Starting Graduate School

August 28, 2011

The first week of classes are over, and I have already learned so much. Let me get my cynicism out of the way first. Chemical engineering graduate students are not business savvy. Most graduate students are not. Would you sign on to work with a company for five or maybe more years and not know your vacation hours? Or leave parts of your job description undefined? You would be very stupid to do so, and I should know as I have just done so. I’m regretting it right now. I skimmed the only few sheets of paper I signed, and no where is it spelled out what my job is. Thus, when my TA hours increased 50% from two classes to three classes, I have no recourse. I am simply at the mercy of the university.

When the graduate director broke the news to us, he was sure to impress upon us how much the university is spending on us. He wants us to realize that we are an investment on the part of the university, and so we should feel an obligation to do all of our work with the utmost diligence. However, I am still unclear what my work is. I will be taking three courses, and I will be making straight A’s. I will be taking and passing three qualifying exams come January (So yeah, good bye Christmas break!). I do not know when I will begin my research. This is frustrating, as the PhD is at its root a research degree.

In this first week, I have learned that boldness is rewarded. The single greatest lesson I learned from my brief stint editing Wikipedia is that their motto, “Be Bold!” is a great motto. Being bold in graduate school means introducing yourself and making friends with your fellow classmates. It means emailing the professors you are interested in and knocking on their lab doors. Sure, there will be missteps, but the end result will be getting to know if you mesh with a group. Being bold means—above all things—not to hesitate.

In this spirit, before classes started I knocked on four professors doors. Only one was in at the time, and he was not taking students this year. However, the conversation that followed was very helpful. He recommended reading “A PhD is Not Enough” by James Feibelman. It goes over all aspects of post-graduate education. I highly recommend it to anyone considering graduate school or wanting to understand what host of benefits and problems a graduate degree confers. For me, it cemented my desire not to work for an assistant professor.

Now that my cynicism has run its course, I must say that I am truly excited by what I will be learning. The courses I am taking are going to force me to come to grips with my weaknesses. In fact, I’ve already had to shore up some of my mathematical deficiencies. The research I will be involved in will force me to think critically and impart me with vision. I mean vision in the sense that leaders have a vision for a future. With this vision, I will see problems and their solutions. I will solve those problems, and the world will be a better place for it. How could someone not get excited at that prospect?

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