So far I’ve entertained you with a few posts about what to expect or consider before, during and after you apply to grad school. I’ve mentioned some of the good things, the bad things, the waiting, the answering, etc. You can check those posts here, here, here, and here.
Well, now that the process of applying and accepting or rejecting and interviewing is through you are getting ready to pack up and move to the city (or continent) that will serve as your scientific home for the next few years. Like I’ve said before, I did my PhD in the States, so I cannot speak about what to expect if you move to Europe, or Australia. My guess is that some things will be similar. So here I’ll discuss some of the things you may encounter at your new school when you start your PhD (by the way, congratulations on getting here, this is 1/4th of the battle).
What to expect in your first day of grad school:
- You are not a kid anymore, so I’d say it’s safe not to expect people to hold your hand and do everything for you. You will more than likely receive a packet of info on where to get ID card(s), key(s) and all sorts of odds and ends. Chances are you’ll spend your first day finding classrooms, meeting profs and setting up your ID and email … if the program has not done this yet. Typically you might have a class, be handed out a syllabus, meet and greet important people in your program.
- You’ll walk and move like crazy … meaning that you’ll probably be going to way too many places, and will have a crash course on how to move about your new institution. It might seem overwhelming, but soon you’ll be able to guide other new comers around.
- Get ready to work. Yup, that’s right. More than likely you’ve had the graduate program coordinator(s) contact you asking who would you like to do rotations with. And rotations will start ASAP. If not on your first day, probably in the next few ones.
What to expect during your first week of grad school:
- You are starting to get a bit of the hang of it now. It’s been a few days but it probably feels like you’re just coming back from war … seriously. You won’t believe how many little things you need to take care of to start getting an identity at the new place.
- You’re probably exhausted. And that’s fine. The weekend is coming, and you may be lucky enough not to have school or lab chores to do.
- But expect to attend tons of conferences, workshops or tutorials (mostly if you are in a) an interdisciplinary program, b) have a super eager to work PI, c) both a and b, d) you’re a nerd.
- You’ll probably go to a gazillion welcoming sessions, wine and dine thingies and maybe a get together with other grad students. Feel free to eat as much as you want or can (it will sadly come to an end all too soon). Engage in conversations, ask questions, leave shyness at the door. These are (or will be) your future peers, so better suck it up and interact.
- You’ll probably head over to the bookstore (physical or online) and buy books. Places like the NCBI site have ebooks available. These sites are great to start browsing and checking alternate methods of explaining things. Check out various sites (not just the recommended ones) … I found out books at other places besides the ones the program recommended at sometimes half the price. Upper level grad students are also a great source of books, so see if you can borrow books from them. There may be a website from the graduate program which contains various sources of info on where to get your reading and class materials, so ask and take full advantage of that.
What to expect during your first month:
- Besides what I’ve mentioned for the first day and month (which of course are not a super comprehensive list), here are a few additional things:
- Opening and squaring out how much, when and where you’ll get paid. At my school you were paid a physical check at the end of every month for the 1st year of grad school. After you joined a department you then could fill out info for H&R to put you on their roll so you’d provide your bank info and your check would be deposited after midnight of the last or 1st day of the month. Things might have changed since, thus, feel free to ask (to the grad program personnel, or upper lever grads) what to do if they don’t have a standard way to do things.
- Parking, email, ID and all sorts of things related to IDs should be sorted out by now.
- You might be attending seminars on a weekly, biweekly or any other form. Seminars could be about progress reports on people from your lab, or related to your class(es).
- I happened to dislike the institution I did my PhD both at the beginning and at the end, so expect to get a bit discouraged … especially if a lot of work starts piling up.
- Know that feelings of happiness or disappointment are normal, we all go through it … it’s more normal, more common than you think. I think we all have these feelings at one point or another, so don’t feel like you’re alone.
- I happened to have lots of unresolved issues at the beginning of my grad school experience .. ranging from rage (at life, family, war .. you name it, I had it) to feelings of loneliness, despair, depression, inadequacy …all of that packed into one crazy 23 year old. If it gets too tough, know that there’s a counseling center, or service at hand, so do not hesitate on starting on a regular schedule with a psychologist or career counselor. Know that there are many resources available to you to help you keep your head straight and clear and learn tools to deal with anxiety, and other feelings.
This is a very preliminary list, I plan on writing a second entry related to what to expect after your first year and the following years up until the end of your career.
Best wishes … and have a happy thanksgiving.
In the previous post I mentioned some aspects to consider once you’ve gotten a couple of interviews lined up for grad school. Today I’ll mention some of the things you may want to consider once the letters (or emails) of acceptance start coming.
