a committee, my project kind of spilled over from a previous graduate student. So I connected with them to kind of see who was on their committee. And I also, wanted someone who was an electrophysiology expert so that they'll be able to, answer questions that were in alignment with my techniques. Um, I also wanted, someone who wasn't quite familiar with ephys at all, so that they could ask me questions that someone who has no idea what ephys is and what these techniques require.
So that I can answer the question in a way that wasn't super jargony, but in a way where anyone could understand exactly what I was doing. Um, I also connected with my PI to kind of figure out who would be best equipped on my committee who would kind of challenge me, but also support me.
Um, I think initially when I was thinking about a committee, I thought it was just a group of people who would just give me an exam or charge me with questions, not really understanding that they're there to support me along the way. It's not just a committee that meets with me for my qualifying exam and my defense, but really it's a panel of colleagues who I can go to and ask for help when I'm facing challenges.
Um, so that's really what I was looking for. People who were experts in my field, people who weren't really experts in my field, and then also a group of people who can support me along the way.
[00:14:40] Cellas Hayes: I think for me, um, I chose mine really, I guess strategically, so I kind of deviated from the lab focus and designed a whole project on something that no one in the department did, and it was stroke research. So even though we did like genetic models and behavior, no one knew how to like actually induce strokes and look at different outcomes. So from, I guess day one, if we're talking about, I guess hidden gems of graduate school, from day one, I started designing basically my dissertation of what I wanted to do for the next three or four years, to also set me up to apply for a fellowship and publish papers.
So year one I worked on a lit review. And one of the mentors for the lit review, she was an instructor in the School of Pharmacy, so she ended up, being on my committee because she had helped strengthen my scientific writing even though she didn't actively do research. But, I felt like she would be instrumental in me writing and the next three or four years of graduate school.
And then the other way I went around is I chose somebody that had like a vascular aging component and then a professor that had had a really good history of getting grant funding. And was also really good at statistics. And then the last person I chose was actually someone from Boston University, served as as my external member, which I found through an external program, NSP, which is sponsored through NINDS and SfN.
So yeah. he actually was helping me and then I asked the department can he serve as my external member, even though he isn't a professor at the University of Mississippi. So I kinda chose things that I knew I would be weak in, uh, that way I could go to each person individually and get advice all throughout graduate school, not just every six months at a committee meeting.
[00:16:27] Marguerite Matthews: So wise.
[00:16:28] Maya Gosztyla: Yeah, in my case, my program is a little unusual in that we have what we call a minor prop, which is kind of like a mini version of the candidacy exam. So the minor prop is end of second year and candidacy exam is usually end of third, beginning of fourth year. And the kind of nice thing about that is it gives you a chance to like try out committee members and you can change who's on your committee between minor prop and candidacy, which I think is a very handy option, I think more programs should maybe do something like that. In my case they worked out that I really liked everyone who was on my minor prop and I kept them all for my candidacy exam. I was mostly looking for people who had, um, both, like, subject matter expertise that kind of like, you know, was different from each other.
Each one provided something new, but also kind of having different personalities I think is helpful. Like, for example, I think it's good to have at least one committee member who is like really pushing you to be like the most rigorous you can be, you know, do the best science you can be. Um, but sometimes it's also good to have another person who's like a little more practical.
Like, you know, this person needs to graduate in a certain time period. Maybe they don't need to do every single experiment, that like, would be perfect. Um, and so I think it's good to have like different kind of styles of mentorship and different personalities to balance each other out, just to make sure that you're not like only doing the maximum number of experiments for everything when in some cases good enough is good enough.
Um, so that was helpful for me to have people who mentor differently and who kind of see science differently.
[00:17:54] Marguerite Matthews: But was that driven from you or was that based on feedback or advice you got from other people?
[00:18:01] Maya Gosztyla: I think it was mostly from me. I feel like most of the advice I got from people was just to look at subject matter, and I definitely think subject matter is important.
But I also talked to some grad students who took longer to graduate than you would like. And sometimes having the wrong balance of committee members can be a reason for that. If people just all are constantly making demands on things you should do in order for them to let you graduate, it can really extend your timeline to graduation, which makes a big difference.
