By Susana Acosta
Grad school is like being in the real world as a semi-adult. You might think this is what college is like, but it’s not. College is not being in the real world; it’s being in a world created especially for you so that you can learn whatever it is that you want to learn in a safe haven. As a grad student, you may still be living in a dorm and taking classes, but it is more likely that you will have moved into your own apartment, paying your own bills, and more stressed out because instead of grades, you now have one main priority-your project and thesis.
Professors will acknowledge many times in your courses that, while the coursework is required for you to earn the degree, it is not nearly as important as the work you are doing for them in the lab or in that fancy numerical computing program. Why? Because your research is going to be published and it reflects not only you but them. As your adviser, they have to make sure that whatever you are doing is aligned with their goals; thus, meeting deadlines and producing meaningful results is more significant than whether you got an A or a B on your midterm.
I think that this new level of accountability, since you will get far less guidance in grad school than you have ever gotten before, is a great way to start getting accustomed to what employers will expect of you. No one is going to hold your hand and tell you which buttons to push to get the results you want or how to go about fixing that problem that’s kept you up three nights in a row. Sometimes, your adviser may not even know the solution! That’s why it’s called research. It’s meant to be groundbreaking. That’s why you are getting published. You are sharing new information with the scholarly community. As a grad student, you need to understand all of this and do your best to ensure that your work is constantly meeting and exceeding the standards, because it’s not just about doing a project and writing a paper. After it’s all said and done, two or four years down the road-depending on whether you’re pursuing a master’s degree or doctorate degree-there will be a committee sitting before you waiting for you to give a presentation. And if you have any glaring errors in your research, you will not be able to publish your thesis. Or, if you don’t understand the work you have done, you may not be able to earn your degree.
Now, each university and research environment is different, so my opinion will be one of many. There are still parties you can attend and social events to remind you that you’re not an adult with five kids and a mortgage, but don’t be surprised if some of the people your age are already married or have a child or two. This is the point where individuals feel stable enough to get engaged and begin preparing for the next section of their life, and while kicking back a few beers on Friday night could be a common research team tradition, some might sacrifice it to work on homework or research. Because that’s now the priority. In college, it was the time to experiment and find yourself and be wild because you could. In grad school…not so much.
So how’s grad school life? In summary, it’s a preview of adulthood. You need to grow up and start thinking long term. Think about yourself. Sorority sisters don’t matter anymore; getting your hair done every weekend won’t make a difference.
Learn to juggle your financial, academic, and personal obligations maturely without losing out on your youth, and you’ll be just fine. But if you treat grad school like a repeat of college, dancing on tables at every event you attend and skipping classes, then you’re in for a big surprise. And it’s going to involve an angry adviser and a long night of catching up on work. Your project will be the same for years: that’s commitment you need to achieve early on in order to make it to the finish line.