So, you’re thinking about graduate school?
Your interest in this piece might be to get an idea of how my graduate school experience has been at UC Davis. Perhaps you are thinking about attending or applying to grad school, or maybe you just want to compare your experiences in grad school with mine. If you are the former, congratulations on asking a few questions before you make a life-changing decision. If you are the latter, please leave a comment to affirm my experience or contrast my perspective with your own different experiences. I want to share these words for the people who are trying to find out about the graduate experience, what one may expect in this new environment, and how the first year will be like no other.
For me, I had no question in my mind. I was a non-traditional student returning to school for the best education I could get. I joined an undergrad science program at 24 and never turned back. Fully committed, I applied to a few schools in the Bay Area and went to all of my interviews. The choice I made was based on a number of things, but UC Davis was ultimately the best “fit” for me. Simply based on the feeling I got in the town, from the people and with the academic community, I knew there was something about the environment that just made sense. I arrived in the Summer of 2013 and began my first rotation early. Now, I have joined a lab, I am beginning my second year in BMCDB and I am learning more everyday. Experiments, mentors, seminars, and classes are all a part of this new stage in my development, and for the first time in my life, a text book is the least important source of information for my daily progress and learning.
The first year was designated for a core curriculum and finding a lab to join through research rotations. From my experience, I might suggest a few priorities and considerations for anyone in their first year of grad school. Funding, intellectual stimulus, and social competence are three things I was advised to consider before joining a lab. I feel lucky to have received the advice, and so, I share it with you. Above all, you must secure funding. This could be through a scholarship, fellowship or through a lab that is willing to support you for 5 years, but you must know where your support will come from. If you are not secure, you could face some dire challenges by working or teaching the entire time you’re in grad school or worse, you may not find a supporting lab = you’re out of grad school. They say we’re paid to go to school, but that doesn’t mean that anyone can foot the bill. If the University wants you, that’s great! But you have to find a lab that wants you for the following years. That’s both a personal and financial consideration. So, apply to every source of funding you can. Consider it one of your many jobs as you enter the world of scientific research. It also means you may need to limit your rotations to funded labs. Next thing to consider is your intellectual stimulation, and don’t be fooled by what you thought your interests were during undergrad research. Now is not the time to pursuit the same type of research all over again. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but rotations are fantastic! Now is the time to explore other options and learn about new types of science and research. If you make it this far, you should think about meeting with as many professors as you can for one-on-one meetings to learn about up-to-date research topics and how different labs operate. Don’t make the mistake of weighing your decisions to rotate in a lab based on internet resources or lab home pages. Plus, if you are flexible, you will find that rotating in almost any lab can be incredibly stimulating. Then, you will only have one remaining task: find the best fit. Social competence can mean different things in different environments. Everyone fits in differently. It is important to find a lab where you feel competent to communicate with the professor and everyone else in lab. This also means you can get along with your potential future colleagues.
So many things that I have not mentioned might include keeping up your grades (yes, you still have to earn your grades), maintaining and building connections to people who can write letters of recommendation, devising research proposals, getting familiar with your new environments, managing your income taxes and living expenses, keeping a sliver of work/life balance, etc. This list can be different for everyone. There are a lot of things that may happen to fall into place, but everyone has a different experience and a different knack for getting things done. I wish everyone the best of luck! I’ll recount my 2nd year in 2015 when it has come to an end. From what I hear, I can expect another year of important grades, vigorous preparations for my Qualifying Exams, and some challenging days with variable rates of success in my research progress. I am looking forward to it! If you feel like you’ve had drastically different experiences, please let me know by leaving a comment. The world of undergraduates in STEM fields deserves to hear your opinion – especially if you disagree with me!
A final thought. I once believed that getting a PhD would be 5 years of my life lost, a delay towards starting my real life. In hindsight, I find this idea to be absurd. I do not feel stagnant. I do not feel restrained. I do not feel like I am missing anything or losing any time. I feel like the education and network I have and will continue to develop during this time is something for which there is no substitute. I was fortunate to have a life structure that allowed me to continue my education. However, graduate school is not for everyone for many different reasons other than life structure. Research requires exhaustive patience, meticulous focus, and perseverance through trial and error. Despite inevitable failures one faces during research, your desire to learn must be greater than ever now. I encourage anyone who is still considering grad school to fully commit and pursuit a program that is right for you. You will gain more than you ever could have imagined.
2nd Year Graduate Student
BMCDB Graduate Group, UC Davis
Chiu Lab, Department of Entomology