So, what’s grad school like?

Let me preface my first post about grad school with a little introduction about myself. I am entering my third year in the PhD program in Materials Science and Engineering at the Georgia Institute of Technology. I have but scratched the surface of the graduate school experience, yet I feel compelled to share my viewpoint so far. Preface: I love where I am; I love what I’m doing; I’m excited about the future opportunities. In graduate school you find yourself constantly reflecting on your experiences and imagining the future possibilities. This post is a result of some of those reflections. If you are new to or considering graduate school, you will undoubtedly hear the sage advice: It’s a marathon, not a sprint. That is absolutely true. But it’s hard to extend that metaphor to all of the experiences you’ll have. Thus, I feel the need to explain a little further. So here it goes, my metaphor for the graduate school experience.

Behind door number one: A NEW CAR!! Congratulations! You’ve just won some new wheels and are now on your way to being an independent researcher. This new car may be brand new or may be a fixer-upper (depending on what group and resources your group has). But no worries, each and every PhD student will be able to use this vehicle to make it to the promised land. That journey, however, is not always straight forward.

You’ll undoubtedly spend the first few months so excited about where you can go that you drive around everywhere. What new frontiers of science you can explore? The possibilities are endless! You spend a few months testing everything out: how does the car ride? How fast can you go? How many people can you fit in it?! You find yourself driving up and down the east coast from New Hampshire to Florida, back up to Maryland through upstate New York. After a couple more months of this you start to realize something is wrong: you have no idea where you’re going! Do not fret. This is an important part of the process. Now is the time to figure it out. You sit down with your mechanic (advisor!) and decide how far you can go and how you can get there. This may take a few conversations. Maybe you don’t have an explicit location; instead you’re told to just head west. That’s fine! It’s a start in the right direction even if it doesn’t feel quite right yet. You start to worry that you just spent the first year or two driving up and down but are still no closer to your destination! Gasp! What am I doing with my life!?

No worries. You now have a destination in mind. Existential crisis averted.
You’re feeling good. Smooth sailing from here, right? (Loud clunking noise. Car stops.) What was that?! Surprise! Looks like something is broken. Maybe a piece of equipment you need to use regularly has stopped working. Maybe the fundamental assumptions driving your research are wrong. Either way you’re stuck and you need to figure out how to fix it. (Because if it worked the first time, graduate school would be measured in months, not years). How do you fix it? Maybe your mechanic can come in with some suggestions, but unfortunately he is not in the car with you. Perhaps you can send him an email and ask for help, but in the end you are the one in the lab and need to figure it out. But there may be help! Turn around! Maybe you have a passenger to help you on this journey!

Is that a veteran grad student in the back seat?! Maybe you are continuing their project! That’s a bonus. You can rely on them for advice and suggestions as you get on your feet and start driving some serious miles. Chances are they have run into some of the same problems you encounter because they had a very similar car. However, that ideal scenario is not always the case. Damn. Look around. Anyone else? Nope.

You’re on your own. You pick up your cell phone and call a friend from another group at your university. They probably have no idea how to fix your problem, but you want to complain to someone. The call probably goes something like this:

You: My car broke down and I have no idea what the problem is. It just stopped working. There’s no one to help. How am I ever going to get to California?

Grad Student #2: Yeah I hear you. My car broke down too. Actually it caught fire so I jumped out. It continued driving, fell off a 300 foot cliff and exploded. I’m going to have to hitch hike back to campus and start a whole new road trip.

(Loooooong Pause)

You: Wow. That’s crazy. Why did we go to grad school again?

Grad Student #2: We’re trying to change the world one thesis at a time, right?

You: Yeah … Anyway good luck with the new project!

Okay, you feel better about yourself. At least you’re not starting on a brand new project! You’ve gathered your thoughts and you remember about the post doc in your group. You give her a call. She’s on the same road and will be there shortly to offer help. Thank god. After a quick diagnosis, you’re back on the road.

By now you know how to keep your car running. When it breaks down, you can figure out how to fix it. In fact, you’re so good at fixing it you decide to write a manual about how to fix it: your first paper! The hard work has been rewarded! Well, not so fast. You submit the paper, but everyone has an opinion. You’ll have to rewrite it a few times. Oh well. You’ve officially made our first mark in the scientific community.

You continue driving but you’re starting to run low on gas. You’re loosing your motivation. Why are you doing this again? Just then your phone goes off. It’s an email from your adviser, “FWD:Automobile conference abstract due soon. Please apply”. Sweet! Let’s do it. You take the exit and enter the exposition center where the conference is. You have never seen so many cars in one place. Old busted and rusted cars. Brand new sports cars. It’s exciting to see other grad students and professors. You can compare where you are and where everyone else is. That was a good rest stop! Now, you’re back on the road with a full tank ready to haul ass to California.

The next thing you know you start to see signs for the Golden State! So when do you stop driving? Well, sometimes you’ll know when you get there. Other times, you just decide you’ve driven enough and it’s time to finish you’re damn road trip. Either way you are in the home stretch. You pull onto the home stretch of your journey. But wait! You see a road block ahead … your final car inspection. Time to defend your journey! Assembled before you are titans of the automobile world. They stare (blankly?) at you waiting to hear your scientific contribution. By this time in your graduate school career, you are no longer intimidated by the arena. You can confidently drone on about your achievements until the committee cries “Uncle”!

Congratulations! You are now a bona fide researcher. On your way to enlightenment you have confronted the scientific challenges, you have battled the unexpected detours and you have survived the existential crises. You have seen good science and bad; you have seen motivation and intimidation; you have seen the hardships, challenges and obstacles that define the graduate school experience. No matter where you started, you have arrived at your destination by grit and endurance. The real outcome to this whole graduate experience is the ability to tackle any problem and the confidence to persevere through the obstacles that are presented.

It’s fitting that you have earned a doctorate in philosophy because you will undoubtedly realize these challenges are as much mental as they are physical. You are well equipped for the next challenge, which will seem incredibly more manageable given your experiences. Time to find a new car.