Nature Chemistry | The Sceptical Chymist

Materials Girl: Great Expectations

[Posted on behalf of Materials Girl]

From an undergrad point of view, grad students primarily existed as TAs and nameless faces roaming through campus doing “research” and being “busy” (and consuming large amounts of alcohol). Even while applying to graduate school and pondering my future, the life and expectations for a graduate were just horror stories channeled by PHDcomics. I read them all, laughed, shared a few on Facebook, and continued on in vague disbelief.

I’m not sure if new students know or are expected to know what’s ahead in the grand journey of grad school. Some come expecting excitement and research, others foresee only classroom activities and a prestigious degree, and a few are there solely to escape the job market. My own expectations were of toil and mild masochism, as told by an older grad, but I really had no clue what was required – other than the department’s obligatory coursework, writing a thesis, etc. Somewhere along the line, it was implied that there would be scientific research galore.

From the other direction, I wonder what is expected of your average grad student in science/engineering. Personally, I’ve experienced an insurmountable flood of research, classes, teaching, friends, seminars, networking, papers, students, presentations, emails, administrative finagling, ever more research, and all else. Not to sound too negative, but it appears that no amount of work can fulfill the wishes of any PI – hence the term “insurmountable”. I’ve settled on temporarily appeasing mine, as his approval may only come upon producing 26-hour days and publishing numerous Nature papers. However, that is simply my own perspective as deep breath one of only two grad students working full-time for a young Assistant Professor who never runs out of random ideas and is on the verge of applying for tenure in a small engineering department at a large research university. This is a very special position, I have discovered over the last year. I am putting the experience under my belt as “personal development”, in addition to a distinctly varied skill set for a mere Master’s minion.

From what I’ve heard otherwise, any graduate experience consists of sweat, sleep deprivation, and suffering in varying degrees. Most complain, but keep working. A select few love everything about it. The specifics, I cannot tell, although numerous books have been published on the subject. (We just don’t have time to read any; this one has adorned my apartment’s bookshelf since I bought it.)

My own days are full and good, at least if YouKnowWho* is not feeling too cantankerous. Still, despite my loyalties, I wonder if my choice of advisor would change had I known anything significant/specific about grad school and professors beforehand. Whose advice should I have sought, and what words of wisdom did I miss? You might say that I was unprepared; the bulk of my undergraduate years were spent in class, studying, and doing homework. (As we all know now, those are nonexistent activities to grads after a year or two.) Academic skills? Passable. Networking? Mediocre. Sanity? Intact – a sure indication of lacking experience. Research? Decent, but unrelated to half of my graduate projects. If all students planned on graduate school, I would suggest mandatory research from undergrads. “Expect this and much, much more”, or something along those lines.

Before this post turns in a treatise (and falls under the “too long; didn’t read” category), I’d like to ask what our readers think about the issue. Were I still the undergrad version of MG, what would you tell me to prepare in advance? What did YOU expect from grad school, and did it turn out to be realistic? How or could you have changed it? As it is, I still have a PhD and new university ahead – I welcome everyone’s wisdom.

*This particular nickname for our “beloved supervisor” has generated quite a few Harry Potter jokes, despite the lack of original intention.

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