The Life of a Graduate Student

I spent this afternoon in my lab making batches of PARP and V8 agar. Since it was such a nice day I had the door to the lab open, as well as a couple of windows. When I was biking in I saw people throwing frisbees, playing volleyball, skateboarding, and indulging in all sorts of late summer recreation. The mood on campus felt almost festive, the first weekend of the fall semester was underway.

On most Saturdays my department building is quiet, and today was no exception. The lights were off, doors were locked, and I had the autoclave all to myself. In the mid-afternoon a family walked by (probably on their way to the Creamery). I was using a pipette at the time, so I saw them out of my peripheral vision, I didn’t look directly at them. A young boy, probably about seven years-old, stared into the lab, watching me work for a moment, then ran to catch up with his family. Sound carries very well near my lab (when the ventilation system isn’t running), so as they walked away I heard this exchange.

Boy: “Why is he working today?”
Father: “Because he’s a graduate student, they work everyday.”

It made me laugh. It also made me think a bit.

Do I really work everyday? The truth is I don’t work everyday. I take days off.

Why is the normal assumption that graduate students are overworked? The graduate school experience is highly variable by what subject is being studied, what responsibilities a person has, and many other factors. My general observation is that grad students are usually busy. In conversation there is a certain degree of comfort in either complaining about–or simply sharing–the amount of work being done. Being busy serves as a source of validation.

I think dwelling on the amount of work helps ease stress. I’ve found grad school to be demanding when it comes to work, but manageable. The stress is tough though. Stress like I’ve never experienced before. At times it seems overwhelming. For me it is present because of what is at stake. During the grad school process there are many things that can go wrong and end the pursuit of the degree rather suddenly. Things that need to be accomplished or resolved will linger over your head until the dissertation is signed and submitted.

It’s like walking down the sidewalk. As you mosey along there is no stress involved. But if that sidewalk is 200 feet in the air the stakes are raised, and suddenly stress enters the equation. Well, that’s what grad school is like. Many mundane tasks and jobs that are suspended high in the air.

The goal of graduate school isn’t just to walk on the sidewalk. The goal is to get somewhere no one has ever gone before (and jump through a few hoops on the way). If you dwell on not falling or finding a unique path too much you’ll be overcome by the stress. The key is to stay busy, explore many options, and hope you eventually find yourself somewhere where the sidewalk ends.

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