Surviving school is an accomplishment in and of itself. Being a student may be one of the hardest things I've experienced in my life, especially now that I am pursuing my Ph.D. in Materials Science and Engineering. I honestly expected grad school to be difficult, but not as much as it has been.
My semester started off with me being bright-eyed and bushy-tailed in the lab, wanting to do everything but understanding little. When I was an undergrad, I had research experience, but it was somewhat limited. Unlike the undergrads in my group, I never got to do anything on my own. However, I learned that I needed to direct my energy towards my assigned project and classes. When you’re a Ph.D. student, you still have to take classes for a couple years. It seems like a burden, but if you plan it right, you can take courses that benefit your research. The first few grad semesters here at TAMU are like undergrad. You have to take the same core courses as your cohort so you can do the Qualifying Exam. Typically, Ph.D. students in my program, which is materials science and engineering, do that during their first summer, but it can vary. Also, every graduate school is different. This is just how TAMU does it.
I learned quickly how much research takes over your life. There’s an unspoken thing that says that if you’re not spending time on classes, errands, mental health, and sleep, then you should be spending it on research. Officially, I’m on a Graduate Research Assistantship, GAR for short. That means I have to take 9 credits hours a semester, which is full-time for a graduate student, and do at least 20 hours of research a week. That minimum increases depending on how many credits of research I take to hit 9 credits; each credit equates to about 4 hours of research. That was a lot of time taken up by school. Grad school is almost like a full-time job to me, except I am not getting a full paycheck but instead a stipend.
Research is really frustrating and stressful at times. When you’re doing funded engineering projects, you’re expected to adhere to deadlines put forth by your funding sources. This adds a lot of pressure, especially when you’re trying to do well in classes. Even though I only took two letter-grade classes -the others being research and seminar-it was very overwhelming. What makes it hard is that you have to balance it with research. My advisor (the professor I do research under) told me throughout the semester to find a balance between the two, and I’m still struggling to do so. The tricky thing with grad school is the GPA minimums. If you get below a 3.0 GPA, you’re placed on probation. You’ll need to bring that back up within two semesters to avoid getting dismissed from the program, which is surprisingly easy to do because you don’t take many classes. I got scared multiple times, thinking I'd be put on probation due to not keeping a 3.0. I also thought I would end up having to drop the class preemptively. Thankfully, my advisor talked me out of it, and I got a 3.0.
There were a lot of things I wish I did differently. I wish I was better with my classes and practiced time management better. I ended up doing a lot of cramming, and it did not help. Thankfully, curves in grad classes are significant. I also wish I read a lot more journals, but currently, I have the attention span of a peanut, and it’s hard for me to focus on lengthy journal articles. There were a lot of things I wish were done differently because of the pandemic. I wish I could hang out with grad students and make friends. I wish I could use my office more. I wish that my lab didn’t have capacity restrictions. But it is what it is because we’re in a pandemic. I can’t dwell on it any further and can only move on.
This has been a reflection of how my first semester in grad school went. This is coming out later because even though my classes ended a couple of weeks ago, I have been doing research up until winter break. After all, the time between semesters is devoted to research, so I don’t really consider my semester done until winter break. Hopefully, things go up and up as my time in grad school goes on!