First Year in Grad School: A Recap

Hey guys,

I’m sorry I’ve been neglecting my blog. I haven’t been very inspired to write anything lately and I decided to wait until I really felt like doing so than trying to force it. Now I have a list of topics I’m excited to write about and more should be coming out, soon. 

I started this blog site to become a better writer and to help make the grad school experience as transparent as I can. When I was at Georgia Tech, I encountered a lot of one-sided experiences. People love to talk about what a hard and miserable school it is (maybe because it makes them feel more grandiose, having survived the tenth circle of hell), but very few people also talk about what a fun and exciting place Tech can be (unless they were recruiters). No matter who I talked to about Tech, kids thinking about applying or people just asking what I thought, I tried to give them a complete picture – both the good and the bad.

I want to create the same realistic exposé of grad school. I think I’ve done a pretty good job so far. If I truly want to live up to my own goals of being honest with my readers as well as with myself, I need to write this particular post, too.

It’s been a year since I started graduate school – actually fourteen months. Fourteen months living in Boston. Fourteen months trying to figure out my new world. The time has absolutely flown by and after looking back at my first year, it’s time to tell you that it was a struggle.

I want to say that grad school was exactly what I expected: it is hard, and it is a big adjustment. But I feel like I underestimated just how big of an adjustment it would be and I overestimated my preparedness.

I also made it a lot harder for myself than it needed to be. I wanted to get a jump start and present some stuff at a conference halfway through my first year. That was a bad decision. I mean, I learned a lot very quickly, but that choice put a lot of pressure on me when I wasn’t really prepared to handle it. I decided to forego an ‘easy’ first year project in exchange for doing something I thought I would enjoy immensely more, but that meant learning all new skills and basically becoming an engineer, something I was never trained to be. I decided to try to start a second project in the spring, and then when my first project stopped cooperating, I fell off the wagon on the second one, too.

It’s like when grad school is going good, it’s a fantastic place to be. But when you can’t get anything to work, there’s not a whole lot you can shift your attention to and then return to your research feeling better about your capabilities. That’s one of the things I loved about being a double major in physics and biology. When the physics was giving me a hard time and I didn’t want to work on it anymore, I could do my biology homework instead. The two were so fantastically different that going between them was like switching to a different brain, giving the other brain a break. 

I didn’t take a class in the spring or summer this year. I audited one, but there was no homework, no real effort was put into learning the material outside of class. This meant that I didn’t really have something else I could put effort into and see progress. I was stuck staring at my fidgeting pneufish and trying to get it to work. I eventually did, but not being productive on anything at all on was more of a mental challenge than I expected, one that I wasn’t very well prepared for.  

Another part of it was that I came into grad school with some pretty high expectations for myself, if you couldn’t already tell, and I felt like I was falling drastically short of meeting those expectations. I was letting both myself and George down. After several conversations with George wherein I said I felt vastly unproductive and that I wasn’t where I thought I should be, he said I’m doing great. I’m exactly where I should be, apparently. It’s taken awhile to convince myself that he’s right.

If you think about it, I came in last summer and hopped right onto the pneufish project. Ardian was leaving and I wanted to work on it, so it became my project. I collected some scant data and presented at SICB, and then I decided to change the setup. The spring and most of the summer was devoted to getting the new setup to even work right (and I’m still not convinced it does, entirely), and I’m right back where I was last summer: trying to get data, writing up an abstract about what I’ll present at SICB (I have NO IDEA), and rushing to get something usable in time for the presentation.

That’s a really depressing realization to have, that you’re in the exact same spot, that you haven’t made any real progress forward. This is why I’ve had such a hard time believing George when he tells me I’m doing great. If I’m “doing great”, then why don’t I have anything to show for it?

But then I realized that it’s like doing a grueling hike without any sort of map, and then being masochistic enough to go through it a second time. You’re back at the start, but now you know the path, you’ve picked up knowledge and skills to help navigate the hike, and you know when you should rest and when you should push through to the next awesome viewpoint.

In the past year, I’ve started research in an entirely new field. I’ve learned three coding languages (arduino [for real this time], mathematica, and R). I’ve learned how to build and use soft robots. I’ve learned how to design and troubleshoot my experiments. I’ve learned how to apply for grants and deal with rejection in a healthy way. I’ve learned how to CT scan things. I’ve learned how to present at conferences and other universities and what to do when absolutely everything goes wrong. I’ve learned how to communicate more effectively. And I’ve learned how to make a syllabus and ask the department for money – and get some!

I feel like I’ve become a better scientist, despite the fact that I don’t have any results to show for it.

I feel like I’m better prepared for this coming year.

Bring it on, Second Year. I’m ready for you.

Cheers,

Zane

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