Friday, March 16, 2018

Analyzing the Laboratory Food Chain

I enjoy the food chain above because even though each organism is being eaten by the one above it, the arrows suggest that each organism instead becomes the one above it! That makes it a bit more like the academic food chain that Casey describes below. I must admit, I laughed at Casey's 'rightly so' comment in the 2nd paragraph.

By Casey Moore

During one of our recent meetings, our attention was brought to a 2006 comic by Jorge Cham, creator of the infamous PhD Comics (see the link).

This particular comic strip conveys the “laboratory food chain”, e.g. the fundamental hierarchy within academics. At the top of the food chain is the benevolent hand of god sending the funding program manager disguised as an angel towards a faculty member seated behind a monument of a desk. Said faculty member is being worshiped, rightly so, by a postdoc. In a dingy basement below, we see a PhD student pecking away at their computer and a Master’s student curled up in a ball (probably crying). And in the soil, below the basement dwelling graduate students, we see an earth worm with the title of undergraduate student.

We all poked fun at this comic, even though we have members from the majority of the laboratory food chain in our group (read: no funding program managers nor gods among us). While it is comical, it should be stated that everyone’s experience may vary.

I may have felt like an earth worm during my undergraduate years in the grand scheme of academia, but I attribute that to not partaking in research. I wish I had, but the opportunity never existed for me. The same, I believe, cannot be said for undergraduates at YorkU.

During my PhD, our group has had several undergraduates in various research positions. I have had the opportunity to work with plenty of undergraduates (and high school students), myself, and would not consider any of them to be earth worm material. These students (mostly) have graduate school in mind and know that having research experience will be helpful in their future endeavours. And to be honest, they have helped my research along the way as much, if not more, than the experience will help them. For that I am thankful. 

Numerous students below my rank have collected data for my project and some have even helped the project in greater ways. A few have shown a greater deal of interest in understanding the setup and providing their take on the problem at hand, ultimately providing a streamlined workflow and much higher quality data.  As such, I want to use this post to thank all the undergraduate (and high school) students who have helped my project come along.

As for the rest of the “laboratory food chain,” I can only comment on life as a Master’s and PhD student. As before, everyone’s experience will vary. I will not lie, at times, all I wanted to do was crawl up in a ball and cry. Panic to meet deadlines and deliver results are common. But it’s not all doom and gloom. Ace-ing a midterm or final makes you realize you are indeed “good at your job”. Presenting your research at a conference is a huge adrenaline rush and validates all those long hours sifting through data. Pressing submit on your first (second or third) peer-reviewed journal article is a mixture of anxiety and pride. Graduating is a relief. Applying to jobs “in the real world” can be scary, but in a good way. Mentoring students is oddly rewarding. Being a teaching assistant can be a headache but provides a valuable experience – is teaching something you want to continue with once complete or would going into industry suite you better? These are just some of my observations. Yours may be different and will be just as valid as mine.   

To think of academia as an ecosystem is not completely incorrect. But portraying it as described in the comic is not doing it justice. I’m sure we’ve all heard horror stories of such scenarios, but I honestly feel those are outliers. From my limited biological training: I’d like to think of academia as a system of symbiotic organisms. That is, in every pairing, both parties are mutually beneficial to each other.

I could be completely wrong though. I am just PhD student feverishly pecking away at a keyboard. :/

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