Thursday, July 28, 2011

How Grad School Differs From Undergrad (In My Experience)

It seems insufficient to say that grad school is way different from undergrad. It just doesn’t seem to communicate the true significance of the change in environment and expectations as the transition is made from one to the other. I guess it really depends on where you came from, and where you are going, but some people handle it better than others. I was not one of those people. I will probably write a bit about why I feel I’ve faltered in some sense with grad school. It’s been on my mind for nearly a year now, and now I think I see things more rationally.

I came from a small undergraduate institution, called the New Mexico Institute of Mining and Technology – or, New Mexico Tech for short. Though most people have never heard of it, this school is actually quite a diamond in the rough. The National Radio Astronomy Observatory (the very same one that runs the Very Large Array) was right off campus. An optical interferometer owned by the school was in its construction phase during my time as a student, which will be built right next to the Magdalena Ridge Observatory. Military money for research was donated in such copious amounts that the school had funds coming out of its ears. Because of that, I was able to earn a college degree with absolutely NO debt. Heck, when I moved off campus, NMT wrote me a check.

Along with being dirt cheap, New Mexico Tech also had the best physics department around. Whereas most people never see their department heads, mine knew I was a member of the Astronomy and Physics clubs without my having to tell him. When it was time to write grad school applications, he sent me his personal proposals (some that were effective, some that weren’t) and edited my essays not once, but three times! Making friends was effortless. I felt so connected to every person on campus, be it faculty or student, that I knew if I ran into any problems, there would people to help me whether I wanted help or not.

Those years were some of the happiest in my life. And perhaps, this is my plea for you to understand why I was so unprepared for the dynamics of a large school.

I assumed every place worked like Tech. Ridiculous assumption, of course, since a larger school simply cannot support such a tight knit community. The biggest thing I needed to learn about grad school, and the thing that new grad students should know, is that your advisor can’t dedicate as much time to you as you may need. Unlike the professors at Tech, they simply don’t have the time for it.

This seems a bit harsh, but in the end, it may be a necessity. My former advisor told me that he was so swamped with work that the only time he had for his own research was Sunday nights, when he supposedly wasn’t supposed to be working at all. Adding the emotional frailty of a self-conscious student with huge confidence issues would be too much. Besides, what was he supposed to say?

In reality, you are no longer viewed as a young undergrad. Grad school is training for a job, and your job is to turn out product (papers) as fast and as efficiently as you can. You cannot earn the respect of other professors or scientists by whining about how alone you feel.

Understand, too, that your project will not be a major focus in your advisor’s life. You will have to deal with untimely delays, and you will have to be the one to search for help when you need it. Nobody will hold your hand through the process.

Then again, would I really want it any other way? How can I become an independent scientist if I’m not weaned from “free” projects?

Please know that I am not ragging on the Astronomy Department here at the University of Arizona. Along with the small growing pains of the first couple of years, there are many more opportunities at a larger university than I would have had at a smaller one. Instead of one colloquium a week, there are many, many more. There are small discussion groups dedicated to specific research topics. One professor gave me awesome advice when searching for an advisor, and another one gave me great criticism on a talk I had given. I’ve even found that when I crossed the street to the National Optical Astronomy Observatory for Friday Social Hour, the astronomers there were kind and warm.

And, the other grad students are an awesome resource as well! I cannot stress this enough. They can help you with coding/homework problems, give you inside information on people’s advising style, and teach you how to write proposals effectively. Do NOT pass up your peers – they’ll probably know a lot more than you, and will be happy to put off doing their own work to help you out.

No comments:

Post a Comment