Back when I was ~3 months away from my college graduation I got a few surprises. First, an Ivy League school was interested in me. I applied to a few others since my then BF was working at one of them, and I had 2 “safety schools” to which I applied thinking that it would be a piece of cake to get into them. A few months before that I had a very informal interview with a foreigner (a Scottish dude or something) that simply sat me there and talked down to me like I was a piece of crap. He was less than impressed about my grades in analytical courses and swiftly said that those Ivy League schools were not interested in people like me, and that the 2 safety schools would be my best bets. Since I was in a dire situation (according to him) he could consider giving me a chance at his school.
I remember getting out of the interview and sitting on the floor of the building next door and crying like a complete idiot. Here I was, facing the truth about my incompetence. Here was this European guy saying that I was worth nothing (in fancy words) and that if I felt inclined (and kissed his white ass) he could consider getting me a spot in freezing cold upstate NY. I was shocked. How could this be. He berated the 2 schools I applied to, and said that that was all I could aspire to.
Needless to say, throughout the whole application process his words were in my heart and on my mind. I couldn’t turn off his voice, mocking me for even thinking I was grad school material. Some of those words came to my mind at very special times during my graduate career (here) and (here).
He was right, I did get accepted at my safety schools and ended up choosing the top one of the two. Turns out that this safety school is ranked among the top 20 most prestigious US schools and the program I ended up getting my degree in has been ranked #1 for a very long time (his school is ranked a LOT lower than mine …. a LOT). After such an emotional roller coaster, I sat down, replied to both schools, and said I was going to the high ranking one.
My apologies for the detour, we now go back to our scheduled programming.
When it was time to decide where would my time and brains be spent, I considered some of the following:
- Location, location, location. Needless to say, if you have family that lives a continent away, or just down the street it can make a huge difference. Whether you are close to them and want to have an easy time visiting whenever you want/can or whether you’re OK visiting them once during the summer, at Thanksgiving and during the winter season, this is a very important factor to take into account when selecting and accepting an offer for grad school. You have to think about all the possible factors that may become (or already are) important to you, like significant others, how close of far they are, the ease of traveling, visiting, etc. If you are starting a family or have a family that is moving with you, you need to consider access to day care, schools, education, entertainment, insurance, etc. I had this friend who had a baby a few months before she started grad school and the determining factor between my school and the school she ended up choosing was having a good health insurance coverage for herself, her baby and her hubby.
- Stipend. If you are in the sciences, (or math or engineering), the odd are that there is money available to pay for your tuition and a stipend to get you through your education. I don’t know how it was for students in the humanities and social sciences at my old school, but as far as I understand, it’s not to common for schools to offer a stipend in those disciplines, or at least it’s not that common compared to the “hard” sciences. My BF did have a small stipend when he started grad school in the States, but his parents stepped in sometimes to help cover whatever the stipend did not (and he is the very definition of frugality). So, you need to learn how to create and stick to a budget (if you don’t know how already). And trust me, the first few months will be crazy as you set up your living quarters and get to now your new environment. It’s not the same for a school in the middle of nowhere to offer you 25K to go than for a school in NYC to offer you the same amount. Remember, the lifestyle at both places is different.
- Rankings. I didn’t care much for them, but for some people being in a super fancy-schmancy school with a prestigious name is a necessity, thus this is another aspect to take into account.
- Research topics. If you know that out of the 8 schools you applied to, 5 accepted you and two have the best facilities, faculty and resources, this helps narrow down where to go. So take your time, do your research on places where your topic(s) of interest is(are) and send in emails. If you don’t and you like X faculty member who is retiring and is not accepting trainees anymore, you could be in a very sticky situation. Save yourself some (future) grief.
- Teaching/research load. At my school it was not common to teach, but some schools (especially public universities) tend to have a teaching load on top of your research load. I was cool with the part of not teaching (though I did some on the side, plus I tutored for a little while). If you have aspirations towards becoming a research kinda faculty person, then you might want to avoid going to a school that requires you to teach 2 courses or something similar every semester.
- Transportation. I mentioned earlier that if you are into preserving the environment, a school to which there are no bike/walking trails may not be a good match for you. So, again, do your research, look at internet guides of prospective cities. Of course university sites paint a cute and comfy picture, but the truth is that if you don’t have access to buying a car immediately, and the prospects of carpooling are tiny, it may not be a good idea to choose the fancy school in downtown nowhere where transportation sucks and it takes you 1hr to commute from your apartment to your place of work.
