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Earning a Ph.D. in Microbiology

As I prepared to write this article, I began reviewing the path that I took in obtaining my M.S. in biology and my Ph.D. in microbiology. Some of my memories were filled with excitement and joy, while others were filled with unpleasantness. Looking back, I realize there are four keys that lead to success--do not procrastinate, become an independent thinker, network, and revisit your source of motivation. This is my personal testimony as to my own success in obtaining my Ph.D. in microbiology.

Early Preparation is Key

The unpleasant moments that I experienced were always due to my lack of preparation. As a graduate student your success is determined by your preparation. I am a procrastinator by nature and I can testify to the horrors associated with not doing things on time. I recall when I was applying to graduate school at North Carolina State University (NCSU). I waited to the last minute to prepare and submit my application. When you are applying to graduate school or for a fellowship, promptness is the key.

Well, the deadline for submission was during the Christmas holiday, on 30 December. As everyone knows, the postal system at that time of year is really swamped and anything mailed at the last minute is not guaranteed to make it to the required destination on time. Luckily, my application made it to NCSU on 29 December.

However, if my application had not been received by the deadline, then I may not have been accepted into my doctoral program. I have learned that it is best to do all activities before the deadline in order to provide time for any unforeseen circumstances that may arise. This will apply whether you are submitting applications for admission to graduate school, turning in a paper, or writing your thesis. In addition, I would also highly recommend preparing for standardized tests such as the Graduate Record Examination (GRE) early as well. Your results may determine your eligibility for various types of fellowship funding. So, try very hard not be a procrastinator! For example, work on homework assignments, paperwork, and oral presentations ahead of time. Your stress level will be controlled and you can alleviate some pressure on yourself.

Becoming an Independent Thinker

The graduate training process is based on transforming students into independent critical thinkers. The sooner this occurs for you the better. As a graduate student, my greatest challenge was making this transition. In my undergraduate science courses, I did not become a critical thinker. Instead, I simply regurgitated material discussed in class. Unfortunately, I did not fine-tune these skills until I entered graduate school. Making this transition is extremely important to your success in graduate school.

What steps are necessary to bring about transforming yourself into an independent thinker? I began to read the literature in my discipline and discuss experiments and results with my advisor, lab mates, or any one in my department. I attended journal club meetings in my discipline and in related areas. Journal clubs provide a forum for developing your critical thinking skills. I had difficulty evaluating the validity of experiments presented in various journal articles. Discussing papers with other scientists helped me to determine if a particular experimental design was valid. But that?s not all. Participating in journal clubs also helped me to analyze experiments and to begin thinking about how to design alternative experiments or new experiments to address related questions. As a result, I became an independent thinker. If you are an undergraduate, I would suggest starting a journal club in your department and solicit the assistance of faculty or graduate students. Attend departmental seminars and ask questions. These exercises will provide a setting to prepare you in making this transition.

Establishing Professional Relationships

The third key to success is networking. Regardless of the field of study, networking is essential. The old adage states that "it is not what you know, but it is whom you know." And I would also add, that it is really who knows you. This is the purpose of networking. Networking should begin while you are an undergraduate and it will continue as long as you are in the workforce. Networking is free advertisement. It provides an opportunity for you to tell the powers that be in your discipline who you are and what you are capable of doing. It also informs others that you are interested in what they are doing.

The simplest way to network is to begin on your campus and other nearby institutions. Converse with faculty members in your discipline and build a relationship with them. Also, interact at local and national scientific meetings. During poster sessions or after talks begin by commenting on the presenter?s research and then use this as an opportunity to sell yourself.

I was not comfortable networking. I always felt that I would say the wrong thing. But eventually I expanded my comfort zone and began to network. A lot of the opportunities that I had as a graduate student and as a professor were a result of networking. We all know that the best advertisement is word of mouth, and networking is one of the best ways to market yourself.


The final key to success lies within. While attending graduate school, there were times when I asked myself, "Why are you pursuing a graduate degree?" And even at this point in my career, I ask myself, "Why are you doing this?" To find the answer, I have to revisit my source of motivation. The source of motivation that drives me comes from my ancestors. They did not have the opportunity to attend college and definitely not to pursue a graduate degree.

I am motivated to continue to do my best because I represent not just myself, but all my ancestors. My grandparents rode in the back of the bus so that I could be a teacher to people of all races. My ancestors fought for freedom so that I would have the opportunity to obtain undergraduate and graduate degrees from any university I desired to attend. Thus, I will never lose sight of my goals, because I will always have the answer. As you pursue your graduate degree always stay focused and be prepared. Preparation is the ultimate key to success!

Sherrice V. Allen is an assistant professor of biology at Fayetteville State University. Professor Allen earned her Ph.D. in microbiology from North Carolina State University. For further information, please e-mail Professor Allen at