If you are a student finishing your master's degree and starting Ph.D. studies, you will soon encounter the challenges that face most science students during the transition. Chief among these challenges is learning how to think and act like an independent scientist. This article highlights my personal experiences at this crucial point in my academic career.

After completing my master's degree in biology at the University of Texas at Brownsville, I began the Ph.D. program in physiology at the University of North Texas Health Science Center. Getting my master's degree had gone smoothly, so I thought that, although the Ph.D. program would probably be more difficult, I would handle it. And I did handle it--eventually.

During just the second month of my studies, I became overwhelmed--very, very overwhelmed!--by coursework and other factors. One key source of stress was the biomedical core class. The class was designed to teach the fundamentals of immunology, cell biology, molecular biology, pharmacology, and many other areas of biology. These disciplines were taught in 1 to 2 month timeframes; we had to learn all these subjects in one academic year.

Of course there were other things to worry about. These included my research project, a looming oral examination in physiology, and management of living expenses on meager pay. Life was stressful!

To survive, I developed a safety mechanism called "Let my graduate mentor bail me out." I would give him my problem and he would solve it. For example, I'd tell him I was having trouble understanding the course material and he would explain it to me. Or I would say I was having difficulty analyzing data and he would do it for me. This worked for a couple of months, but one day it all ended.

Bursting My Bubble

I went to his office expecting my daily dose of salvation and instead he gave me a disappointed look and said, "Martin, one day you will have your own research lab. One day you will have to solve your own problems. If I keep giving you the answers you will never learn to be an independent scientist. You have to pretend this is your lab. You have to do whatever you can to solve problems and make things work." I felt like a worm and wiggled out of the room a very embarrassed graduate student.

But I learned a very important lesson that day. To be an independent scientist, you have to act like an independent scientist. This was very hard for me, because during high school, college, and my master's degree, I was used to being bailed out by my teachers. Looking back at those years, I realize that I used the excuse of being a product of a school system that was not as good as others in the U.S. Rather than working hard to overcome my academic deficiencies, I used my lack of preparation as a crutch. At first, I continued the pattern as a Ph.D. student, and it took a sound shaking by my mentor to let me know what my problem was.

During undergraduate and master's education, being independent is not really stressed. You are mostly thinking about learning from books and passing tests. Knowledge is dished up; you just have to chew and swallow. But science is not about learning information from textbooks. Science is about discovery. Scientists create ideas and test their ideas to arrive at the truth. Learning to do this is what Ph.D. training is all about.

The key word is independence. You must learn to do the work of a scientist independently. How? By taking my advisor's advice and pretending the lab is yours. As "principal investigator" of your own piece of lab, you have to think about and do things to keep the lab up and running. Experience is the best teacher. Start practicing as soon as you can.

Key Pointers for Gaining Independence

These strategies helped me with my transition to scientific independence.

  • Plan and execute. Be active in the planning and performance of all aspects of your research project. This includes experimental setup and execution, data analysis, manuscript writing, data management, etc. It's your research, so learn to do it and take responsibility for it.

  • See the whole picture. Develop a sense of the entire spectrum of the research process. Sit back and ask yourself what it takes to go from an idea to the finished product. Once you grasp the steps, you are no longer clueless. You will know what needs to be done next, and you won't have to rely on your mentor to light a fire under you. Or in you.

  • Develop a troubleshooting mentality. Try to solve problems on your own. This type of thinking will serve you well in your own lab. It will also help you grow as a scientist. It is better to have the ability to solve problems than to sit and worry about who or what will help you.

  • Go out of your way to learn. It's no longer about learning what's on the test long enough to pass it. It's about learning all aspects of science that can help you with your research. Go out there and read with a purpose. Read and learn everything you can about the techniques you will perform, the equipment you will use, and what has been done in this area of research in the past. When you know more about your project than your advisor, you're almost ready to graduate.

  • Be proactive. Be the first one with the idea. Be the first one to solve the problem, or the person who initiates discussions in lab meetings and organizes activities, such as journal clubs and inviting seminar speakers.

  • When you do these things--and do them first--you'll be a leader in the lab. But the main goal is to be the leader of your own learning. You must take charge of your Ph.D. training and do all the things necessary to make your research program successful. I'm grateful to my advisor for giving me a dose of "tough love." It was exactly what I needed to help me focus my attention on my research career. I hope my experiences will help other graduate students in their quest to becoming independent scientists.

    Martin Farias III, Ph.D. is a senior fellow in the Department of Physiology at Louisiana State University Health Science Center in New Orleans, Louisiana. He may be reached at mfaria@lsuhsc.edu.