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Undergrad 2.0 and Other Myths About Grad School

Ayumi: I was chatting with a friend the other day who had recently graduated from college, and she described herself as an early-career professional and described me as “still a student”. I had to hold in the biggest eye-roll because the comment, while coming from a good place, felt incredibly dismissive. It’s not the first time I’ve heard something like this-- some people think grad school is like undergrad 2.0. I can’t speak for every program, but I can say as a rising 2nd year that a PhD program in STEM is nothing like undergrad. It made me want to write about some common grad school myths and misconceptions.

Phuong: This happens a lot. Most of the time the comments are from friends and family who have good intentions, but just don’t understand the mystery of grad school. This has been particularly difficult for me as a first-generation student to explain to my parents what grad school is like because they have never experienced it (especially with a language barrier, which I will explain in a later post). To them, grad school is just an extension of undergrad, except you get a 'Dr.' tacked onto your name after graduation. To their credit, this PhD program has thrown things my way that even I never expected, so it made me realize how many misconceptions there are out there about grad school.

1. Grad school is expensive

Grad school can indeed be expensive, especially master’s degree programs, so this is partially true. However, many PhD programs in STEM are fully-funded. This means our tuition and health insurance is covered by the program or lab, and we are paid a salary in exchange for research or teaching. These are called Research Assistantships (RAs) and Teacher Assistantships (TAs). We are under an RA position, so we’re literally paid to focus on research. This was so shocking to us-- we had no clue that we could be paid to get our PhDs. But PhD students are completing original research that adds to their field, so it makes sense that they are paid for these efforts! We had to sign a work contract and do receive medical/dental/vision benefits, much like any other job would offer. Your salary varies between fields of course, but many STEM PhD programs are fully-funded.

2. Grad school is undergrad 2.0

This is something we get a lot. Again, we can’t speak for every single program and field, but a PhD in STEM is nothing like undergrad. Coursework in STEM PhD programs are certainly important, but secondary to research. We spend most of our time on research, and use courses to enrich ourselves. We are paid to be here, so we like to think of our research as our full-time jobs and coursework as something to do on top of our jobs. Think of it this way: taking classes for a PhD program is similar to how some companies allow their employees to take online courses or certification classes for extra training. Honestly, we rarely have time to go out (even before COVID-19) because we’re often mentally exhausted and many of our cohortmates are in the same boat.

3. You’re not a REAL adult

Again, we are paid to do this work. It is a job, like any other. We are early-career professionals learning on the job, testing novel ideas, expanding our knowledge, and growing our network. We pay bills, do our taxes, grocery shop, and gripe about the rising cost of living, just like any other adult. Only difference is, people often tell us we don’t have a real job and we’re not real adults. >:(

Ayumi deciding if/when/how to start saving for retirement

4. You need to do graduate research in the same field as your undergraduate major/research

Ayumi did her undergraduate research on microglia in a pre-clinical model of Parkinson’s disease and majored in molecular and cellular biology. She now studies polymeric drug delivery to treat malaria in a molecular engineering program. Phuong received her degrees in Materials Science & Engineering, but is now doing neuroscience research! You can change fields easily if your background knowledge can support it. Grad school is a time to learn! The great part about grad school is that you can always take classes to supplement your knowledge or to discover new research interests.

Phuong's undergrad classes consisted of analyzing lattice spacing and nanostructure characterization...very different from the biological research she's working on now!

5. You will graduate in 5 years.

We can’t count the number of times people have asked us when we are finishing our PhD and we mumble “4-7 years”. This is a nuanced point. As we mentioned earlier, grad school is highly research-oriented. By the time of graduation, we will have completed a whole dissertation of original research where we probe ongoing questions in our fields. Everyone’s original research is different, which means that everyone goes at their own pace. Some PhD students will graduate in 4 years, and others graduate in 7. The thing about science is that you never really know what could happen or what experiments can fail, which will inevitably set you back. This experience of not ever really knowing what can happen is one of the most anxiety-inducing aspects of grad school, and we will talk in a later post about how to respond to this kind of anxiety. Bottom line--you go at your own pace. This can mean you graduate in 4 years, this can mean you graduate in 7. It is extremely important to work with your PI and communicate your goals and timeline.

6. Research and school work is all you will have time for

Both of us are involved in organizations that focus on outreach, diversity efforts, and social events. Most universities will have organizations for grad students to join so they can pursue passions outside of their program. If you have a cause that is close to your heart, you can certainly make time for it. Now, whether you will receive compensation for these efforts (monetary or otherwise) is a whole other issue. If it's any kind of volunteer work or outreach, just make sure you put it on your CVS under ‘service’. On top of that, having a work-life balance is extremely important in grad school. Similar to some jobs that allow for remote work, it can be really easy to bring home research. There always seems to be something to do--analyzing images, planning experiments, creating data charts, reading papers...the list goes on. We make sure to save time to take a break and pursue hobbies and reach out to friends!

Pre-Coronavirus pizza party with friends!

7. You’ll be too busy to date in grad school.

On a similar note to #5, this is not true! We are both in long-term relationships during grad school! Like anything else, be mindful of prioritizing and managing your time between social and academic work. We have actually both posted articles about long-term relationships in grad school. Check out Ayumi’s and Phuong’s here :)

8. You have to know exactly what project you want to work on before attending grad school.

This is 500% not true. In fact, neither of us have exactly fleshed out our projects yet! Part of being a grad student is being a STUDENT. This means that your project will evolve as you yourself evolve through becoming a better scientist, learning more about your field, and asking important questions. It’s quite common (almost expected) for a PhD student’s project to change within the span of the program. This process occurs naturally, and your PI and lab will be there to guide you.

9. You’re too old to go to grad school

One of the great things about grad school is that students come from all walks of life! You get to interact with many different people who bring new perspectives to science. I’ve met grad students who entered a PhD program right out of college. Some have already obtained masters degrees, while others have some years in industry under their belt. Some students I’ve met are already married or have children. Don’t let your age hold you back! You will bring a different perspective to your cohort, and your experiences will enrich the student body.

Some of our amazing cohortmates! We all come from different backgrounds and experiences! Some in this image already have industry experience, some are married, and some have completed master's degrees before entering this program, while others joined straight after undergrad.

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