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Visiting Duke and GSK

I’m on my way back from my visit to GSK and Duke. I’d never visited the GSK site in the Research Triangle (although I remember the old Burroughs Wellcome one from the mid-1980s), and it was good to see the place. There are a lot of really good people there, some of whom I’ve known for a long time, and others that I just met. The forum that Bernard Munos and I spoke at seemed to go over well, and I enjoyed doing it. But I couldn’t help but think that one of the things energizing it was a pervasive worry at the place about further rounds of re-organization and cutbacks. As so many of us have had the chance to find out, that’s not the way to enhance research productivity. Or much of anything else.
And the visit to Duke was quite surreal. The old Gross Chem building has been totally refurbished, and as I told people there, I don’t think a more thorough exorcism could have been performed on the place. It was like walking around in some sort of science-fiction film: parts of the building exterior look exactly as they did thirty years ago, absolutely unchanged, but then you open a door or turn a corner, and there’s 2014 and no doubt about it. They ripped out all the interior walls (and everything else), knocked a big skylight through the middle of the roof, and now the place, which no longer has any real chemistry-department role at all, is all full of sleek lighting, nice wood and carpeting, flat screen displays and coffee bars. I did not always have such a great time in the old building, and seeing it so thoroughly obliterated was, well, sort of inspiring.
My time in the present-day chemistry department was fun. I got a chance to talk with several of the younger faculty, gossip with some of the longtime ones, meet a number of grad students, and talk to a good crowd. I hope that one of the students I met took the advice I gave her: she was thinking about downloading the university-required template so that she could start on her dissertation, and I told her to do it that very evening. My general grad-school advice remains the same: the point of being there is to get out of there. Finish your degree! Do it honorably, and without making enemies, but finish your degree and move on to the rest of your life, which is most certainly not grad school.

23 comments on “Visiting Duke and GSK”

  1. Bob Seevers says:

    Yes. Download that template and get on with your life. Which puts me in mind of the little old lady whose sole job at the University of Michigan when I was there in the later seventies, was to put a cutout sheet over each page of every thesis to ensure that the typing had not gone outside the officially permitted margins. Ah, memories.

  2. Anonymous says:

    My general grad-school advice? For the love of god, don’t go to the US! Do your PhD in a sensible country in Europe. 3 or 4 years, no fees, no classes, decent pay. Simple!

  3. A Nonny Mouse says:

    So, what’s happened to the old BW site? Amazing building with the blue/orange colour scheme and angled corridors. One of the old guys (Mort Harfenist??) hated the colour in his office and kept repainting it.
    He would come in on the Monday and it had been painted back to orange- the architect had complete control and would not tolerate any change.

  4. Anonymous says:

    Yes, write the thesis! The only reason I’m not still there is because I declared I was leaving.
    Advisor: When are you going to run that reaction we talked about?
    Me: Never
    Advisor: WHAT!?
    Me: I’m writing, then I’m defending, then I’m leaving. My postdoc starts in 4 months.
    Advisor: You got a postdoc!? #&^*$%$%*()*()&*%$*U)I)*T…OK
    I published 8 papers, it would have never been enough in their mind though.
    Derek: Did they keep the volleyball court at Gross Chem? It was the only thing I missed when we moved to French.

  5. NJBiologist says:

    @1 Bob Seevers–Apparently, she (and her philosophy) had been retired by the late 1990s. There were templates you could download by then, and if it looked like you hadn’t done serious violence to them, your format review took about two minutes.

  6. Anon2 says:

    Yes, best advice I was given by a senior grad student on their way out (when I was just arriving) was to start working on your dissertation now. I didn’t follow it, but I did start a bit sooner than “asking” to defend. If I could pass something along, it would be to start writing after your first year in the lab.
    Also, get an [university/academic pricing] version of EndNote. Such a pain to have a committee member ask you to cite something in the third paragraph and then have to renumber 140 other citations.

  7. Anonymous says:

    I forgot to use my school’s (big state U) template, but did actually create my document to meet all the criteria (font, spacing, margin size, etc.). Because of this my school wouldn’t write me a letter saying I successfully defended my dissertation. This meant no pay for the first month of my postdoc (in Cambridge, MA… which is expensive) until I could “prove” that I defended my dissertation.
    Once they finally got back to me (they needed 2-4 weeks to review it), all I had to do was add the date of my defense on the cover page…
    So yes, if you’re near the end of grad school, download the template now.

  8. Current GSKer says:

    Very interesting morning, Derek. Your perception of the pervasive worry is spot on, and has been a source of anxious energy for a number of years now, especially in RTP, where many have feared a complete shutdown of the site since the time of the merger.
    Thanks for coming to visit and speak. I missed the early session, but enjoyed the second session. I was left thinking that it would have been even better had we scrapped confidentiality and opened it up to the whole RTP pharma community. Maybe the NC Biotech center will see the value of that and bring you and Bernard back.
    @A Nonny Mouse, the old BW site (Elion-Hitchings aka Main Building) now belongs to United Therapeutics. There’s a fence screening the entire site, so it’s impossible for me to tell what sort of renovations they are doing. As a legacy Glaxo employee, I never had to do anything more than attend meetings there. I found it architecturally “interesting”, but it must have been maddening to try to work in those labs.

