Misadventures and Victories: An Unfiltered Look at Grad School in the Sciences

Karl Smith and Maddie Sofia are Grad Students at the University of Rochester and Hosts of The Bench Warmers Podcast.

Karl J. P. Smith and Madeline Sofia are Grad Students at the University of Rochester and Hosts of The Bench Warmers Podcast.

Grad students dishing about the ‘misadventures and victories’ of a life in the sciences. Oooh! Sign me up!

Anyone who has gone to grad school knows there are plenty of mistakes to be made, and the victories…well, they’re all hard won. The Bench Warmers Podcast digs deep, with revealing interviews exploring the intense emotional and mental pressure grad students experience each day. It’s even been described as ‘grad school therapy.’

The Bench Warmers Podcast is produced by two University of Rochester students who are experiencing the struggles of grad school first-hand. Karl Smith (a fourth-year Biophysics Ph.D. candidate) and Maddie Sofia (a fourth-year Microbiology Ph.D. candidate) are passionate about science communication and work on the podcast in their spare time. They hope the show helps give scientists a voice while exposing the human side of each scientific endeavor.

After hearing the first episode and realizing how well-produced (and interesting) it was, I wanted to share it with you.

Maddie and Karl were kind enough to subject themselves to this Q&A. I hope you enjoy it.


  1. Tell me about the Bench Warmer’s podcast. Where did the idea come from?

IMG_2200-1-360x360[Karl] I had been doing an audio theater podcast about Prohibition-era bootleggers for about a year. I was having fun with that project, but I wanted to find a way to mix my day job (science) with this hobby of mine. I’d taken a class Maddie had put together, and I knew that she shared my interest in science communication, so I reached out to her. When we first talked, I had this idea that we would follow a project I was working on in a lab from napkin sketch to a patent application. But Maddie suggested instead that we try telling the stories of graduate students, and that was the beginning of this crazy project.

[Maddie] I met Karl when I was teaching a class, and I was attracted to his energy and overall weirdness. I had spent a little time with him while he worked on Bootleggers and when he approached me to do this podcast it was a no-brainer.

  1. Is it tough to produce? How many personal hours do you put into it?

[Karl] There’s a lot of steps to getting the finished product. We do a lot of interviews before we have enough material that meets our standards, and it’s a lot of work to track down very busy interviewees and get them to sit for an interview. And there is so much work in editing and mastering the episodes. It took me a solid two days of editing to get our first episode to its final polished form. It doesn’t help that we have lots of research responsibilities, as well. I don’t think Maddie or I sleep much in the days before we put a new episode.

[Maddie] We definitely put a lot of work into it. This was my first podcast endeavor. So not only did Karl have to take the lead on the editing initially, he had to teach me how to use all the editing software. The great thing is, it doesn’t really feel like “work”. We get to sit down with scientists at all levels of their career and hear their stories. It’s fun.

  1. What do you hope to accomplish with the podcast?

1[Maddie] We hope to accomplish a few things. First and foremost, we want to give a voice to young scientists (graduate students and post-docs). When scientists are interviewed in the media, it’s normally the big names, the principal investigators (PIs) or heads of departments. In most scenarios, these are not the people doing the grunt work/experiments. For people who may not know a scientist, we also want to be able to give an honest and realistic portrayal of what scientists are actually like. The media doesn’t do a great job of depicting us as human beings. Lastly, this is meant to be empowering to graduate students. Graduate school can feel very isolating at times, especially on the bad days. Hopefully, we can tell stories that graduate students can relate to.

  1. Did you have to jump through any hoops to get approval to pursue the project? Is it funded or a full volunteer effort?

[Karl] It’s a volunteer effort. We bought the equipment, I run the website. In some ways, it would be nice to have institutional recognition of some kind, but I think this way we’re freer to tell the kind of stories we want to tell – we don’t feel compelled to sugarcoat the laborious process of getting through graduate school.

[Maddie] We are definitely doing this independently of the University of Rochester. So we pursue this endeavor in our “ample” free time (nights/weekends). Karl and I made that decision early so that we could tell the stories that we want to tell.

  1. It seems you both have a strong commitment to science communication. Why do you think it’s important for researchers to engage broadly?

