Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Let Me Tell You About Grad School

Hi. So. I haven't been around much. I'm not going to assume that everyone misses me, but I do want to apologize if you did notice my lack of comments, responses to comments, and the general slowing down of the posting schedule.

[Which reminds me. Feel free to chime in your discussion points on twitter, Facebook, anywhere. I love and adore comments, and always respond to them, but I'm not keeping score. Please don't feel the need to apologize or "catch up" or whatever it is if you're pressed for time. We're all busy. Blogs are supposed to be fun, not another job. So I feel ya. I'm not judging. We got lives to live. I welcome discussion and conversation and random shout outs, but let's just be friends, right? Carry on like friends do.]

That aside, I thought I'd tell you a little bit about what graduate school is like for science and technology folks. I don't know much about the humanities or professional school, so I can't comment on those aspects. Also, graduate school differs from country to country, so I am only telling you about my experience in the United States. But I find that a lot of people are curious about the process, so I figured, why not. Maybe it will encourage others to consider it. Maybe not.

I've been in graduate school for about five years now, pursuing my doctorate in chemistry. In general, in the US, graduate students only take classes in our first year. Sometimes there are entrance exams, sometimes there aren't. There are definitely benchmark exams - written and/or oral - which mark the years. There is a dissertation and a final exam, which is what I'm madly preparing for right now. Dissertations are generally 100+ pages, and are reviewed by a committee, comprised of professors in the field. The final exam, at least here, is oral - you give a seminar on your research, and invite questions from the general public and your committee.

Overall, we do research. We don't follow school breaks or holidays, because we're not taking courses. It's essentially a full time job, with a student stipend (enough for living expenses and not much else. You cannot have a part time job - there will be no time for it). Sometimes we teach, sometimes we don't, depending on your professor's funding status. But: research.

And let's talk about that research. Science graduate students enter a professor's group, and carry out that professor's research interests. It's imperative to find a professor whose interests match your own, for basic personal fulfillment and happiness. Also good to find a professor whose management style suits you, or you will be in for some misery. How much leeway there is in the path your project takes depends on the professor, as well. So we don't have to come up with our own creative project (you have to do what your professor is funded to do), but there can be some breadth in it.

I'm not going to discuss the job market or prospects for advanced degrees, but I will say that academic environments in graduate school can be different than the undergraduate experience. We call our professors by their first names and are surrounded by Ph.Ds, so sometimes we lose perspective, I think. However, my experience has been positive, and I have learned a lot - not just about my little niche of chemistry, but about the way administrations work, about interdisciplinary collaboration and people. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Except maybe a real job. Ha. Just kidding. In seriousness, though, do I think it's for everyone? No. And people sometimes discover that, and they move on. I do not think less of them at all. Sometimes school is not the way to achieve your goals. Completely and totally fine and respectable. But if you've considered it, or your children or friends or anyone is considering it, please do yourself the favor of really considering it. One of the graduates of our group was in his late fifties when he completed his Ph.D. It's not just for people right out of college, or a certain age group, or for people of a certain background. I cannot stress that enough.

If anyone has an experience in other places of the world, please feel free to share. Otherwise, I just wanted to share my bit of life with you, and keep you posted on what's going on with me. I'll be back with beauty soon.