Grad School: the first month of the next five years

I’ve been waiting… years to go to Graduate School. For me, it wasn’t a decision I took lightly or rushed in to, but unfortunately that didn’t mean I knew what I was getting myself into or cared about the consequences. I was going to try dammit. Jobs for science PhD’s may be an endangered species in the next few years, since the NY Times estimates today says that

“federal spending on research and development would be trimmed by more than $12 billion in 2013. The National Science Foundation…would have its budget cut by more than $450 million…why should government support for scientific research and technology development be spared from the belt-tightening?”

That sounds dismal. If a career in the sciences isn’t really booming with prospects right now, that meant I had to be really passionate about the subject, about working at the bench, and about weathering disappointment. What do I think now that I’m there? Not quite what I expected…at all.

First I have to say I am a creature of habit. I move slowly, I contemplate. The first week was a whirlwind of information about what to do, where to go, who you should be talking to, as soon as possible. That feeling of disorientation was exacerbated by the physical sensations too, with the campus was itself a labyrinth of hallways and tunnels which I was shown how to navigate, but still hopelessly lost in. I had the sensation that I was going the most roundabout way to do the most inefficient thing, every day. I always want to be working toward something, fulfilling my goals, and right now it couldn’t feel farther away from that. I’m in a graduate school limbo where I’m trying out different labs, working on short term projects that won’t be my thesis research, and doing classwork in subjects I haven’t touched in five years. I was itching to get to grad school and now I’m here and I still feel like I’m itching to start some real work.  It’s incredibly anti-climactic.

But probably the most unnerving aspect of grad school for which I was woefully unprepared are this set of false rules they put in place to (falsely) guide you. I know a lot of people don’t like rules, but I like them because they provide a framework that makes expectations very clear. I know what I have to do, and I can do it, simple. Here everything is full of “but’s” and “well’s” that say sure, this is what we want you to do, but you don’t REALLY have to do it that way. You have to find the way that works for you. Since I’m not the type to constantly test the limits of my constraints, I found it frustrating that just when I thought I had tried all the doors in the hallway to decide which one to step into, metaphorically speaking, another door would appear behind me. Because graduate school is really what you make it, everyone tries to flexible to your needs, meaning they don’t define what you need either. You, and only you, have to figure that out, and tailor the graduate program to help you accomplish that. I’m not used to that sort of self-serving approach, I think I’ve been comfortable helping other people accomplish what they want and need in my professional life since it began.

But self-sufficiency isn’t entirely the problem for me, however. If I have to get things done myself I have no problem buckling down and dealing with it. The difficult part is knowing when to ask for help or how to utilize the resources others are willing to give. I thought it might be a pride thing, but I think more likely it’s just an ignorance thing. I don’t know who or what to ask. How do you learn something like that? If anyone has ideas, I would gladly entertain. Maybe all it takes is a little trial and error, a little putting yourself out there. I’m quiet, I’m shy, but I’m still trying to succeed as much as the next outgoing and charismatic person, it’s just going to be a little more of a struggle.

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