Friday, January 15, 2016

Life as a Grad Student

I get questions all the time about what grad school is like. So this post is for those of you who are thinking about grad school or just curious. Keep in mind not everyone's grad school experience is like mine. I'm getting my degree in chemistry so my schedule would look a lot different from someone who is getting their degree in say English. I'm also studying at Miami University. This is probably my favorite picture of our campus. It's absolutely beautiful!

Image via
Now for the whole point of this post. Here's an average day in my life as a grad student:

I usually get to work by 8. Partly because I like how productive I am in the morning and partly because all the good parking spots are gone by 8:05.

Once I'm in the lab, I start up the HPLC. This is the instrument I use for one of my research projects, and it gets used pretty much every single day. I try to start some experiments before I sit down at my desk. While I love HPLC, it's a slow technique. A single run takes anywhere from 10 minutes to an hour. And I don't just run one thing. I'm running 8 different samples individually as well as mixing them to make sure I can separate them (the whole point of HPLC is separation). Then you add on running replicates of everything and it just takes a long time to wrap anything up. So yeah, HPLC is slow. (Sorry if that was super technical...but I love talking about what I do!!)

When I finally sit down at my desk, I start thinking about what needs to get done and when, both that day and that week. Here are my responsibilities as a grad student (not listed in order of importance):
1. Research. I have two projects (hopefully finishing one and starting another soon!) so trying to balance them is a challenge most of the time.
2. Classes. Even in grad school, you have homework. And if you aren't taking classes or you don't have homework for a class, you're likely studying for an upcoming qualifying exam or prepping for a presentation. Everyone is required to take two seminars: a department and a divisional seminar.
3. Instrument care: Part of my job description is to run and care for a couple instruments in our department. I run samples for people and have to make sure the instruments are clean and running like they should.
4. Teaching. This takes up a lot of time! There's so many responsibilities rolled into this one aspect: teaching labs, grading lab reports, holding office hours, answering e-mails from students, and attending meetings. Not everyone teaches the entire time they're in grad school, but pretty much everyone will teach a lab their first year.

I spend my morning working on my never-ending to-do list. I'm either analyzing data from the previous day (or week), working on something for a class or seminar, or trying to figure out where my research is going next (aka reading lots of articles). Every morning looks different, but there's always something that I could be doing (even if I end up on Pinterest a few times).

I like to be intentional about my lunch. Because a grad student's work never ends, it's easy to work through lunch or quickly eat at my desk while working. I like to take at least 10 minutes to sit in the hallway or with friends and eat. If I'm eating with friends it can easily turn into an hour-long lunch! This is a good time to take a much-needed brain break so I can recharge and power through the afternoon. Also when it's warm, I love to eat outside so I can enjoy sunshine during the day.

My afternoons look a lot like my mornings. I'm still working on my to-do list. By now I've likely added more things to it though. My list will usually double or triple in length if I've talked to my boss.

I never leave work at the same time two days in a row. Some days I don't have as much going on so I leave around 5 (or earlier let's be honest I've left work at 4 before) while other days I can be in the lab until 8 (or 11 on those really rough days). I've started going to the gym right after work so I'm trying to make it a point to leave around 5. There are going to be days where that doesn't happen, but it's nice to give myself a harder deadline to work toward.

So there you go! That's pretty much what I do in grad school. It's a lot of (very hard and often frustrating) work, but I also have a lot of fun. From traveling to new places to canoeing down a lazy river and everything in between, grad school has been a blast.


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