Monday, October 19, 2015

Six Things I Wish I'd Known about Grad School

Let me be real honest with you: my grad school experience was rough. Like, the-hardest-thing-I've-ever-done rough. Most of that was due to my own naivety. I didn't understand almost anything about it when I started and it threw me for a big old loop. I made the assumption that grad school was very similar to undergrad, which it is 100% not.

{Sidenote: Three things to note: 1) My grad school experience was engineering based. From talking with my friends from other scientific backgrounds, their experiences were fairly similar to mine, but these tips may not translate perfectly to someone pursuing an arts or business degree. Maybe they do, but I have no idea. Let me know in the comments if you have one of those backgrounds how your experience was the same/different. 2) Some of my experiences may have been school-specific. I tried to stay general, but programs do vary. 3) My grad school experience stopped at a master's degree. As tips for entering grad school, my opinions should be valid for however long your schooling goes, but grad school programs do evolve as you go for higher and higher degrees.}
  • While the grading is much harder, grades are much nicer. I wish someone had told me that you basically have to be failing a class in grad school to get a 'C'. The rubric goes something like: A - has a very good understanding of the material, B - is trying really hard but missing the mark quite often, C - not getting it at all. At the same time, it is much harder to get an A. Curving grades is not only expected, but required since the average on assignments is typically around 50%. In reflecting on my time in grad school, I can only think of one instance when I got 100% on an assignment/quiz/test and I was absolutely ecstatic. To get 100% in grad school, your work has to be flawless and with anywhere between 2-4 classes and whatever else is on your plate, flawless just ain't gonna happen. What this all boils down to: grades aren't the measurement of success they were in undergrad. I felt like I was failing every day, but my final grades never reflected that. As long as you are showing up and giving it your all, your grades won't be as bad as you think they should be. Hell, after my first semester, I didn't even check my grades anymore. I assumed if I was failing a class, the college would let me know. 
  • There are many different ways to earn a degree. My college had three different ways to earn an MS. The first way was the research path. This is the path you would choose if you were interested in continuing on with a PhD. You take a fair amount of coursework, but in addition, you take a semester or two of pure research where you work on (and may even get paid) a project for a professor (your advisor) and write a thesis on it. This is like PhD program 'lite'. The second path involves taking only coursework. This path is great if you already have a job and want to get a degree in tandem. You'll probably only have the time to take one or two courses a semester, so it may take a couple more years to earn your degree. The third way is a combination of the two which involves mainly coursework with a final 'report' for a smaller project you work with a professor. This a great path for people who want to do research, but don't want to continue with a PhD. It's important to fully understand the ways you can earn a degree because often you cannot change your path once you have started. For my college, you couldn't be a teaching assistant, grader, or researcher if you were doing purely coursework. Basically, you can only do the coursework path if you have a source of income outside the university, a fact a friend of mine didn't know and got her royally screwed over late in her degree process. In other words: understand the strings attached to the money the university provides you. {Also, from here on out, my points relate more to the research paths.}
  • Choosing the right advisor is just as important as choosing the right school. When I applied for grad school, I truly didn't understand how much of my fate was tied to the professor I would be working with. At my first campus visit, I thought I was considering the school, not that the professors were considering me. Needless to say, I didn't get any research invitations from professors at that first school. While the school name on your diploma will probably have the most effect on your future opportunities, your advisor will affect almost every aspect of your day-to-day grad life. My advisor expected me to spend every minute I wasn't in class or in office hours from 9 to 5 in the lab doing research. I got yelled at for showing up at 11 on Tuesdays and Thursdays even though I had a class from 9 to 11. However, I had friends who saw their advisor once every couple of weeks for a status update and that was it. Your advisor is basically your boss and (depending on the school) their power can basically go unchecked. Grad school is not like a traditional work environment. As scary as it sounds, you don't have the same rights as a normal 9 to 5 worker does because you can't just quit. You live with the fear that if you quit, you lose everything you've worked for up until that point. I did not get along with my advisor (more of the story here) so I was forced to power through and finish as quickly as possible. Here are my tips for choosing an advisor:
    • The ones who already have tenure are much more laid back. 
    • Read reviews for their classes. Often, most professors have the same attitudes about their classes as they do about their labs. 
    • Understand their research environment. What's the break down of their lab look like? What type of degrees are their grad students going for? How far along are they? How would you fit into the hierarchy of the lab?
    • Talk to their grad students. Do they seem happy? Stressed? Do they have lives outside the lab? Are they required to get papers published every semester?
  • If you have grant money, you can basically do whatever you want. Now, that's a bit of an exaggeration, but not by much. Grant money is basically scholarship money with the contingency that research will be done with it, most of the time, a specific project that earned the grant money. For most people in STEM degrees, the holy grail is the NSF grant. You propose a project and if chosen, you can end up with funding for your entire degree. Courses, living expenses, everything. What this really means: you get to choose your advisor, not the other way around. The biggest hurdle for professors is coming up with the grant money for research. However, if you have your own grant money, you just need to find an advisor who is working on something similar to your project and ask to work with them. It's a win-win for everyone. It's probably the best way to alleviate the stress of your entire degree being in your advisor's hands because it's your money. If you really needed to, you could change advisors, or even schools, and still be okay. Here's a link for the NSF program.
  • Grad school is much more stressful than undergrad because it can be your entire life. There's no escaping it. Assuming you are doing some sort of research and aren't a trust-fund baby, it's your job, too. You go to class. You have office hours. You do research. You do homework. You hang out with fellow students. You go to conferences. You write papers. There is no limit to the amount of time and energy it consumes. It's not like undergrad with a nice little to-do list of assignments and when it's complete, you get to go enjoy your life. It's more complex and messy so it's nearly impossible to turn off. Some people embrace that all-encompassing feeling, but it just burned me out. I can't be 'on' all the time. If I don't get recharge time, I simply can't give something 100%.
  • The last degree you get is the most important one, so if you didn't into your dream school for your master's, you can try again for your PhD. It's not common, but it's not unheard of, either. Part of the reason I chose my college was a compromise: I would get my master's degree while my boyfriend (now husband) got two years of experience at his job and he would follow me to a different school for my PhD. It was 2009 and the recession was at its peak, so jobs were hard to find. Since he'd had a job lined up since October of the previous year, it made sense to stay and give him time to hunt for a job near whatever school I chose for my PhD. And we would have stuck to that plan if I hadn't burned myself out in my master's program. I guess my point is this: it's not the end of the world if you end up in a master's program that you are not thrilled about. Your master's program doesn't have to be your PhD program. However, it is important to know that it is much harder to get chosen by a professor if they know that you just want to get a master's. Most professors don't want to waste their time with someone they would work with for two years compared to five. I'm not saying you should lie or omit these details, I'm just saying I know a lot of people who did.
Lastly, this is more of advice than a tip, but if you are considering going the grad school route, find resources and educate yourself. In hindsight, my high school really prepared me for my college application and enrollment experience. I cannot say the same thing about my undergrad preparing me for grad school. The best resource I had was my parents, but their experiences were from the 70's so it was a whole different bag of cats. Talk to your older friends, talk to your undergrad advisor, talk to your teaching assistants since they are most likely grad students themselves, talk to professors about what they look for in potential advisees.

This sounds really depressing, but my biggest 'what if's' revolve around the mistakes I made in applying and choosing a grad school program. It doesn't have to happen to you, too.

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