I’m writing to you from the 3rd floor of McGill’s McLennan Library. It’s Sunday evening and I have just saddled up to a desk with a white table top and a bright orange partition. Sitting, here I am surrounded by the numerous desks I’ve occupied in this library for the last four years, memories of my many years as an undergraduate student come flooding back. I’m sure many of you can relate: All those endless nights of studying, procrastination, stressful lingering, and tearful calls to my parents and banging my head on the wall trying to figure out some problems in calculus. It’s funny to think how in every one of those moments and for every exam or assignment, it felt like the whole world was hanging on it and nothing else beyond would amount to anything.
I followed the thread leading from these reminiscing thoughts to pondering on the different mindset i am in now. The amount of work in grad school isn’t reduced but several things are indeed quite different. Here are some examples:
Deadlines: “the universal pain in the neck” . I’ve learned that you will always procrastinate whether it’s for an assignment or writing a proposal or making a poster or giving a presentation. It’s just like that. Consider how I have to present tomorrow and it’s 6 PM on a Sunday night and I’m writing this entry instead of going through my papers. Nothing much changes there. However, I do find that the fear of failure, of being a disappointment and having your abilities scrutinized becomes more amplified as a graduate student. HOWEVER, your ability to deal with that also simultaneously is greater and prompts you to work harder and give it your best; even if you don’t always have a motivating reason to do it. I will address this point further in “Student by choice”.
Studying readingunderstanding and solving problems. In grad school, you will need to do that because it will drive your research and understanding. You won’t be able to conduct your experiments or understand more about your topic unless you buckle down and read. But you do it because you want to move forward and gain better understanding of the work being done in your field. I’m not saying reading papers is fun because it’s really not and can be quite tedious and time-consuming. However, it’s more rewarding when you’ve learnt and gathered something from it. This is a relief from blindly reading and memorizing things for an upcoming exam as an undergrad, which you will likely forget about the next day.
Research can be quite exciting. It makes you think, it challenges you and you’re literally standing at the edge of knowledge. It’s both scary and alluring! Dr Albert Berghuis, the chair of the Biochemistry Department pointed out in a seminar that, should you could actually be the first person in this whole universe to see that one special thing you’re working on, whether it’s a protein crystal or a star in the galaxy or a very important trend in disease development, And if you do you will be making an invaluable contribution. That’s gotta be motivating, no? I thought so and I think the actual research is my favorite part of being a grad student.
Student-by-choice: I’d like to think that for many of us, grad school is a choice rather than a pressured decision to pursue. The commitment to go into education of a higher level is not a light-hearted or a whimsical decision. You need to be passionate about what you’re going to do because your project becomes something you get attached to, something you set goals for, cry over, and rejoice (to an astounding degree) when you have successes. You are forced to develop your self-discipline and you notice your mentality changes to cope with the failures and disappointments you will encounter. That’s not a bad thing at all but it’s a higher degree maturity and it’s actually more of a life-skill than a graduate-school-survival-skill. But the fact that you’re there and waking up early in the morning every day to pursue your project where you left off last night motivates you to keep pushing and moving forward. I don’t think anyone can ever succeed without passion and will-power, no matter how many failures they end up with.