Darcie Cook: Finding a Lab Outlet

The PhD/Postdoc blog series features scientists at different stages of career development as they explore and plan for their next steps. Over the course of six months, Edward van Opstal, Ruchi Masand, Corina White, and Darcie Cook will give monthly updates on their progress. Check back every Wednesday for new blog posts!

Current Position: 5th year PhD candidate in Immunology and Molecular Pathogenesis

Program Start Date: 2011

Institution: Emory University

One of the most difficult aspects of graduate school is staying positive and motivated when everything begins to pile up on top of you. In my experience, the insanity tends to come in waves. One week will be really slow with mostly reading and planning days while the next week, I’m living in the lab working myself to exhaustion. One of the best ways to cope with these ebbs and flows is to have an outlet, something that gets you excited and helps you recharge.

I had decided pretty early on in graduate school that I wanted to pursue some type of science communication or education career. I volunteered for every relevant opportunity I came across and cultivated a network of individuals throughout Atlanta that had these types of jobs. You have probably heard it before, but your network is everything. Networking always slightly intimidated me because I always thought it was mostly unbearable small talk and fake smiles in formal situations. When I finally started to get out there and seriously try to build a network, I found it was actually very easy and more casual than anticipated.

Utilizing the informational interview was also crucial for the development of my network. It gave me the opportunity to get to know a person better and ask pointed questions about their career and the path that led them to where they are now. I tend to be on the more introverted side of the spectrum and am easily overwhelmed at large networking events. Meeting people at a large event is great, but making a personal connection through a one-on-one conversation made me a more memorable contact and I felt more confident asking for their guidance in the future.

By leveraging my network, I secured an internship with the David J. Sencer CDC Museum. What was initially supposed to be a 10-week internship has turned into an ongoing partnership. As my lab schedule permits, I work a few hours each week in the education department. Because the museum is small, I also get the opportunity to work in other departments and learn a variety of useful museum skills. I love the work I do there and I look forward to that time even more when I know I’m going to have a really busy week in lab.

Finding time for career development in graduate school can sometimes feel like a fruitless effort. Some professors may even see it as a waste of time, particularly if you are pursuing a goal outside of academia. Once I started looking into careers that excited me, I made professional and career development a priority. It’s easy to say you have too many other things to do and that you don’t have time for it, but I made time. I got really excited about finding new people to talk to, looking into relevant conferences, and making a list of new skills to work on. Having a clear goal of what I wanted to do and where I wanted to go, helped me chart a path on how to get there.

Working at the museum has given me great experience and makes me more competitive when applying for jobs in the future. More importantly, it has become a place for me to recharge. The environment is very supportive and I get many opportunities to learn and gain new skills. When I get bogged down by grad school, it is a great place to forget about failed experiments for a while and do something fun that I really love.

Without the time at the museum, I know I would find it much more difficult to stay motivated during the more difficult weeks. Not only does it give me time away from lab, but I also get perspective from people away from the lab. It’s helpful to see life outside of the academic bubble that can feel like a pressure cooker of anxiety. I have more energy to get back into the lab and troubleshoot whatever isn’t working at the moment.

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