So that, you know, graduating in a timely manner is something that's important to me. And so I really wanted to make sure I didn't just have subject matter contributions, but that I also had kind of practical advice for finishing grad school.
[00:18:40] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah. That's a great point 'cause especially when you, when you think about, um, that timeliness of graduation, it sometimes can be the mentor that's keeping you there and the committee is the force that can push back and say, "no, you know, they're ready. You need to let, you need to let go." So, I really like that, um, that framing of like, not just thinking about the science, but also like the personality and, and sort of all these different dimensions of balancing out on the committee.
So something we touched on earlier, which is this idea, you know, life as a graduate student, it's very self-driven, right? You're working on problems that have never been solved before. There's often a high failure rate, and there's always more to do. So, that can lead to burnout and this sort of constant work, right? So what are your survival tips for time management, avoiding burnout, how do you establish boundaries? Sort of how do you know what is flexible and what is not?
Sometimes experiments just need to be done on the weekend, right? You're treating an animal every single day. You gotta come in and sometimes there is more wiggle room. So, do you have any, um, advice for our listeners on that topic?
[00:19:55] Cellas Hayes: I think from looking, comparing me to my peers, um, just different personalities, what I've seen, what takes people longer is lack of planning. So me and my PI ended up starting doing every morning, like 10, 15 minute check-in of what I was gonna accomplish that day. And then at the end of the day, either you got it done or not. And that kinda helped me and forced me to think about what I was gonna do the next day, the next day, the next day.
And even at a long term, because it was like I didn't wanna work on the weekends, so it was like, let me strategize, like either just do this Sunday through Wednesday training and that way we hit the test phase on Friday and then other people, it's like, they just kind do it and then they ended up there all weekend for 12, 15 hours.
I think the other thing that forced me as far as time management, I had my first kid my second year of grad school and I was 22 and then I had the second one my third year going into the fourth year. So I was 24. So having two kids, it kind of forced me to like work in a condensed amount of hours and it was either eight to one or 2 or 3:00 PM and I realized like if I didn't, I guess play around as much or take a one hour lunch break, if I ate like something small, I could get that same amount of work done instead of chilling. Or, as I'm walking from my car to the lab, okay, what am I doing today? Instead of waiting to get at my desk and write down the notes of, ok, this is what I'm doing today.
So just maximizing your time efficiency . Cause you can kind of condense an eight to five day into an eight to one if you really wanted to for most things.
[00:21:35] Shekinah Phillips: Yeah. I agree with that as well. For me, I'm a morning person. I like to get up early ,and be efficient with my time, so I would always often just map out my day as well. Um, get in at 8:00 AM and I would try to leave by 5:00 PM the latest, and try to get my experiments done between Monday to Friday because I like the weekends.
I feel like the weekends are a great time for me to regroup, to rest, to do reading or do things outside of work. And so, um, burnout is real. I wanted to make sure that, throughout the week I have just some type of structure as far as time.
And also just meeting with my PI. We meet once a week and so really talking through my progress, all the experiments I've gotten done and what I need to get done for the rest of that week.
So really, um, I map out my days, map out my time, try to come in early and leave at a decent time. And just really use the weekends as "me time" to really regroup and do things that I enjoy doing so that Monday when I get back into lab, I can just start back up again.
[00:22:44] Cellas Hayes: I think also to chime in on that, um, having a good PI that changes like the culture of the lab based on the student. So my PI in grad school was not a morning person, but me and Miguel, which was the other grad student in the lab. We are definitely morning people and we would get there at 7:30/8:00 and she realized that like there's no point in us like trying to, be there until five o'clock. So she was like, y'all need to be outta the lab by three if you're showing up at eight. 'Cause in science where a lot of times, like people don't get until nine or 10 and they work till five. So she was like, if y'all gonna show up this early, y'all need to leave by three. And, and I also try and show up by nine o'clock and leave by three too. So she essentially like changed the culture of the lab based on us two grad students that she had in the lab.
[00:23:29] Lauren Ullrich: So she helped you, like, enforce those boundaries, too.
