A Day in the Life of a Graduate Student
As any graduate student will tell you, a variety of forces influence your schedule so that no two days look exactly alike. Early in graduate school I balanced classes and seminars with experiments during my last rotation before picking a thesis lab. Now that my coursework is completed, I focus more on reading, planning experiments, writing grants, manuscripts and review articles with my PI, lab meetings, and of course actually gathering data. In addition, I always take advantage of one of the big strengths of the MD-PhD program at Columbia: the wealth of educational conferences available to the clinical and scientific community. These include invited speakers as well as faculty within the university. In a given week Columbia University Medical Center (CUMC) may host Nobel Prize winners and Howard Hughes Investigators from around the country and the globe as well as major policy shapers like the Director of the National Institutes of Health. Of course, no graduate program is complete without social activities and as a graduate student I network with faculty and fellow students from across the Medical Center at formal receptions, WISC (Women in Science at Columbia) events, and informal happy hours like the weekly Free Friday event held on the roof of Bard Hall. For me the best part of grad school is the flexibility (yet increased responsibility) afforded as I create my own schedule to accomplish my research and educational goals. Graduate school, like medical school, demands study and precision, but at CUMC I feel I have the support I need to complete and defend a successful thesis while maintaining a healthy life.
Kimberly Point du Jour, MD, PhD
A Day in the Life During the First 1.5 Years
The first year and a half are all classes (during the semester) and lab rotations (summers). During the semester, on any given day, I'd wake up around 8 or 9 and go to class. There's, of course, a lot of variety. The first semester is science catch-up (genetics, pharmacology, etc.) and anatomy, so every week, there'd be a 3 hour anatomy lab, which you'd do in groups of four. The following two semesters, classes are in blocks by system (cardio, psych, pulm, neuro, etc.) with tutorials where you learn to do physical exams once per week for four hours, again, in groups of four. A lot of MD-PhDs (myself included) also choose to do some PhD classes during the med school portion, and be done with most courses by the time we get to lab. Now, that sounds like a lot of class, but it's really not. It rounds out to about 4-5hr of class per day. Exams are about once per month, and it's all pass/fail so all of the students are extremely collaborative.
The summer before the program began, I rotated in a lab that studied Parkinson’s disease. Only about half of the incoming students in the class decide to rotate at this time, but I find that those who do not rotate, later regret that decision. Summer in NYC is wonderful and the campus is relaxed. This is also a great time to explore everything the city has to offer. I attended many Broadway shows that summer. Rotations are also a great chance to learn about graduate school, labs, and mentors at Columbia. In the summer after the first year of medical school, I rotated in a lab that studies ALS. I am currently doing a third rotation studying Alzheimer’s disease. Most students end up completing 1-2 rotations.
Every day after class come the extracurriculars. I perform in Bard Hall Players productions three times per year, so I have some time of rehearsal for that. I'm also in the a capella group, the Ultrasounds (original name for med school a capella, I know). We perform at an evening Coffeehouse (where med students perform dances, poetry, music, etc. and party out the night with free pizza and beer) once per month. I volunteer at the Gay Health Advocacy Project, where I do peer counseling for HIV testing 3 hours per week in the Morningside campus. Overall, I'd say it's been a fantastic time so far.
A Day in the Life
I’m a sixth year in the program, so my daily schedule has varied quite a bit since I’ve been here. I’m someone who learns best in person, so the M1 and first half of M2 years felt like a typical job: arrive for class at 8-9am, lectures/small groups until the early afternoon, study for a while, and relax in the evenings. I’m a big arts person, so I would go see shows a couple of nights a month, especially as a reward after exams. Some studying on weekends, but otherwise fairly free. Clinical rotations in the second semester of the M2 year were the first big shift for my schedule: I did OB-GYN and Med Away, so I was expected to arrive at the hospital anywhere between 5:30-6:30am and stayed most of the day depending on the setting. The workdays were pretty busy and variable even week-to-week within a rotation, so I basically only did clinic during the week and pushed everything else to the weekends.
Starting the PhD was another major shift for me. My mentor allows us to adjust our schedules as we see fit, so I’ve cycled through a few different routines as my project and personal life have changed. Early on, I’d arrive at lab late in the morning and stay very late through the evening. I lived close by and was doing exclusively bench work at the time, so it was easy to cycle in and out of lab, working anything I wanted to do in the city or at home around my experiments. As I near the end of my PhD, my project has moved from the bench to mostly data analysis and computation. I’ve also started doing a lot of writing (manuscript, thesis soon), moved out to Brooklyn, and have adopted a puppy with my fiancé. I'm able to do most of the writing and computation from home, so I typically spend mornings doing this and then go to the lab in the afternoon to manage my mice and work on my last set of experiments at the bench.
Hani J. Shayya