January 30, 2011

The problems began

by flickr user david55king
The first year of graduate school is difficult, I think that's something that crosses disciplines. You move to a new city where you don't know anyone, you're intimidated by the other students in your incoming class (obviously they have everything figured out and are 10 times more prepared for classes than you are, probably have higher IQs), and you quickly learn that the mentor-student relationships you had with faculty as an undergrad (if you came from a small school) just won't happen here. In the chemistry PhD program at Big Deal U during your first semester you will be thrown into tough courses, TAing, and you will have to pick a research advisor and convince them to take you on as a student. Under the crushing weight of all of these responsibilities you should also try to make some friends so you can try to preserve your sanity together. Is it any surprise that many graduate students take up drinking as a hobby? Most often during our first year when we needed to blow off steam, like after an especially difficult exam, my class would be found sharing pitchers at a local bar.

There are the over-achievers who spend every waking moment studying and manage to get 80% on an exam where the class average is 50%, and still think they aren't doing well enough. And the students who get 50% on the exam struggle with depression and identity crises; once the superstars of their courses as an undergrad they have become average. Despite the low exam score everyone in the course will get a "B" because "B's get degrees". You have to maintain at least a 3.0 average in most graduate programs.

Then there's the courtship involved in finding a research advisor. Be prepared to spend lots of time in meetings with senior graduate students and make sure you convince the advisor that they are your first choice to take to the prom. Hopefully you put in enough face-time to convince them and their group that you would be an excellent addition, but professors have their own agendas and they want to make sure they get the best students. I quickly became frustrated with the politics of this situation, and hated that I felt the need to carefully guard my opinions and feelings from everyone.

I spent a lot of time that first year feeling angry and depressed. (Based on conversations with my friends and classmates I was not a unique case.) Once classes were over and I engaged more fully in the new challenge of research in my new research group, I started to feel a little better. I told myself that the hardest part was over and things would be easier. I was one step closer to my dream of being a chemistry professor...

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