Sunday, February 20, 2011

First year graduate student

When I was in Germany, at no point of their education did people ever juggle the way they do in the US.

Take my senior thesis. While doing my senior thesis, I was applying to grad school, taking a few classes, TAing a section of o-chem, and doing individual tutoring at the tutoring center. Take the first year of grad school. I'm TAing, taking 2-3 classes, and doing research. For the past two years, I've had lab as a first priority, squeezed in (in nights, weekends, and mornings primarily) between taking classes, teaching classes, grading, doing homework, and attending meetings. It's only been summers where my whole and entire focus can be dedicated to research.

In Germany, people didn't do an undergrad thesis, but they did do a diploma thesis (sort of like masters). Their diploma thesis was done in 6-9 months after they finished all their coursework. Their PhD was nothing but research. There was none of this frantic racing around, setting up that reaction before you had to run off to TA, sending a text asking a labmate to induce your cells while you're in class.

I suppose some first years handle it differently, making research less of a priority until they hit their second year, mainly just focusing on their classes. That's not why I went to grad school.

And on top of all the trying to get that experiment in, trying to finish your group meeting presentation, trying to stay on top of classes, I also feel obligated (and want) to do all the things I know are good to do. I want to go to at least a seminar or two every week. I want to stay on top of the literature--both in my specific field, and broadly in chemistry. I want to go to lunch with seminar speakers. I did this as an undergrad...I should be able to do this now, right? Right?

I love knowledge. I know classes are giving me knowledge, and I appreciate that. I guess I won't appreciate the influence they have on me until later--in terms of how I think about chemistry as is the pattern with classes. I guess I definitely got something out of both of the classes I took last fall, one in particular. But I dunno, I've been taking classes for so long, and I know that I will never have a chance to take a class in every area of chemistry that I'm interested in. I think I'm ready to pick up knowledge in less structured formats, as I need/want to know it. Luckily after this summer, I will never need to take a class again.

I wonder if this juggling game they put you through in grad school as a first year PhD student prepares you better for modern academia. I watch my PI, and he's split between so many obligations...

And then there's teaching. I enjoy teaching. There was this moment in my office hour last week when I coached someone through an equilibrium expression, and I thought "wow, this is satisfying." I do think it's valuable to force me to recall very fundamental chemistry that I don't encounter day-to-day. But I also see my friends on RA and how much they are able to accomplish in lab without dividing their attention constantly, and it's frustrating.

I don't know which of my (too many) projects are going to hit.

What am I doing with my life, anyway?

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