The Best is Yet to Come, Part II: Reflections on Graduate School

StudentSpeak is pleased to share this guest post from Kelly Chacón, who graduates June 5 with her doctorate in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

For Part I of Kelly’s post, click here.

Finally my fifth year arrived. I was ready to finish, even if I wasn’t actually ready to finish. My third paper was published, which is the deal we make for graduation in my lab. And I was accepted to give a little “data blitz” at my sub-field’s main scientific conference. A key professor saw me give that 5-minute, ridiculous presentation (I’m sure 3MT’ers can relate), and invited me to give a real talk at another conference. That was terrifying, and awesome, and I accidentally switched the U and the L in the word “results” on my slide.

I’ll let you spell that out.

I only mention those talks because they led to something unexpected. At that conference, I invited a professor to give a joint seminar for OHSU and Portland State (my alma mater). While having a beer with the speaker after their seminar, a friend alerted me to an open assistant professor position in chemistry at Reed College, here in Portland. Reed?! That’s my dream job! But I’m sure it’s too soon. Nevertheless, I decided to send in an agonized-over cover letter, if only to develop some resilience to being rejected. It turned out that Reed and I were actually soul mates. After three months and a long interview process, I was offered the job! And all because of a 5-minute data blitz.

In fact, this is the only advice I feel qualified to give in this entire post – find ways to give talks at conferences, and really work on your presentation skills in every year of grad school – swallow your fear, ask for feedback, and then work on improving. It will pay off! If you can communicate really effectively to a broad audience about your work, good things will happen. I swear.

Post-dissertation defense celebration

That brings us back to today. I made it through my thesis defense relatively unscathed (and by the way, it really doesn’t matter if you have a job/postdoc lined up – your committee still makes you squirm and stutter and wish you were somewhere else). And now I am just getting used to the idea that I will never have to take another class, that this Spring GSO barbeque will be my last, and that above all, I am no longer a spring chicken.

I also see that I no longer can use the “grad school” excuse to justify why I haven’t done some of the things I want to do in life – like hem a bunch of my pairs of pants (whatever, I’m short, okay?), go visit my family on both sides of the border, and lose maybe 5 of those 10 pounds.

In some ways, grad school felt like suspended animation, and the mental and emotional energy needed to get through to real life again was significant. But in that process, grad school also taught me how to be nicer to myself, how to have a thicker skin, and how to successfully bond with a mentor. Above all, while I really loved my time at OHSU – the great facilities, all of the people I worked with, whether in lab or in administration – I realize that I wasn’t in love with being a graduate student. And I think that’s finally okay to admit, if only to assure others that many of us feel that way at the end of this particular journey. After all, we’d never move on if it were a “perfect” experience! So now I move on, with so much gratefulness to everyone at OHSU who helped me along the way, and a lot of relief. It’s good to be done.

2 responses to “The Best is Yet to Come, Part II: Reflections on Graduate School

  1. Many congratulations, Dr. Chacon! You have contributed so much and I am delighted you are not moving too far away. Graduate Career Networking event next year, perhaps???

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