2[Karl] There’s a lot of hostility and fear towards science and scientists in the world right now. On topics like climate change, vaccination, and genetically modified food many people refuse to listen to the hard-earned scientific consensus. One of the reasons for that, I think, is that science gets painted as a monolithic shadowy organization. When scientists are willing to talk about their research, people can put a voice or a face to the findings they present. It’s harder to make the kinds of crazy arguments about massive academic conspiracies and cover-ups that seem so popular among certain groups if you’ve actually met a few scientists.

[Maddie] I am ALL ABOUT science communication!! I think as the scientific community we have a responsibility to try to communicate our work in an accessible way. If we want this country to stay committed to science we need to share our passion and discoveries with everyone, not just the scientists we work with every day.

  1. Both of you seem to share personal stories with ease. Do you think it’s important for researchers to ‘open up’ and share more of themselves when communicating?

[Karl] Absolutely. As humans, we respond better to stories than we do to straight data.

[Maddie] I think it certainly depends on the situation. For something like The Bench Warmers I think it is essential that we talk about the human struggle that is behind science. 3People think of science as a rational and objective business but science is done by human beings with human flaws. If you want to give an accurate portrayal of science you can’t ignore that aspect of it.

  1. Do you have any words of wisdom for researchers who may want to do more public outreach/engagement, but don’t know where to begin?

[Karl] I’d say it’s important to recognize that speaking about science to the general public is a learned skill. Don’t be discouraged if things don’t go well at first.

[Maddie] My advice is to follow what excites you and don’t be afraid to ask for help getting started. People will be able to tell if you are extremely excited and passionate about whatever you are doing, and that in turn will excite them. Lastly, it’s important to just start trying things. Don’t spend a ton of time trying to find the “right” experience. You won’t know what you enjoy until you step into it.

  1. What kind of response has episode 1 of the Bench Warmer’s podcast received?

[Karl] Several people have told us that the episode is funny and honest, which is what we were aiming for.

[Maddie] I’ve gotten some really positive feedback. One graduate student told me it felt like graduate school therapy. Haha!

  1. What’s next for the two of you? What do we have to look forward to?

[Karl] There will be a new episode on the first of each month! Next month’s episode is centered around the question, “What’s the most expensive thing you’ve ever broken in a lab?”

[Maddie] We’ve got a couple of fun episodes in the works currently. Besides our next episode, we plan to do episodes on the mentor/mentee relationship, relationships in graduate school, and the very awkward art of scientific networking. So stay tuned!


Find The Bench Warmers Podcast Online:

More about Karl and Maddie

Karl J. P. Smith is a fourth-year Biophysics Ph.D. candidate in the McGrath lab at the University of Rochester. In February 2013, Karl founded the Pocket Radio Theater – a loosely organized audio theater troupe comprised of forty voice actors. The group writes, records, and edits audio dramas that are released as podcasts through iTunes and their website, pocketradiotheater.org. Karl previously worked for two seasons as a storyteller and historical interpreter at Philmont Scout Ranch, the world’s largest outdoor youth camp, in Cimarron, New Mexico. He is a Sproull Fellow and received his B.S. in Physics and English from Allegheny College in 2011, and his M.S. at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in 2013.

Madeline Sofia is a fourth-year Microbiology Ph.D. candidate in the Dziejman lab at the University of Rochester. Maddie is a fervent advocate of scientific research and understands the importance of making scientific findings understandable and exciting for all audiences. As a graduate student, she developed two courses offered at the University of Rochester aimed at helping scientists effectively communicate named “Careers in Scientific Communication”, and “Science Communication for Diverse Audiences”.  Her ultimate goal is to bridge the gap between the scientific community and non-scientific community through discussion, storytelling, and advocacy. Madeline received her B.S. from the University of Mount Union in 2011 and her M.S. at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry in 2014.

Special thanks to Laura Shum who hit me up on Twitter and pointed me to the podcast! 

One thought on “Misadventures and Victories: An Unfiltered Look at Grad School in the Sciences

  1. Pingback: Maddie and Karl interviewed by SciLogs blogger Kirk Englehardt! | The Bench Warmer's Podcast

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