[00:23:32] Cellas Hayes: Yes. And she also enforced boundaries, like being a minority, like you get asked to serve a lot of committees and stuff. So she enforced those boundaries as well with like other officials in the institution of like, "anything that you ask those trainees to do should go through me first because they're here to do science first and then the other stuff later" because the other stuff doesn't help you graduate. It's what you're doing in the lab.
[00:23:57] Maya Gosztyla: Yeah, I definitely have put a lot of thought into time management. I think one thing that's helped me is, this like strategy called time block planning, which people may have seen. It's basically just kind of blocking out how you're gonna spend every hour of your day in advance.
Which is especially helpful for me to do like, well in advance because I do stem cell work, which often, you know, you might be growing cells for like months at a time and you have to plan a month in advance, like what you're gonna be doing on a specific day if your cells are ready. Um, and so kind of like laying out in detail, like, I'll be doing this that day and like, here's how I'm gonna spend every hour today, what am I gonna do during this, like, one hour western blot incubation? Things like that, like planning for that in advance makes it much easier as opposed to like being there waiting for something and, like, having to then figure out like, what should I be doing right now? So I have found that, like, by blocking things out that way, it's much easier to fit things into the schedule that I want.
And it's also easier for me to kind of like look back and check in with like, what have I been doing with my time? I have this record now of, like, um, you know, oh, I spent a lot of time on this experiment, but like, was that really the best use of my time? Maybe I should have been actually focused on this other main project that I need for my thesis instead of a side project, for example.
So, I think really like both the kind of looking forward, laying out your time and being able to look back at how exactly you've been spending your time can be really helpful to make sure that you are both efficient and kind of like balancing your work and outside work in a healthy way.
[00:25:25] Marguerite Matthews: All right. So a big part of the hidden curriculum, as we've heard from the streets, is around funding and being able to, you know, secure the bag. So can you tell us a little bit about how you learned about different type of funding opportunities? Were they things that you learned about through your program, through your classmates, or did you say, "I'm going to find some way to have an award or have a fellowship and I'm just gonna Google everything that I can." And do you have any tips about approaching some of these different types of funding opportunities that you took advantage of?
[00:26:02] Shekinah Phillips: Sure. So I'm a part of a program at UAB called Roadmap Scholars. Um, and it's a NINDS R25, and it's a program where it really enhances retention of undergrad trainees in neuroscience research.
And so during that program, I was informed about the F99/K00 award, which provides two years of funding for graduate school and then up to four years for postdoc. Previous Roadmap Scholars had applied for it. And so I was just like, "Why not? This sounds like a great opportunity." [laughs]
So I spoke to my PI about it, just really talking through the plan for that. And so the key for me was really starting early, so knowing when the grant was due and really starting early with my writing and figuring out, okay, what are the components that are needed for this grant? And what's great is that, um, on the website for this specific grant, it maps out like all the things that I need.
So I just copied it and pasted it right into Excel sheet. I love Excel sheets. But being able to use that as kind of like my map for like really tracking down, "okay, what are the documents that I need and how long is it really gonna take me to write this grant?"
And one thing I had to really come to terms with is that I could not do experiments and write at the same time. That's just not how I was built. So I had to really, uh, [laughs] make the decision that, okay, I'm gonna stop doing experiments and really dedicate a month to just writing. Writing, editing, having my PI kind of look through it, having other people that I know, um, applied for this grant look through it, and really just give me all the feedback that I need to make it better.
So, um, yeah, I just got the announcement that I got the grant, so I'm really excited.
[00:27:52] Lauren Ullrich: Congratulations.
[00:27:54] Maya Gosztyla: Yay.
[00:27:54] Marguerite Matthews: Woohoo!
[00:27:56] Shekinah Phillips: Thank you.
[00:27:57] Marguerite Matthews: Welcome to the fam. You're really embedded in the NINDS funding structure.
[00:28:03] Shekinah Phillips: I am, I mean, undergrad, I did the ENDURE program, woo woo. [laughter]
[00:28:09] Marguerite Matthews: For, for those in audio land, both Shekinah and I were raising the roof, which feels very 1990s. Um, [laughter] but, you know,
[00:28:19] Shekinah Phillips: but yeah, I am all up in the pipeline.