- Living quarters. This is a biggie. It all depends on how you feel about living alone, or sharing your space with others. I chose to live alone ALL the time. It was tempting, at times, to go live with a good friend. I’m sure we would have survived living with each other, but I know how anal I am. I know how particular I am, about picking things up, cleaning styles, time to study, to shop, etc,. While it would have saved me a pretty penny, I preferred to save a life and live alone. If you are used to sharing quarters, like dorms, etc, then it might be tempting to rent a room in a house, a basement, and share the expenses with others.
- Taxes. Sadly, stipends are taxable. I saw sadly because the money that is taken out is will not end up in a pension plan or helping projects, or somehow ending back on your pockets or benefiting your community (this last part is debatable for some, but compared to Canada, having money taken out of your meager pay as a grad student sucks). So, plan accordingly. Consult tax tables, talk to students, but please, do not ever think that somehow you are exempted from filing them. The most terrible thing that could happen is that finally, after many years of sacrifices and studying, the IRS comes back biting your arse to get back the money that they should have gotten from you in the first place. Find out if you have to file both state and federal taxes. Some parts of the country may not have state taxes, but some in others you have to file both State and Federal taxes. So do your homework. Find out the average of what amount of money goes where. Sometimes some schools might not take ANY taxes out of your paycheck, so save accordingly. I talk from experience. Paying 1800$ in taxes on a sad, cold, April night is not cool.
- Post grad school life. Yeah, you’re not even there yet and you have to think about what you will do after you get out? Yup. If you’re like me, chances are you chose grad school as a security thing. You are a bit undecisive, but staying in school for a little longer sounds cool. I had this friend who, as she was about to defend looked at me straight in the eye and said that she regretted staying in grad school past her qualifying exam. To me it was tough. I thought that here she was, a great woman, a perfect scientist, an amazing wife and mom, and she thought that because of all the education she got, she would not be eligible to get mid level jobs that required nothing much above a bachelor’s. As I approached the finishing line I realized that I was still (and still am) undecided about what to do with the degree, as far as job related things go …. you would think that after spending 6 years + in a higher ed institution I would have a clearer idea of where to go. But it’s not like that for me. Some days I think of how cool it might be to establish my own lab, then I think of other things, like contracting people, the writing grants part, etc, and it freaks me out. I feel more comfortable working under somebody else’s direction, and I like teaching. So a job a liberal arts school, or a smaller teaching college is very appealing. But these things were not clear to me at the beginning of my career in grad school. I found out about job conseling and job resources later in my grad school life, so don’t be completely discouraged if you have no clue of whether or not you want or will end up in academia. There’s government, pharma, public service, and many other options. As long as you are clear about that, and seek places to look for help and guidance, go where your heart and mind lead you.
So … these are just a few of the aspects (in no particular order). There are many other things to consider. As they appear in my head I’ll add them here. If you have suggestions or questions, please feel free to add or comments. Remember, my email is stitchick at gmail dot com.
Thanks for reading! And best of luck. Up next what to expect in during your first day, week, month, year and subsequent years.
In the previous post , I mentioned some aspects to take into consideration when you start looking for, narrowing down and applying to grad school. I’m not sure how similar is this process in your country (if you’re not form the US) to the process in the States (where I went to school), but if you want to share info on how it is in your country, please drop a line in the comment section, or if you have a blog, feel free to do trackback (if you’re on wordpress).
Anyways, so say that you’ve completed the application process, you asked for really kick-butt letters of recommendation, you’ve gone online and submitted everything you need, asked for transfers at school, taken the GRE … in other words, everything you needed do is done, and all there is now is to hope (and pray if you feel so inclined .. I did .. every-single-day) in order for all the documents, information, forms, you name it, to reach the grad school(s) of your dreams.
The waiting period starts.
Depending on when you apply (usually the earlier you do the sonner the offers for interview or even acceptance start to come) you may get a response within a few days (like for the school I went to, which invited me for an interview within 14 days or so of getting my complete app. packet) or my other option, a lovely state school in which I did a summer internship (the recruiting officer called me at home, and talked to my mom and my (then) boyfriend). Other schools might take their time. And yet others may not reply until you think the time is up (I had this friend who went to an Ivy League school and she got the call about 2 weeks after the due date for answering was past … the school invited her for an interview and didn’t give an answer (positive or negative) until the second week of May of that year ….. she’d already replied to another school to which she had to go through the process of telling them she’d been accepted at her dream school and was not going after all to her 1st response school … those details are unknown to me, but this DOES happen more ofter than you think). So, usually the sooner you send in all your materials, the better (in my opinion) the chances of being called for an interview. Here are a few things to take into account:
- Be courteous at all times. You may think some “low-level” secretary is contacting you, when in fact the recruiting officers are very likely to first get in touch with you, then “pass” you on to the personnel in charge of making hotel and transportation arrangements. That said, be nice and courteous to every single person you come in contact with, say your good mornings, thanks, etc … be patient and polite above all. This will earn you cookie points, and might even help you get noticed form the rest of the crowd.
