Grad school for me didn’t exactly go according to plan.

It started out as awesome as grad school gets, really. I was accepted to all my top favorite schools, with guaranteed full funding. I had the luxury and privilege of getting to choose from a number of rockstar advisers, but finally picked the school I did to work with one truly badass mycologist and the awesome people she brings into her lab.

Our grad office featured a Mycorrhizae Powered Winter Season Tree!

I even entered my first year at Harvard with a National Science Foundation Gradate Research Fellowship, one of the most prestigious awards a grad student can win.

I loved grad school. My adviser was the perfect combination of hands-off and motivational/guiding, plus she’s one of those generous people with amazing work-life balance that all the grad students want to be like. All my labmates were crazy smart, fun and encouraging. The science in the lab was interesting and broad, ranging from social scientists examining how people relate to mushrooms to physicists studying spore dispersal. My cohort of fellow first-years was equally full of fantastic and dedicated people. I took a great class on paleobotany from Curiosity Rover scientist Andy Knoll and got to explore Harvard’s amazing plant fossil collections.

That first summer, I was starting some really awesome research with the Death Cap mushroom, Amanita phalloides, when one of the most brutal things that can possibly happen to an academic happened.

My adviser was denied tenure.

This came as a total shock to almost everyone involved. Our department had unanimously voted to keep her, but ultimately, the decision came down from the university’s president. There is no good reason why she was denied tenure, either. She had loads of high-quality publications, plenty of grant money, lots of news coverage, and is extremely well respected among fellow mycologists. There was such a campus-wide uproar, one other associate professor in our department quit shortly after, not wanting to go through the same crapshoot process.

But my favorite example of how ludicrous the President’s decision was is that at the same time some Harvard Higher Ups decided my adviser wasn’t a good fit for the school, other Harvard Higher Ups bestowed her with Harvard’s most prestigious teaching award, and a big pile of money to go with it. Clearly having stellar teachers can’t be that important to Harvard, but I will save the trash-talking for the emphatic letter I’m slowly writing to the Chronicle.

I remember being irrationally upset that my whole Five Year Plan was ruined. Above, you see the Hot Guys with Baby Animals calendar, a Must for every grad office.

I remember being irrationally upset that my whole Five Year Plan was ruined. Above, you see the Hot Guys with Baby Animals calendar, a Must for every grad office.

So, back to me. In a year, my adviser would turn into a Cinderella-like Adviser Pumpkin and leave the school, and there was no one else there I wanted as my main adviser. She didn’t know which school she was moving to yet, so simply following her was not on the table.

It was utterly, thoroughly devastating. But as my ever-optimistic adviser would say, no one died. We weren’t living in a war zone. Yes, we were going to have to disperse and close up shop, but it turns out it really wasn’t the end of the world.

One year into my PhD program, I applied to grad school. Again.

Meanwhile, I switched my research focus back to the model system I worked in as a lab manager at UW and threw together a Master’s sized project so I could at least put the big H on my resume.

I plated out fungi on so many Petri dishes you don't even KNOW

I plated out fungi on so many Petri dishes you don’t even KNOW

And here’s the craziest part: it all worked out really, really well. I probably wouldn’t have done the experiment I did if my adviser hadn’t been denied tenure, and I discovered some really interesting things about how fungal pathogens cope with capsaicin. Lo and behold, my findings were even statistically significant! I’m still working on tidying up the paper for submission, but we’re aiming for a pretty solid journal. I’m excited.

I was accepted to all three schools I applied to, and again had the luxury of choosing where I wanted to go. I’m now at Berkeley, in the very same lab where my old adviser developed the Death Cap system. I can easily continue the Death Cap work I started at Harvard, plus there are more nearby field sites for collecting mushrooms. The school even threw another two year fellowship at me, so, with all three years of my GRF stipend to spend still, I have *literally* more funding than I can spend in the next four years.

Proof of the fun times had during Flip Cup! Photo: M. F.

Proof of the fun times had during Flip Cup! Photo: M. F.

I’m super happy with my new choice. Everyone is awesome – in my lab, and in the rest of the department. There is a lot more inter-departmental communication and collaboration here than at Harvard, too. Plus I much prefer the weather here over Boston, and I get to live with old friends from Seattle in a swank house with a lemon tree in the backyard.

My old adviser is also sitting pretty, and has a bunch of job offers from great schools. No matter which school she picks to settle down in, she’ll keep doing awesome science.

Life goes on.

Last week during Orientation, the other grad students here taught me how to play Flip Cup! My team never lost. They called me the Chosen One.


Share and Enjoy:
  • Print
  • Digg
  • StumbleUpon
  • Facebook
  • Yahoo! Buzz
  • Twitter
  • Google Bookmarks
  1. N Goats says:

    Quite the tale Cat! I’m glad everything worked out well 🙂

    • Jason says:

      Great read. I’m glad you have such a positive outlook. I had a best friend who had something very similar happen to her during her second year. Thankfully there were mechanisms in place in our department to make sure grad students aren’t completely left behind.

      Keep rockin’ it.

  2. […] some point shortly into starting grad school the first time (see here for more details), something finally clicked in my head. I know things about stuff. I have skills! […]