[00:28:21] Lauren Ullrich: [laughter]
[00:28:21] Shekinah Phillips: But it feels great to know that I got it and I'm just so excited. [laughter]
[00:28:28] Cellas Hayes: Yeah, I can reiterate that. Um, from day one it was, the plan was for me to get my own line of funding, um, just to quote unquote set me apart for a postdoc, 'cause my PI knew that would kind of make the difference going to like a school that not everyone knows and stuff like that.
So, but I think it's like a multilevel question. Um, outside of like originally coming in on grant funding, I got a three year fellowship for the Southern Regional Educational Board, which is like a professional development pipeline that covers like the southeast region of the U.S. And then I also was admitted into another two year program at the University of Mississippi Medical Center to give me training in epidemiology and biostatistics because I was interested in not only more so bench science, but translational approaches and using longitudinal larger data sets. And that allowed me to do that. And both of those came with supplemental funding, which allowed me to stack on top of my graduate stipend. So I made a lot more than my peers, like a lot more.
Um, but outside of that, when I was like getting ready to apply for an F31, I think the biggest hidden gem and what I've seen people not do is find external members and mentors outside of your university. So it was during the pandemic and I got on Twitter and I DM'd so many people. Um, I just literally hashtagged F 31 and was like, oh, I saw you got this.
Would you be willing to read through my aims page? And then I found probably four or five professors on Twitter that was willing to read through my whole research strategy and the type of feedback, even if they weren't in the specific field, most of them have reviewed, reviewed them so they knew exactly what, um, what I needed to do.
So they reviewed the research strategy, the mentoring plan, and I ended up getting the F and I was like the first person 40 years in Ole Miss to get it, which is wild. But that's, I think that's the biggest thing that made the difference. And even my, like, PI committed me for that, simply just because when other people have applied for 'em, it hasn't happened.
And then I also applied for the NSF GRFP twice, the Ford Pre-Doc fellowship, and the AHA pre-doc fellowship. So I like shopped around on Google and looked them all up and wrote different applications 'cause they're all different. So I ended up getting a lot of writing experience, which made my qualifying exam and dissertation part and even getting funding for my postdoc before even starting, made it a lot easier.
[00:31:02] Marguerite Matthews: But you did something else that's really important for your F31, Cellas. Please tell the people what that was.
[00:31:09] Lauren Ullrich: A pop quiz.
[00:31:10] Marguerite Matthews: I'll give you a hint. Two of those components are on this, uh, podcast right now. You talked to a program officer!
[00:31:17] Cellas Hayes: Yes, I, I talked to a program officer. [laughter]
[00:31:19] Marguerite Matthews: I try to like...
[00:31:21] Cellas Hayes: Yes, I talked to a program officer as well, which made a big difference, especially after resubmitting. Um, so I took the feedback from the resubmission 'cause I did receive a score that was kind of borderline and talked to a program officer and asked, "okay, is this still feasible?"
Um, the other big thing since I didn't wanna be in grad school, cause I was in a five to seven year program, I applied during my second year, before candidacy, and I had a review that was under, um, that was under review. It wasn't published yet, but I had showed productivity and I had zero published papers, I think I think everything was under review. So, I applied super early. Just to see if I would get a score or if I wouldn't. And by the time I did get funding, it was a year and a half later. So I think that makes a big difference 'cause a lot of people wait their fourth year and then by that time their PI's like, "it's time for you to get out the door. You're not, you're not staying for another three years. Um, just to get funding." So if you apply like your second year or like right when you're doing candidacy, it helps a lot.
And then it's just, it's a time thing too because when I did resubmit, I had to write my qualifying exam and my resubmission at the same time. And our qualifying exam was set up where we had to write it on something completely different that we didn't do in the lab. So that was like writing two grants at the same time, which was rough.
[00:32:47] Lauren Ullrich: Yeah. And I was gonna say that the reviewers will scale their expectations as well, right? There are a lot higher expectations for a fourth year applying for an F than a second year. Like it's normal not to have publications in your second year, but by the fourth year, they're gonna start expecting a lot more productivity.
