The Non-Linear Path of a Graduate Student

bird s eye view of roadway surrounded by trees

This article contains the personal experiences of Dr. Brittany Knight. Opinions are her own.

The Beyond the PhD team started writing reflection pieces this year to provide our readers with personal insights to our career journeys as early career professionals. I encourage our team to be honest as we all can relate to each other in one form or another. Below is my honest recollection of my journey from my undergraduate training through my graduate school training, and to my current role as Program Coordinator of the United States Association for the Study of Pain, the United States Chapter of the International Association for the Study of Pain.  

First Things First, Looking Back 

Reflection is a tricky thing. It takes honest and calm introspection. And if you’ve been through life, as you all have unless you are artificial intelligence (please no spamming!), you know it comes with its ups and downs and our career journeys are not linear. My career journey is by no means linear. 

For context, it has been nearly 3 years since I stood in front of my peers to deliver my dissertation defense, eight years since I prepared to move from Pennsylvania to Connecticut to pursue my graduate training, and almost, dare I say, twelve years since I was infected with the idea of wanting to pursue research as a career. My mother would tell you I was 1 week into college, and I was already researching graduate programs. I had universities from all over the country mail me whatever free materials they had about graduate programs. I guess this was before the true internet age set-in and everything was provided digitally … I can honestly admit I wasn’t sure what I wanted to study; at the time I was pursuing a B.S. in Psychology at my undergraduate institution, but I did know I wanted to know more than college could offer me. 

Undergrade to Graduate Transitions 

Fast forward four years of courses in psychology and biology, four independent research semester projects, and a summer internship to the “deep south” studying marine mammals in Gulfport, Mississippi. In the Spring of 2013, I was rejected from every graduate program I applied to study animal behavior. I was devastated. I had no back up plan. There was only one plan. And I was determined to see it through. I can remember sitting in the Ulmer Sciences Building on my undergraduate campus, Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania, in the study lounge the week before graduation and deciding I was not ready to leave. I knew I had some gaps in my training that I would need to fill before pursuing a second round of graduate school applications. I re-enrolled myself for fall 2013 courses with the goal of completing a 1-yr post-baccalaureate program in Biology. My plan was to apply to graduate school a second time but this time I would take off my gloves and apply for what my heart really wanted, to study neuroscience. I was fascinated by the neurochemistry of the brain and the behavior that resulted from it. This is why I chose to study psychology. I wasn’t interested in counseling like most of my classmates, but instead I wanted to understand the why or physiology being psychological processes; how chemicals in the brain produce our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors. One year and several chemistry courses later I stepped onto UConn’s Health’s campus in Farmington Connecticut the Fall of 2014 as a Biomedical Sciences pre-doctoral candidate. I recall feeling overwhelmed, excited, and extremely motivated to learn all I could. 

Graduate School- the True Test

But as I mentioned and as we all know life has its ups and downs. Any graduate student if they are being honest will admit to you that their program was no walk in the park and … they likely thought about quitting. I didn’t ever conceive myself quitting my program, but I was tested constantly over my five years of training. On a personal note, I lost four family members in my first year of graduate school, including all my remaining grandparents, and during my second year my mother was diagnosed with breast cancer. In the laboratory, my lab’s Principal Investigator was new faculty (just started their lab at UConn the year before I joined their lab) so we were starting a mouse colony and all new projects which had its own unique set of challenges and frustrations. I’ll be honest I felt alone, I struggled, and I cried a lot. But between those hard days I also experienced elation planning my experiments, collecting new data, working late with lab mates, and walking those empty hallways in the early am or late pm felt like magic. The halls seemed to buzz from the day or the day to come. New data. New discoveries. Progress. Discovery! That magic with a lot of support from my friends enabled me to pursue a postdoctoral fellowship. I wasn’t sure what I wanted to do yet. And after speaking with a mentor from college I was convinced a postdoctoral fellowship could give me the time to truly think about my future goals. Then COVID hit … and I was struck with the hard truth of academia. I had seen it before and knew it existed you just don’t expect it to be you. The training program I had my fellowship through was not renewed and I was faced with the problem of funding to keep my position. 

I started to think about new ways I could invent myself outside the pillars of academia. It was then I started giving informational interviews to professionals with positions in academic counseling, academic foundations, and industry. I had several interviews that mostly resulted in the discovery of what I did not want to do. But I wouldn’t have known otherwise. This is why Beyond the PhD was founded; to help students understand their career options beyond academia, to help them discover new ways to transfer their carefully learned skills and obtain new positions that give them fulfillment and a lifestyle they deserve. I owe my involvement with Beyond the PhD with the tools and confidence to look outside the walls of academia and see what greener pastures may lay ahead for me. 

Transitioning Out of Academia

One day, an announcement from my research community came to my inbox. The organization was looking for a Program Coordinator for the United States Association for the Study of Pain. This position entailed coordinating and working with the various working groups within the research community, planning the annual conference, and other community building activities and professional development events. I was part of this community for 6 years as a trainee. Now almost 9 months into the role I help with almost every facet of the organization.

My advice to anyone not knowing what their next step is, is to be persistent, persevere, and know you are not alone during your career journey. You have what it takes to get where you want to be. 

My vision for Beyond the PhD is to provide a community of graduate students that can network, share their experiences judgement free, support each other and lift each other up to achieve and pursue greatness. We are the next generation of scientists and leaders in our fields. And if you haven’t heard this today, know that you are doing amazing and you will get to where you want to be, just be patient and trust the process. 

Published by Britt Knight PhD, Director

I received my PhD in Biomedical Sciences from the University of Connecticut. My doctoral research focused on basic mechanisms in peripheral inflammatory pain biology. After, I completed about two years of postdoctoral research understanding how biomaterials can be used to deliver analgesics for treating musculoskeletal pain I transitioned to the Program Coordinator position for the United States Association for the Study of Pain (USASP). I am also the regional Director of CT Junior Science and Humanities Symposium.

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