Darcie Cook: Getting Back Up When You Fall Down

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

Before starting graduate school, I wasn’t much of a soul-searcher. For as far back as I can remember, I loved science. My science classes made sense and I always excelled at them. At a high school that only required three years of science, I had to get special permission to take three extra science courses in my fourth year. Biology was always my favorite subject, and I had a particular fascination with infectious disease. I grew up reading books about smallpox, Ebola, cholera, the plague, and many other infectious diseases that have had an impact on human history. I had aspirations to be a virus hunter and someday work at the Centers for Disease Control and Protection (CDC) or the United States Army Medical Research Institute for Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID).

Given these lofty goals, I knew a doctorate was in my future. I got my undergraduate degree in biomedical engineering from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute, did a few semesters of research, and then applied for graduate programs in immunology, virology, and microbiology. I always knew that I didn’t want to be a PI and run my own lab, but had decided long ago that a PhD was the next step to the research that I wanted to do. I never really stopped to consider anything else.

Throughout graduate school at Emory University in Atlanta, GA, I found myself gravitating towards volunteer opportunities involving education, outreach, and communication. These activities gave me something to look forward to between the seemingly never-ending days and constant failures at the bench. The further into research I got, the more I realized that it was not the place I wanted to be. When I heard about a program that encourages students to explore careers other than academia, I jumped at the chance to learn more. The Atlanta BEST Program gave me a ladder to climb out of the grad school induced hole I found myself in. The program helped me investigate careers that I had never really considered as a possibility with a PhD.

This program also gave me a community of peers who were feeling exactly the same thing I was feeling. I wasn’t the only one that was questioning my future and wondering why I was putting myself through this struggle. I made some fantastic new friends and we have used each other as a much-needed support system to navigate the waters of grad school. I have had many, many stumbles on this journey and I know there are going to be more, but no component of grad life has been more important to me than my support system.

I’ll be taking my blog in a slightly different direction in the next few months. While I will be talking about career exploration and developing my skills to be competitive in the work force, I’ll be spending a lot of time talking about the roller coaster of graduate school and how I have succeeded (and failed) throughout. Halfway through my fifth year, I was so drained that I came very close to giving up altogether. Not wanting to make a hasty decision to throw away the last four-and-a-half years of my life, I decided to take a year off to see the world. Many of my professors and colleagues shook their heads when I told them my plan and some even wrote me off completely.

My time away was inspiring and necessary for me to continue on this road to get those three little letters after my name. It gave me the long distance perspective and stability needed to avoid making an overly emotional decision. It’s now a little over a year later and I have been back at the bench for two-and-a-half months, much to the surprise of those professors who doubted my tenacity. I still struggle with the day-to-day bench work and the failures of experiments, but I have better coping strategies and know that in the long run, it will all be worth it. My biggest takeaways from graduate school won’t be the techniques I’ve learned or my proficiency in experimental design, they will be the emotional intelligence I’ve gained and the ability to manage myself when the going gets rough – to convince myself to stand back up when I fall.


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