An immunologist and science policy analyst, Dr. Kenneth (Kenny) Gibbs offers three pieces of advice for graduate students. These are his views alone and do not represent official views of the NIH or National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS), where he is currently working as a Program Analyst in the Office of Program Planning, Analysis and Evaluation. His opinions were shaped in grad school and by his research on STEM Ph.D. and postdoc career decisions.
Kenny offers three pieces of advice.
- Remember that Ph.Ds. are beginnings not endings.
- Go to a school and work with an advisor where you can see yourself doing well as a person.
- Manuscripts (and theses) only get written when you write them.
Kenny’s voice is distinctive, so what follows are his words (edited by me), speaking directly to you. At the end I will return to tell you more about him and his work.
1. Ph.Ds. are Beginnings Not Endings
A Ph.D. program is probably the beginning of your professional career. You’re a professional, not just a student. The goal of a Ph.D. program is not the Ph.D. itself, but gaining the skills and connections necessary to execute the professional vision that brought you there in the first place. So a Ph.D. is a means to an end, not an end unto itself. Don’t lose sight of that amidst the hardships of graduate training.
All of us come to graduate school for a reason, but Ph.D. programs are long. You mature along 4-8 years that you’re in graduate school, so your goals may change, which is fine. No matter how your goals evolve, just remember the Ph.D. is a tool to help you get there.
When the Going Gets Rough
It is particularly important to remember your reasons for getting a Ph.D. when you risk get “stuck in the tunnel.” That is, you’re too far along to see the light at the start, or and too far from the end to see the light at the end of the tunnel. Don’t get stuck.
When things get hard, recall why you came, and remember: it will all be ok. Really, it will. A family friend gave me a key ring inscribed “Dr. Gibbs” when I left home for grad school. It reminded me that there were people who knew and loved me before, and would love me whatever happened.
Don’t try to grit it out, or say “I am super tough.” Recognize that you are human. Humans who do research for a living have all of the needs and frailties that come along with being human. Participate in the things that anchor you; I went to church and engaged in the minority student community. I need connection with people who share my values, especially my non-vocational values. At work, my colleagues and I share many values (including values for scientific research and advancement). At the same time, there are other aspects of my life or things that were important to me and were not as widely shared, reified, or readily available in an academic space. Two of mine are my Christian faith and being part of the black community. I made it a priority to engage those parts of myself.
You are a human with values and goals, and grad school is in service of those. Just remember that. The degree is a tool, not the ultimate goal.
2. Go to a school and work with an advisor where you can see yourself doing well as a person
You won’t do well as a scholar if you don’t feel whole as a person. So often we are drawn to the biggest-named institutions or advisors. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with these places or people, but just realize that if it’s not a place where you will do well as a person, none of that will matter.
How do you know? Be a scientist. Use data to form your conclusions. Investigate: How are people there doing? Assess what you see relative to what is necessary for you.
What do you need?
Say it again, “I am a human.” You need to be introspective and think critically about what your needs as a person are, and assess whether these can be met. For example, if you need a lot of structure, and the advisor is away all the time, it will not help you to succeed.
Look at the other grad students. You won’t be different. If they are all miserable, you will likely be miserable. If they are happy, you probably will be too. While we’re all unique, context matters a lot and if everyone in an environment has a similar outcome, you probably will too. We can aspire to make the place better, but don’t be blind to the context as it currently exists.
Seek out students like you
There are lots of different kinds of grad students. What aspects of you are important? What groups do you identify with? An ethnic minority, international student, religious, LGBT, parent, first in your family to go to grad school? Expect that the patterns that hold for others will hold for you.
When I was looking at grad programs, I looked to see how the other black students were faring. I visited the Black Community Services Center and talked to students. The people at Stanford (black and otherwise) seemed happier and more whole than elsewhere. I figured, if I am leaving just about everything and everyone who I know that supports me, I want to feel that the odds are not stacked against me.
I am also a Christian and academia tends to be a more secular environment. I wanted to know, can I exist here? It generally was OK—with the exception of one of my professors who in a first year class said, “People who believe in God are crackpots.” Other than that, I found the environment to be somewhere between tolerant and accepting.
3. Manuscripts (and theses) only get written when you write them
I have to fight the notion in my head that I have to write the perfect composition from the start. Don’t succumb to analysis paralysis. Just start writing. I have found that if I just write phrases or clauses, I get the momentum to keep going. It’s a lot easier to go from “something” to “something better,” than from “zero” to “perfect.” This can keep me from being stuck because I cannot come up with the perfect prose.
“Manuscripts only get written when you write them.” I think I saw that in an interview with former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice when she was returning to Stanford to write a book. The point sticks with me: Find a way to discipline yourself and get things written. Find your rhythm and stick to it.
When I wrote my thesis, I went to the library 4 hours a day, 9 AM-1 PM. I spent 50 minutes writing without stopping. I was not allowed to look at my phone, and I turned off the wireless. No distractions. If I needed a paper, I would delay downloading. Then a 10-minute break. Then do it again. Some days were hard, and some were better, but by sticking to this pattern I got my thesis written in six weeks.
Dr. Gibbs pursued a career in research in order to make a contribution to the lives of others on a national and global scale. In pursuit of this goal, he earned his B.S. in biochemistry & molecular biology from the University of Maryland, Baltimore County, where he was a Meyerhoff Scholar; and earned a Ph.D. in immunology from Stanford University in 2010, where his work focused on the mechanisms regulating hematopoietic and leukemic stem cells.
He then faced a choice about how to further his career in science. He elected to step into the realm of science policy. He was awarded a prestigious AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellow and was placed in the National Science Foundation (NSF) in the Directorate for Education and Human Resources (EHR). This decision was met with some skepticism, which he candidly discusses in Science Careers. His next step was being a Cancer Prevention Fellow at the National Cancer Institute. After moving to Washington DC, he also earned a master’s of public health at Johns Hopkins University. As of August 2015, he is Program Analyst in the Office of Program Planning, Analysis and Evaluation (OPAE) at the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIGMS).
Although he is not a bench scientist, he has conducted research on STEM careers, expanding his research repertoire into social sciences in collaboration with Dr. Kimberly Griffin. A recent interview in the Chronicle of Higher Education describes his motivation for this research.
They conducted a major national project interviewing and surveying life sciences Ph.D. students and postdocs to understand what influences their career choices. They have published their findings about:
- The process of career-interest formation in CBE Life Sciences Education (2013)
- Ph.D. career interest patterns by race/ethnicity and gender in PLOS One (2014)
- Career development among biomedical postdocs in CBE Life Sciences Education (2015)
Gibbs summarized the research in an interview with ScienceCareers. Academic science could attract and keep more underrepresented minority scientists, he argues, by making room for their need to have broader impacts on society than basic research positions currently allow.
Since receiving his Ph.D., he has gotten married and become a father. Active participation in his church keeps him grounded, as does hanging out with friends and writing.
Published March 22, 2016.