Hello from Postdoc Land (And some grad school pro-tips)

Dear faithful readers of Colorblind Chemistry,

Thank you for sticking with me all these years. I realize that posts here are sporadic (at best) and lately they have been non-existent. I want to apologize for the radio static and reassure you that more content is coming–I promise.

So what has happened recently? Since I last wrote, my graduate career went into overdrive. Around last Christmas, my advisor and I set the timeline for my graduation, which was suddenly in the early Fall. I was very excited to finish my degree (in nearly record time, I might add), but it definitely imposed different time constraints on me, particularly when writing for CBC. Many don’t realize that I wrote the majority of my posts in bits and pieces on my phone in the WordPress app while cycling my glovebox antechamber, only to finish them with figures/pictures/etc over lunch. I have maybe a half dozen nearly-finished articles that hit an abrupt halt when my time shifted from the lab to the desk to actually write my thesis.

So I defended and all was well–so where’s the content? Well, I started a postdoctoral fellowship almost immediately after defending. In addition to the general struggle of adjusting to a new place (being a postdoc in a very different part of the country is weird. I will try to expound upon this at another time), my workflow has changed dramatically. Those 10 minute chunks of time throughout the day where typing with my right hand and cycling an antechamber with my left was totally acceptable? Mostly gone. I do use a glovebox these days, but there’s one box for twenty people, as opposed to my last group’s four for ten people. As a result, I do a lot more bench chemistry than box chemistry, and when I’m cycling the box, it’s usually in a treaty-level negotiation with the person actively using it, so we tend to use fewer-but-longer cycles now as opposed to the many-but-shorter cycles that we used in grad school.

Nevertheless, my life has begun to stabilize a bit, and I’m going to make an active effort to write on Sundays. Writing whole posts in one sitting is not my typical style, but it’s a skill that I should foster anyway. In the near future, I plan to bring you some interesting topics–a brief review of copper oxo chemistry, some fun with “mezo” compounds and pseudoasymmetry, and even some thoughts on Derek Lowe’s new book. In addition, I will be following up with some of the people who wrote in for the grad school guidance post back in the spring to see if we can get some perspective on how struggles in higher learning pan out long term (and if my advice was any good in practice).

Now, in the interest of giving you some content, rather than just excuses, here are my “grad school pro-tips” as derived from my graduate experience as a synthetic/physical organometallic chemist. Your mileage may vary, and note that my own adherence to these varied wildly while I was in school.

Grad school pro-tips:

  1. Try everything that makes sense. Occasionally try things that don’t make sense, too; often they will fail, but when they don’t, they can be truly interesting.
  2. As a corollary of (1), learn to enjoy failure as much as success, or at least be able to shrug it off. Things don’t work a lot of the time, and so you have to give them time to make them work. If your self-esteem rides on how well the reaction went, you’re in for a very long, emotionally-exhausting ride through your entire chemical career.
  3. A day in the library saves a week in the lab, and a week of testing routes saves a month of backtracking. That is, plan out your experiments ahead by reading the relevant literature—never start a reaction until you’ve looked at SciFinder to see if anyone has made a similar molecule before—and then come up with more than one plan of attack and try them in parallel. If you know what you’re looking for in a successful experiment, you should be able to judge which route was the best without too much overhead, and then you can repeat just that one.
  4. If a reaction fails, don’t just call it “failed” and move on. What happened? Nearly every time I’ve ever had a stumbling point, the answer came in taking the afternoon to figure out what my side product[1] was. It usually either led to the solution or a totally unexpected result. Being very precise and thoughtful about your reactions—whether they did what you want or not—is critical to making progress. Remember: courtesy of the law of conservation of mass, the mass had to go somewhere. Calling something intractable is giving up; sometimes it’s necessary, but not nearly as often as one might think. Note: This also feeds back on (2).
  5. Channel laziness into innovation. Make nifty tools and “lab hacks.” If lab work is easier for you, it will get done faster. Hate that horrible purification? Figure out the simplest way to do it without sacrificing quality and not only will you be happier, the people who go to reproduce it will be much happier as well.
  6. Never talk yourself out of a reaction that opens up new things!
  7. However, never talk yourself into a reaction that doesn’t (ie, getting the yield up on a starting material synthesis). Get the big things out of the way first, then sweat the small stuff. Getting 99% yield on your starting material is irrelevant if it doesn’t work in the reaction.
  8. Most importantly, try to have fun. Insert your favorite cliché here: grad school is a marathon, not a sprint, etc. However, the thing that gets lost in the confines of academia is that you don’t have to be unhappy to be successful. Sure, everyone’s situation is different, but remember that suffering through something you don’t enjoy because it’s “how it works” or “it’s for the greater good” or—worst of all—to “prove how tough you are” is not solving the problem, or even likely healthy. Ask and ye shall receive—take the same approach to your professional life and happiness that you do with your research.

[1] Note the difference between a SIDE product (unwanted, unrelated to the mechanism of interest) and a Byproduct (a necessary consequence of the desired reaction as a function of balancing, ie loss of water from an aldehyde/amine condensations)

3 thoughts on “Hello from Postdoc Land (And some grad school pro-tips)

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