  9. 6 Yr Itch says:

    Yes, GET OUT! After 4 years, I presented my thesis to my advisor in our regular meeting time. His response: “But, you don’t have the total synthesis of XXXX on here” (it had a very difficult sector). In a defining moment for me, I told him that since variations on his approach had not worked for two years, that if I stayed, I was going to do it my way. That worked, I wrote up and got out. I heard someone say once about presentations that could just as well apply to graduate school: Be Brief, Be Bright and Be GONE!

  10. Anonymous says:

    That was great advice. Advisors never tell anyone they should start writing. The corollary to that is to decide what you think should be the final product, write it out, and negotiate from there.
    I am in a math based field and my advisor kept wanting me to prove something in more generality. I finally told him politely I was never going to figure that out and to take what I had. He took it and I got out.

  11. dearieme says:

    “I did not always have such a great time in the old building”: what proportion of people enjoy being research students?

  12. p says:

    I went to Duke and had a great time. I met great people. I worked with (and for) great people. Had a wonderful time. A hell of a time. A time I look back on with great happiness.
    I also got out as soon as I could and was glad to do it. Grad school done right is great. But it can also be hell. When you start to sniff brimstone, get the hell out.

  13. a. nonymaus says:

    Re: 12
    As they say, better to rule in hell than serve in heaven. Of course this means that if you’re serving in hell…

  14. jbosch says:

    I must be a weird advisor then.
    I ask my people about 1 year before they defend to start working on their thesis. Some do, others don’t but I keep asking how is that intro chapter doing …
    And don’t get me wrong here, I would love to keep my grad students longer but it is not fair they should leave when their market value is the highest to land the best possible position they would like to get for their future career and this may be industry or academia.
    Anybody looking for some good people by any chance ? Have a lookout our website and contact me.

  15. Anonymous says:

    Not a chemist (Pharmacologist/toxicologist), but I agree with @ 6 Anon2. I told my Tox class last week (before their essays were due) to look into EndNote/RefWorks/Reference Manager (whatever the University had negotiated a good price (translation: free) for and learn how to use it; it would make their lives so much easier in the long-run.
    BTW PhD (and MSc) theses in Canada in the ’90s had a similar person with the ruler to make sure the margins were exactly correct (1.5″ on the left, 1″ on the right, top and bottom).

  16. toluene says:

    @3. A Nonny Mouse Ah Mort–what a character! He didn’t want to retire after the GW merger–kept coming in and writing papers on chemistry performed 20 years prior.
    The Elion-Hitchings building was a health hazard–I kept banging my head on the slanted walls!

  17. hn says:

    @6,15: I use Zotero, which is free.

  18. Jj says:

    I remember the margin lady- she measured my thesis and found it was offset by half the width of the letter l.
    Yes, I had to take my thesis to a photocopy place and have it offset a mm or two.
    Since I already had defended and had a job lined up, it wasn’t so bad.

  19. The Scientist says:

    Make no enemies?
    Impossible in this place. Half the faculty have picked ‘enemy’ grad students almost before they even show up.

  20. Hap says:

    Are the places the chemistry grad students actually work better than Gross was? Having a nice building that you will never use while working in the salt mines is not (much of) a win. The only thing worse would be to be charged a fee for its construction and existence (*cough*OSU*cough*).

  21. Wage Slave says:

    Great advice to the grad students. Same holds for post-docs. I tell them ‘This is the only job you will have where your job is to get a job! So have fun and do it well.’

  22. diverdude says:

    I worked at both the BW and GW (as it was then) sites in the early 90s. I remember it being great fun and being surrounded by enthusiastic, capable, positive, creative people who were supported in their endeavors by their organization and who were up for a beer after work. I am glad I got to experience RTP at its best.

  23. newnickname says:

    @11 and @12: “what proportion of people enjoy being research students?” A former RB Woodward student told me that RBW predicted that he (the student) will look back at his time in grad school as the best time of his life. 25+ years later, the student said that RBW was right.
    And a marginal thesis story, from the pre-computer = typewriter days: Student-A typed up his thesis on rag paper but the registrar refused to accept it because it was the wrong kind of rag paper. His powerful PI intervened and forced the registrar to accept it, but not without difficulty and pulling a lot of strings. Student-A remained for some post-doc stuff. In the meantime, Student-B was starting to write and type up so Student-A generously gave him his left over wrong-rag paper, without warning him that it was the wrong-rag. Guess where that went.

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