First year at Grad school

After being the senior most at your undergraduate institute it’s time to get humbled again as a freshman in graduate school. And after having a ball of a last semester and a four month vacation, when your brain is almost tending to becoming a devil’s workshop, courses and intelligentsia are a welcome change.

The first year in any graduate program is about doing courses and most schools have the written part of the PhD qualifying examinations (ones that you need to clear to become an official PhD candidate) within the first year. Schools vary between having a rotation system (you do short projects in upto 3 different groups to ‘try out’ advisors until you finalise one) or having an ‘advisor dating’ process (where professors present their research and based on mutual consent, students decide on advisors). Either process is pretty strenuous with many students fighting for the ‘in-demand’ labs but it’s important to prioritise. As even final year students it’s okay not to know what you want to do a PhD in – grad school is an eye opener for many and all those prospective professors you wanted to work with according to your SoP – no one cares. So you can sigh in relief because there will be many clueless souls like yourself. Also, you might want to consider many interdisciplinary departments like Materials Science, Nanoscience/Nanotechnology, Biology/Biological Engineering/Biomedical Engineering while applying for graduate school.

After you join a lab, research is your life and keeping yourself motivated – to wake up everyday and have a task list, to have a view of the long term and short term goals – is what keeps you going. There are two things to care about – your project and your advisor. If you have both going for you, you’ll love the grad school experience. And if you have one of the two, you’ll make it through and let’s not talk about the last scenario.

In case you’re wondering about life after graduate school, academia is an obvious path and you are also eligible for the higher end of the technical jobs that are not accessible after an undergraduate degree. There are people who’ve gone into consulting profiles or into industrial research post a PhD. The platter is still pretty diverse and in no way have you limited your field by doing a PhD in some particular area. And ofcourse, there have been loads of start-ups that have spun out of successful PhD projects.
A PhD is appreciated more for the process of taking a question and choosing to answer it. It is a “formative developmental process of acquiring intellectual virtues that offers a more robust and conceptually richer framework for understanding.” One grows as an individual and companies often look towards this characteristic while recruiting graduates.

My personal experience at MIT has been just superb. This place is so intense – it’s wonderful to hear people talk animatedly about their work. There is a vibe in this place that is indescribable. It makes you want to work, to achieve, to explore, to question and to discuss. And I daresay you can say that about any graduate school. If you were overwhelmed by the diversity of people you met at IIT, graduate school, especially in the US, is ten-fold that variety. Just to talk to people is a pleasure and every day offers new opportunities to learn. It’s marvelous how everything is available to you – infrastructure, facilities, you name it and they probably have it; if they don’t they’ll probably get it for you. One thing these universities know is how to keep their students happy and productive. So yes, overall, it’s a treat to be here, every single day. For me, the love of student life was reason enough to delay the job life. Whatever be your reason, make sure you do have one to justify your going to graduate school. It is after all, half a decade of your life 🙂 Finally, to quote one of my favorite songs, Viva la vida!

Anasuya Mandal, B.Tech. Chemical Engineering,
IIT Bombay, Batch of 2011
Graduate student at MIT

Disclaimer:  The views expressed in this article are her own and do not claim universality.

The article was first published in ChEA Voice, Department Magazine, Chemical Engineering Department