17 August 2012

So you’re a new geosciences grad student…

Posted by Jessica Ball

It's not all true, I promise

…and you’re getting ready to start your first semester! Hopefully you’ve chosen a great department and surrounded yourself with professors and students who will excite and challenge you. You’re probably also plowing through a bunch of paperwork and maybe taking a training course on how to be a teaching/graduate/research/etc. assistant.

If, at some point in all this, you say “What the heck did I get myself into?” and start feeling panicky, don’t worry – we all do this. Here are a few things to remember as you dive into the deep end of the pool:

  1. Hone those time management skills. You’ll hear this again and again as a student – and in lots of other places – but one of the most important things you need to figure out is how to manage your time well. As a beginning grad student (and especially if you’ve never been to grad school before), you’ll probably be facing teaching or lab duties in addition to classes and research responsibilities. This is a lot to take on, especially when you’re trying to work out a thesis topic and write a proposal. When I first started at UB, I was developing a research proposal for my a fellowship application, taking 9 credit hours of classes, and TAing labs, which involved setting up experiments, developing short lectures AND grading lab papers. This is tough enough for anyone, and when you’ve been thrown into your first teaching situation it’s doubly hard (especially when you’re not much older than your students). So being able to set a schedule and stick with it is really important.
  2. Start reading and don’t stop. I spent a lot of my first semester reading papers. Getting the background for your research topic down right away will be really helpful, although this isn’t to say you won’t still be reading papers when you’re in the process of writing your thesis.
  3. Classes are important too! Classes are smaller and harder, but just as important as they were in undergrad, and there will be a lot more critical thinking than memorizing, if the class is taught well. And don’t be afraid to look outside the department for a class if it will help with your research – I’ve taken math courses to supplement what I took in college, and many grads in my department take engineering and physics courses.
  4. Don’t obsess over your teaching duties. When you’re teaching classes, it’s important to remember not to get too emotionally invested in them. You’ll have great students and apathetic ones, students who work hard and students who just don’t care about the class. Don’t take it personally if not everyone likes you or if you have a tough time getting used to teaching people who aren’t much younger than you. And remember that you’re in grad school to accomplish something for yourself – teaching is always important and it’s a great skill to have, but there’s only so much of yourself you can give up to it when you’re still trying to do your own work.
  5. Make friends with the administrative assistants. You can do this easily: be polite, make sure you’ve done everything possible to answer your own questions before you bug them, and don’t make their lives any more difficult than they already are. Administrative assistants may not be doing research, but they are an incredibly important part of your grad school experience. Want to get paid or reimbursed from a grant? Need to do paperwork so you won’t get a hold on your student account? Need approval from the department chair for something? You’d better be on good terms with the admins in your department. Remember, they work just as hard as you. (And by the way, keep copies of all your paperwork, because you never know when you might need it again a couple of years down the line.)
  6. Follow up on your paperwork. This is one of the most frustrating things I’ve had to deal with as a grad student. Because I’ve switched back and forth between a fellowship and a TA positions, I’ve had to deal with a number of different groups and done scads of paperwork just to get paid and keep my health insurance. I’ve learned to never, ever, ever trust that the forms you send off into the ether are going to be processed correctly, because HR departments will inevitably lose or misplace something. If you haven’t heard from someone about something you’ve submitted, follow up and make a fuss if necessary, because you don’t need the additional stress of not being able to pay rent or buy food on top of everything else you’re doing in grad school.
  7. Grad school does not have to consume your entire life. If you’re trying to be that person who graduates with a PhD in four years, maybe that’s the way you want it – but having a healthy set of interests away from the lab and the office is important too. Since I’ve been at UB, I’ve spent my free time dabbling in the local music scene (with a community orchestra and a band, at the moment), taking trips around the state, trying out the local swing dance group, camping, biking, rock climbing, and doing other things that get me off campus. Your free time will depend on your responsibilities as a TA/GA/whatever, but you need to take advantage of it when you can, or you’ll go nutty. This leads to my next bit of advice, which is:
  8. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. This applies to everything from working the copier on up to dealing with a work/life balance and mental health issues. Grad school is tough and it can occasionally be overwhelming – you’re dealing with a student’s responsibilities and a researcher’s, and you may have a spouse, significant other, children, pets, etc. at home as well. If it gets to be too much, asking for help isn’t going to make you look weak or incompetent. You’ve got to look out for yourself no matter what – so talk to someone, whether it’s your advisor, your friends, a mentor, a counselor, a family member, a spouse, whatever. Don’t isolate yourself! If you don’t have someone physically there to help you, there’s even a special 24-hour phone line for graduate students – it’s the National Graduate Student Crisis Line, 1-800-GRAD-HLP (800-472-3457). Remember, your problems are not insignificant or silly, and your peers are probably having exactly the same difficulties, no matter how confident they appear.

Obviously every new grad is going to experience things a little differently, and my perspective may or may not be helpful – but I hope it’s at least a little reassuring! For another perspective on grad school in general (and in a lot more detail than I’ve gone into here), check out my fellow AGU Geoblogger Ryan Anderson’s excellent set of posts over at the Martian Chronicles:

Finally (if you’ve made it this far), I want to open the floor to anyone who has other questions about grad school in the geosciences. Are you thinking about grad school? Already in but want advice about something? Want to compare experiences or get another perspective on how to handle something? Now’s your chance. If you’ve got questions about grad school in general, grad school in the geosciences, or volcanology-specific grad programs, leave them in the comments! If I receive enough, I’ll do a followup post answering them as best I can (and open it up to other geobloggers to share their wisdom as well).