[00:33:06] Maya Gosztyla: Uh, yeah. In my case, I had also applied to a few different fellowships. Um, I had applied for NSF, um, during undergrad, did not get it, and then applied again in graduate school and did get it. So definitely for anyone who was not successful in their first attempt, definitely try again. You can take their feedback and use it to improve.
Um, I also cobbled together some other funding sources. Like for example, I'm also funded by a fellowship from the Myotonic Dystrophy Foundation. Um, so definitely for anyone who's researching any kind of disease, um, especially a rare disease, there's often fellowships out there that you wouldn't necessarily know about if you're not in that specific field.
So definitely don't overlook kind of the smaller foundations. Those, those, um, fellowships can be really great. And in my case, it came with a lot of travel funding, which something like NSF does not include. So that allowed me to attend many conferences that I wouldn't have been able to go to otherwise.
And also just recently, uh, last year I got another very small, um, just a thousand dollar scholarship from the, um, Association for Women in Science. And I think that because it's a smaller award, many people, you know, many people don't even think about it, you know, compared to, you know, a large, something like NSF, like that's worth way more.
Um, but some of these smaller programs, they often just like write you a check directly. They don't like, just offset your funding from your PI, so, you know, in terms of like how it affected me personally, that $1,000 award made a much bigger difference in my quality of life than winning NSF because that, in my program, pays the same as my regular stipend.
So, um, yeah, I guess my advice for looking for funding would be like, you know, apply to all the major ones like NSF, but also kind of be creative and look around for other sources that may not be as widely advertised.
[00:34:47] Marguerite Matthews: Absolutely. Show me the money.
[00:34:50] Lauren Ullrich: When I was in graduate school, I applied to, um, I think it was like maybe a, a four or $5,000 award, maybe even less, from the Cosmos Club, which is like a social club for people interested in science in Washington ,DC and it's only, um, for students in colleges and universities in DC And, um, I was using it to pay for scans, so they paid me directly into my bank account and then I had to get like a cashier's check to pay the, the imaging center.
So that was, that was a fun, [laughter] like a fun little weird thing. Yeah.
[00:35:27] Marguerite Matthews: I feel old cause who uses cashier's checks anymore?
[00:35:31] Lauren Ullrich: But definitely I'm a, a huge proponent of like just trying everything right? Like every little bit helps, especially in graduate school where oftentimes you just need a little bit of money to either get that preliminary data or have a better quality of life or whatever, whatever it is.
[00:35:48] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah. I got a couple of internal fellowships that paid for my side projects. Cause none of my projects were working. And it was like, I would rather play around with someone else's money to, to see something that works [laughter] versus using my PI's R01. So, uh, but that, all of that money helped for sure.
[00:36:08] Lauren Ullrich: So speaking of money, uh, managing a budget as a grad student can be challenging and stressful. And on top of that, right, there's some situations where you need to pay, um, for professional things from your own pocket and wait to be reimbursed like a society membership or conference, um, travel.
And so, did you have any financial conversations with your advisor, um, about those kinds of things? Was it a surprise for you? Was it challenging?
[00:36:46] Cellas Hayes: It, it sucks all the way around. If you, if you join science Twitter, you will see everyone at least once a month is complaining about this.
[00:36:54] Marguerite Matthews: Everybody's broke.
[00:36:55] Cellas Hayes: Yeah. Everybody's broke at every single level. So I think for me, I just like planned the conferences out earlier in the year and when I, I just tried to do the registration as early as possible and pay for it out of pocket, like six weeks in advance, submit my stuff for the university, and that way I get reimbursed like right before the conference instead of waiting until afterwards. And that's kinda like two or three months. But different institutions have different policies. So I decided to do like all the per diem stuff earlier, so I would get the money for each day before the conference even hit.
[00:37:30] Shekinah Phillips: I mean, I just learned something from Cellas, 'cause I didn't do that at all. [laughs]
[00:37:37] Marguerite Matthews: Well, not all schools, not all schools allow you to do it ahead of time. So some of them require you to physically go to the conference, come back, and then you submit your stuff. So it really just depends.
