G1 Life and the OEB Program

There was a word I never heard frequently before I started interviewing at graduate schools, and that is ‘cohort’.   Cohort, by definition, means ‘a group of people banded together or treated as a group.’ So, theoretically, your entire life is made up of cohorts. The people you graduated high school with are a cohort. The people you enter college with, all the other freshmen, are a cohort. The people you band together with to conquer video game enemies are also technically a cohort.

I don’t know why, but I never thought of the people around me and used the word ‘cohort.’ They were my high school class (well, not mine, because I was home-schooled), they were my undergrad year. However, when searching for a word to describe all the graduate students who come into a program together and have decided to suffer together, ‘masochists’ just isn’t narrow enough. Almost everyone in grad school is a masochist to some degree. They needed something more specific.

So, ‘cohort’ is apparently the universally-accepted word used to describe all the students who came into a program together. Brevity for the win.

But bringing it back to something that is actually relatively important, OEB wants your cohort to be more than just a random gathering of people admitted the same year. They want to make the cohort more relevant than that–a support structure, a impromptu family, if you will. So the first year in OEB is designed around making your cohort a tight-knit group. If you’re not a group person, that’s okay, a lot of the activities are not mandatory. But if you are someone who likes have a social group to rely on, then this is excellent.

As a new graduate student (i.e. G1), you are required to take two semesters of OEB 399, one in the fall and one in the spring. OEB 399 is the ‘welcome to grad school’ seminar that you and your entire cohort have to take together. Food and Alcoholic beverages are provided, and it’s generally an entertaining evening in some regard (it’s 5-7pm on Wednesdays).  The class itself is basically a mash-up of career development sessions and Professor Q&A. For instance, the first class was about time management skills, the uselessness of multi-tasking, how to limit distractions, etc. In the second class, we met with Elena Kramer and David Haig. The next class was about elevator speeches, resumes, and CVs. (I kid you not, we did an exercise on shaking hands. So awkward.) Then we met with Andrew Berry and Missy Holbrook. This week we’re discussing bias in academia. So you get the idea.

As part of the OEB 399 class, we have a G1 Retreat. Optional, of course, but we basically escape to a cabin in the mountains for a weekend filled with intense theological discussions and prayer. Right now, that weekend is the weekend before Halloween. I imagine there’ll be lots of renouncing the ways of Satan and warnings of following temptations into sinful life styles.

(Btw, I know sarcasm doesn’t really come across well on the internet, but the above sentence was written sarcastically.)

From what I hear, there’s a retreat for the next two years (G2/G3 retreat together, etc.) but the first one is probably the only one that everyone can attend, and since it’s part of the family-forming process, it’s considered the most important one.

Outside of 399, we tend to get together after class and go out for drinks. There was mention of getting an ‘OEB Cribs’ thing going, where we each take turns hosting an evening at our places. Right now we’re just doing trivia at local bars after 399, and that’s fine with me.

Another weekly thing we do as a department is Happy Hour. Every Friday at 5, the labs in the department take turns hosting the happy hour. They’ll provide food of some sort (pizza is the obvious go-to food, but a lab apparently did a decorate-a-cupcake bar in the past, so it is limited by the lab’s imagination and their $100 budget) and beer, of course.

The first happy hour of the semester is the Buddy Party. As a G1, you are paired with a G2, someone who can act as a mentor or support buddy, help you adjust, give you advice, all that good jazz. Last year, the cohort was roughly 22 students, and this year, my cohort is 12. That means that a good number of us actually have 2 G2 buddies. I’ve already gravitated towards one more than the other, but I like both. imag1167

So, the Buddy Party is generally themed, with the G2 buddies either dressing or help decorate the G1s. This year was a bit simpler, as it was themed ‘Fantastical Beasts and Where to Find Them,’ and the theme was chosen by our G3 reps (two third year students who essentially organize all the major student events in the department). We decorated witch hats with glitter paint/glue thingies with fantastical beasts supposedly inspired by our research organisms. As I was one of the first students there, I think I was the only one to hear the instructions, haha. Most students ended up doing really impressive drawings of their research organisms. I kind of took a different route and did a Viking-inspired sea monster (since I study fish…kinda). Complete with Viking runes around the flap.

After the eating and the drinking and the decorating, it was time for the G2 buddies to blind-fold and spin their G1 buddies before making them attack helpless pinatas. The first 5 buddies batted and ultimately beheaded a very cute puppy pinata. The last girl and I got to attack Olaf. Sorry to say, but Olaf just couldn’t stand up to my softball-trained swings. He’s now decorating my shelf as a trophy.

Sofia, one of my G2 buddies, made me stand in front of the camera to document my victory over the cardboard, candy-filled olaf. Everyone seemed very impressed, and I have earned a reputation as pinata-killer.

G1s aren’t allowed to teach or TF, so we’re all basically settling into our labs, getting started with research, and taking whatever classes we need to take.  In order to graduate the program, OEB students are required to take and pass (A/B) 4 classes.

When you first come into the program, the admin takes a look at everyone’s transcripts and recommends classes to students that would fill gaps in their education. A common thing with bio students in stats or math classes. This is a thing I didn’t know, but it’s common for undergrad bio programs to be slanted towards either evolution and ecology or microbiology (genetics, molecular bio). So, a student can come into this program never having taken a class on evolution, for example. So the prescription you get (the list of <=4 classes that admin ‘strongly recommends’ you take) is designed to fill those holes.

I kind of lucked out. Since I have a strong quantitative background, I didn’t need any stats classes. Because my undergrad bio program at GT was pretty well-rounded and I was exposed to a lot of different bio fields, I don’t have a lot of holes to fill. I got zero prescriptions, which means I can take 4 classes of literature or interpretive dancing and still graduate. Obviously I’m going to choose some more useful classes than interpretive dance, but that’s the way the system is.

Another thing is the Dudley House. Harvard’s dorm setup is pretty similar to Hogwarts’. You don’t have dorms, you have houses, of which there are 13 undergrad houses. All the freshmen live in Harvard Yard their first year, but before their second, they rank and get sorted into a house to live in for the next three years. Dudley House is the graduate house, so all graduate students automatically belong to it, and it’s an actual house. Some graduate students choose to live there (only one house and roughly 14,000 students, so ‘some’ is not a lot), there’s a dining hall in the house (I’ve heard mostly negative things from the one student I know who eats there, so first impression isn’t great, but I have no real experience on which to base an opinion of my own yet), and they do a bunch of events for graduate students. There’s a weekly email that goes out and you can sign up for the events and seminars listed there. For example, on nice weekends, a group of students go out kayaking on the Charles. This week, people are orchestrating a trip to go out and pick apples at an orchard. During the first week, people went out to visit the Harbor Islands. Seems cool and like a fantastic way to meet people in other departments, but I haven’t really done anything with them yet.

So…yeah. At this point, it seems like a decent program that cares about student mental health and solidarity. I’m kind of waiting for the other shoe to drop (because no program is good at everything, and I’ve already heard some people talk about the issues they’ve had), but we’ll see. Especially with the union happening, it’s likely the issues that were a problem in the past will be resolved.





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