- You might need to pay for a few things beforehand (I bought my ticket and other transport thingies) … so KEEP ALL the receipts (and make sure there’s enough money left in your credit card). While I was told some things would not be refunded, in the end I was refunded for everything, from the plane ticket, to the shuttle service, meals, etc … Hotel arrangements were made by the grad school, thus my pennies were not spent there. Make sure to keep all your receipts, whether in hard copies, or electronically.
- Be sure to read beforehand and be well versed about your past research experiences. I did 2 summer internships prior to starting in grad school. I thought I remembered everything, since I was only 21 at the time and I thought my mind would not fail like those of “ancient” grad students …. thank goodness I read abstracts and other materials to freshen up my head …. the interviewers will more than likely ask you about your prior research experience(s) .. thus you earn points if you can intelligently and succinctly talk about previous projects, accomplishments, experiences. If you are interviewing with a collegue of one of your (soon to be former) mentor(s) be sure to acknowledge that opportunity by being as ready as you can. All these things can make a small but tangible difference, and might help you to get a position in the school/department of your dreams.
- Do not bad mouth people … especially PI’s …. you never know who or how others get to know and interact with each other, so badmouthing is a definite no-no. This is not grade school, this is a step forward into adulthood. Having that sort of attitude (even if the PI or personnel at the previous school are a-holes) will take points off quickly. Remember that above all, the results from the interview will impact whether you get an offer from just your safety school, or from your safety school AND your dream school.
- Do your research in terms of getting to know your interviewers. This is something I didn’t do. I didn’t know you could ask who would be interviewing you so you could get that info beforehand and have ammo to ask potential PI’s what their projects or interests were …. This is particularly important if you are interviewing with someone who is very high profile in your field(s) of interest and has open positions for grad students. Luckily I have a bit of charm, so I quicky picked up on what the group of students in my interview section was dicussing about the interviewers and I phrased my questions so that it would not appear as if I was completely ignorant about what their research was about (though I was).
- Improvise cleverly … this relates to the previous point. Sometimes your interview might be in the office of a particular faculty person, or maybe it’s drinking coffee at a cafe ….. if it’s the first case, then quickly glance around the office or lab space, pick up a couple of words from the titles and phrase your questions in a manner that the (potential) PI can describe his/her work. This may help you stand out from the rest of the interviewees.
- Do not get drunk or high … ’nuff said.
- Select your clothes carefully and make sure everything is clean. The worst thing is when someone stinks, even if they are nice, looking and beign clean adds an extra level of respect. And it’s easy to have stinky clothes without even noticing it (when you live in a dorm with a roomate who cooks all sorts of stinky food, or forgets to take out last week’s pizza and now everything smells like last years yogurt … ewwww). So do your homework, do your laundry, get some febreeze, and iron things if needed prior to the interview. If you know you sweat extra hard when you’re nervious, maybe a super strength deodorant can help, or an extra pair of socks. For us ladies, you know that mother nature is crazy, so plan accordingly even if you had your monthly visit a week ago.
- Keep all the necessary documents (addresses, reservations, phone numbers, contact info) in a separate folder or place and carry it with you everywhere you go. Even if your luggage was lost by some incompetent idiot, having those documents at hand will save you some of the grief, a lot of time (especially if this is one of the first times your traveling all alone) and may show your interviewers that you are genuinly interested in them, and you are respectful of their time. It shows you are taking things seriously by keeping a close eye on those types of documents.
- Arrange for extra careful people to take good notes if you need to take several days off from school to go to the interview(s).
- Remember to talk to your professors and instructors to let them know when you’ll be out. Wouldn’t it be terrible if you had to go through wayyy too many hoops because you forgot to tell them in advance so they knew you weren’t just blowing off the class, or goofing off.
- Turn your cell phone off. Not only will the beeps or “pimp-y” notes will throw you off, but it may be percieved by your interviewer as you not being sufficiently interested (and respectful) to turn off all of the outside noise and pay attention to them, who could very well impact your future in more than one way.
- Carry enough money to pay for things like food, or cover tips, etc …. you never know when ATMs will be all crazy and without service, so be prepared accordingly.
Like I mentioned earlier, these are just some of the aspects to consider while preparing and going for the interview(s) at your potential grad school. Be confident, be careful, be kind and above all …. be respectful. I’m sure you will do great.
Next up are some things to take into consideration once you’ve got offers and once it’s time to move. The final part will be on what to expect on your first weeks and some bits of wisdom I acquired through the years.