[00:37:47] Shekinah Phillips: Well that was the case for me.
Um, so that was me at SfN last year. Yeah, we have to submit things way after the conference. So now I've learned to just budget better, save my money better. Um, so it doesn't really hit my account, um, that badly, but it is a struggle. Um, and I mean, having financial conversations with my advisor were important, but there's, but only so much that they can do.
Yeah, at least in my lab, um, my PI will just pay for things on the lab credit cards, so we don't have to deal with reimbursements, which is a huge help. Makes a huge difference, especially for international conferences, which can be like thousands of dollars that I do not have.
[00:38:26] Maya Gosztyla: Um, I think the bigger issue we've been dealing with is just the cost of living more than actual conferences. I'm in San Diego, which is a very pricey city to live in, especially as of recently. Um, they've been hiking our rents in grad housing pretty drastically in the time that I've been here. One thing that's helped with that, which is not an option for every school but has been pretty successful for us, is unionizing.
Um, which I know is kind of a growing trend in many graduate programs. We student researchers and the University of California system just unionized and that was the only time we've really gotten raises that went above inflation. Um, so that was something that I've been interested in since grad school, was pretty involved in.
So, um, yeah, sometimes it kind ,of takes more drastic actions. 'Cause like, you know, the PIs may want to do something, but they can't, you know, they're not always in control of our stipend. The program sets that. So sometimes going to a more extreme measures is what's required to be able to survive in an expensive city like San Diego.
[00:39:19] Marguerite Matthews: I went to grad school in Pittsburgh and so it was very manageable, but I was far more responsible with my money, my little few $5 as a graduate student than I think I've ever been in my entire life.
[00:39:32] Lauren Ullrich: You have to be,
[00:39:33] Maya Gosztyla: Yeah.
[00:39:33] Lauren Ullrich: Right? Like you have no choice.
[00:39:36] Marguerite Matthews: Yeah. You have to, you have to make it work. And now I'm just like, oh yeah, of course I can go on that trip. Of course I can go to happy hour. Of course I can go to dinner, of course I can do whatever. And then before the month is out, it's like, no, no, you cannot or should not. I mean, you can, but you probably shouldn't. [laughs] So that, that's not a, that's not a, a plea to stay poor necessarily, but just know that it's a great time to learn good financial, uh, acumen, um, when you're in grad school.
[00:40:07] Cellas Hayes: Yeah. And everybody's circumstances are like so different. Um, so like I was super young. I think I took two weeks off between undergrad and grad school and I just started in the summer. And then, like I said earlier, I had two kids while in grad school and it was actually cheaper for my wife not to work instead of paying for daycare. So she ended up being a stay-at-home mom.
So I really, really had to budget then, 'cause it was a family of four and it was one salary coming in the house. So everybody's circumstances are different. Um, but you'll find that like a lot of people have those circumstances 'cause they're also a lot older.
But I think as far as conferences, like just plan 'em out and apply for like, everything. So like SfN has the TPDA. If you do NSP, you get $1,500 of enrichment funds. The International Brain Research Organization has a ton of funding for conferences and programs worldwide. And then most schools and departments have some sort of a travel grant that you can get for once a year, and I think ours was $250, but a lot of times that's registration for one of the conferences.
[00:41:14] Marguerite Matthews: And for the audience, TPDA stands for the Trainee Professional Development Award, um, administered through the Society for Neuroscience. And the NSP is the Neuroscience Scholars Program, um, which is also administered through the Society for Neuroscience, open to graduate students and postdocs who identify underrepresented minorities in the sciences. And both of those applications are available once a year.
So there can be a lot of politics around socializing as a graduate student, especially when you're the only one in your department and whatever the only one means for you. Um, and that, that can be really taxing on your mental resources. So can you all describe how you navigated the path to maintain your sense of self and finding ways to not feel sort of isolated or, made sure that you stayed connected to sources of support and socialization?
[00:42:17] Cellas Hayes: I think a big one for me. I found friends outside of STEM, like grad students in political science or law students that I would hang out with. Um, and it just kind of gives you a freedom, 'cause a lot of times other STEM grad students, when you do go out, you sit at the bar and you still talk about science.
Let's not, let's, let's just not, let's just normalize talking about TV or something else. Um, so that helped a lot. And then I also ended up committing, like every Wednesday evening, me and a group of friends would go out and get 50 cent chicken wings.
[00:42:50] Marguerite Matthews: Yes, me too! Yes! But ours were 25 cent wings and it was on Tuesdays.
[00:42:55] Cellas Hayes: Oh!
[00:42:55] Lauren Ullrich: Now you're dating, you're dating yourself.
[00:42:58] Marguerite Matthews: I know. That was back in the day, uh, when chicken was cheap.
[00:43:02] Cellas Hayes: Oh, we had 33 cent on Monday too. We had 33 cent on Monday. Uh, and I'm a wing connoisseur.
[00:43:08] Marguerite Matthews: As am I. And I had, we had a test, we took pictures of everybody's bones when they ate the wing, and then we started judging the people who still left chicken on the wing, like first of all, we're poor graduate students having to eat, having to eat 25 cent wings. You just gonna leave protein there.
[00:43:25] Shekinah Phillips: You gotta eat it all up.
[00:43:26] Marguerite Matthews: All up.
[00:43:27] Cellas Hayes: Yeah. We also, my house was also like the party house too. We had crawfish boils on the weekends, so we all put our money together. Like everyone sent $15 and have a crawfish boil. So we would buy live crawfish and boil them in the backyard and have barbecues. Everybody sent $15 and play games. So that's kinda how we got through it.
[00:43:46] Shekinah Phillips: Um, I guess thinking about the question, I'm more so thought about it from like, um, socializing and like department social gatherings and so, um, I think honestly I'm still trying to navigate through this path. Like really toggling between like professionalism and comfortability.
Um, because I am like the only, I guess, person of color, um, in my lab or in this specific department. And so having to, um, really feel comfortable in moving in these spaces where I'm the only, is still something that I'm trying to, um, work through, but I have had the privilege to really find a network of people in Roadmap Scholars and in like programs like Black in Neuro, um, where they really provide me with resources on how to navigate through the politics and like really understanding that, I'm here for a reason; I belong in this space. Um, I can be authentic to who I am and still hold integrity and just know that I belong here. My work will speak for itself. And like, there's just freedom in being who I am and showing up. And so that's something that I've had to really just overcome the imposter syndrome, and just really know that I belong here and I have the ability to just connect with people just being my authentic self.
That's a powerful message. Thank you for sharing.
[00:45:07] Maya Gosztyla: Mostly I'll just second what Cellas and Shekinah said, I think, you know, prioritizing being around people is so important in grad school, it can be a really lonely time. Um, in my case, I had a little bit of the, like opposite problem where I'm in this huge lab and I'm kind of an introvert, so by the end of the day I'm like a little bit peopled out; I like, don't even wanna be around other people for a while.
Um, but still, like, socializing at work is just really, it doesn't fill the same void as like socializing in a real social environment. So, um, I think even for introverts, it's still important to find something you can do outside of lab for socializing. Like in my case, sometimes that meant I played in an orchestra for a while, um, which was a lot of fun. So it was social, but I didn't have to like, talk to people, you know? Um, or sometimes that means like doing a group fitness class at the gym. Again, I'm around people. We're kind of like hyping each other up, but I don't have to always talk.
So, um, if you're someone who has a hard time, like making yourself go out and be social, um, you can kind of be creative in like, what does social mean to you as long as you're around people in a community, doesn't always have to be the standard just like going out to a bar or a restaurant and talking.
There's many ways to be social.
[00:46:10] Marguerite Matthews: That's some of the best advice I've heard for introverts. So thank you for sharing that, Maya. That's awesome. [music]
Thank you all for sharing your wisdom with us today. Can I ask each of you for one last piece of parting advice for our audience?
[00:46:29] Maya Gosztyla: I would say for anyone who's going into graduate school or is gonna be choosing schools, um, everyone probably knows to, you know, think about scientific fit, find a place where you can do the research you want to do. Um, but I would also encourage everyone to think beyond science because this is a place you're gonna be living the next 4, 5, 6 years depending on your program.
So think about, do you like the city? Are there activities you like to do there? How do you like the weather? How do you like the culture of the city? Um, even more practical things like does the program pay enough for you to live there? Is the culture of the program supportive? How long does it take people to graduate?
I think, you know, these are all valid reasons to consider a graduate program and you're not like a bad scientist for having non-scientific priorities in where you choose to study. Um, so that would be my advice.
[00:47:18] Shekinah Phillips: Um, I think my advice, just, if you are in graduate school right now, don't be afraid to fail forward. Grad school projects are gonna have its highs and lows, and I think oftentimes it's in failure that we find the discoveries. And know that, uh, you have a community around you that can help you push forward.
And so just stand firm in that and know that you're built for this, that you have been called for this. And just don't be scared to fail forward. Pick yourself back up. Learn from the failures, and just move forward and know that you belong in this space.
[00:47:53] Cellas Hayes: I think looking back, starting a postdoc, I did grad school really, really well, but I didn't realize at the same time how traumatizing it was both like financially, emotionally, mentally taxing. Um, like the day after my defense, I asked myself like, what's my purpose now? Because it just feels like you don't have one cause you worked so hard for that. So my advice is the one I always give, you always need to invest in yourself in all aspects. Cause otherwise if you don't invest in yourself, nobody else will. Hold yourself to a higher expectation than even your mentors, and they'll hop on your train eventually, even if they don't believe in you at first.
[00:48:34] Marguerite Matthews: And Lauren, what's your advice?
[00:48:36] Lauren Ullrich: All of our guests had such great advice. I think I'll say like, graduate school is really hard, right? But it doesn't have to be horrible. And if it is feeling that way, there are things you can do to change it. Like maybe you need to have a hard conversation with your advisor. Maybe you need to take, um, a leave of absence. Maybe you need to switch labs.
And we have so many examples, um, from our work at NINDS of people who have done all of those things and it's really made a difference to them. And so don't feel like you're stuck and that you just have to endure. Um, just ask for help, things usually are fixable and they don't have to be that bad. So, um, don't be afraid to ask for help, I guess that's my advice. What about you, Marguerite?
[00:49:38] Marguerite Matthews: I would say along the lines of what you just said, Lauren, is you may be doing a lot of things you don't like. Grad school and life in general is filled with things that we don't like, things that you wish were different and sometimes you have to focus on the things that are in your control. I used to run experiments that were eight hours long. That meant I had 10 to 11 hour days in the lab 'cause I had to prep for the experiment and then I had to clean up after the experiment.
Did I like being in the lab that long? No. Did I get it done 'cause it was important for me to see my experiments progress and my project get good data? Yes. And then there were times where I got to take some time off and be outside of the lab and I think, in addition to making sure that what is in your control, that you can change, that you do try to do that, but also recognize there are some things that are just not in your control, and it's okay to not like it, but you also will just need to figure out how to work around it. That doesn't make your graduate school experience the worst. There are certainly downsides to being a graduate student . Um, but I think those are all things that just prepare us for life outside of, um, outside of that. It gets, it gets worse. The things that you don't like, they are amplified.
I mean, I say that as someone who absolutely loves my job. I get to be on this podcast, um, laughing and sharing wisdom with these, um, fantastic people. So just remember that sometimes you have to go through things that you don't always like to get to a place that is really awesome, um, and that is full of the things that you do like.
[00:51:12] Lauren Ullrich: Amen. [outro music] So that's all we have time for today on Building Up the Nerve. Thank you to our guests this week for sharing their expertise, thank you to Tam Vo and Ana Ebrahimi for production help, and thank you to Bob Riddle for our theme song and music. See you next time when we tackle succeeding as a postdoc. You can find past episodes of this podcast and many more resources on the web at ninds.nih.gov.
[00:51:42] Marguerite Matthews: Be sure to follow us on Twitter @NINDSDiversity and @NINDSFunding. Email us with questions at NINDSNervePod@nih.gov. Make sure you subscribe to the podcast on Apple Podcasts or your favorite podcast app so you don't miss an episode. We'll see you next time.