Grad School Anticipation

Something of an Oh-My-Gawd moment whacked me in the face yesterday as I was sipping my Cool Lime Refresha at a central Edinburgh Starbucks location.

Grad School. What the Hell was I thinking?!

The reason why it’s been so easy for me to cruise towards the PhD is that I’ve really got no idea what’s about to hit me. A British PhD would be an easy proposition: I’ve worked in academic labs around current British postgrads, several good friends are pushing through their PhD right now (in fact, my undergraduate friends from the Class of 2011 who started their PhDs immediately after graduating have, um, almost finished by this stage…), the whole of my university education to date has immersed me in the culture of British academia. If I were starting a PhD in the UK I would have little problem envisaging (a) what will happen (b) how well I’m likely to get on with it.

An American PhD I can’t fathom. I appreciate the intricacies of what it will involve, I understand the differences between US & UK (post)graduate study…but I have no way of relating myself into the American system.  I can point out American grad students doing great in the university I’m about to attend, but their undergrad experience was vastly different from mine, and they have been educated in the culture of American academia. Known unknowns, unknown knowns and unknown unknowns.

In fact there really isn’t much in the way of UK-US overlap (that I’m aware of) in Chemistry education. British undergrads almost universally turn into British postgrads. The British undergrads that turn into American postgrads – not meaning to sound too ominous – don’t tend to come back.

The result is that I’m sitting in Starbucks on a glorious summer day suddenly panicking about how I’m going to cope in the States, with no one I feel that I can reach out to for calming perspective.

Deep breaths.

I’d go so far as to say a bit of fear and anxiety is a good thing. It shows (i) I have a good understanding of the situation ahead (ii) I’m caring about making a good impression/doing well (iii) I’m motivated to do my best.


Getting in to an American PhD program is challenging even for the domestic applicants. International students have an even tougher time gaining admission, as most official grad school statistics show. I’ve talked to enough European graduate students who applied to the same top US schools I did, didn’t get in, went for European universities later in the same application cycle, got into them and that was that. So, clearly the search committees thought I had what it takes to get through their PhD program. Their expert opinion probably outweighs mine.

[Gurgles up last drops of Cool Lime Refresha with straw]

I’m a great believer in smooth transitioning. Before I even head to the airport I try to plan as much as I can for the time after touch down. When I moved to Philadelphia I planned to attend a local hike the weekend after my arrival, it was something I dealt with well in advance, which I could look forward to. Already I’m sorting out events and trips for this Fall: getting into the exciting details helps me embrace the positives of my new life as quick as possible.

Planning ahead is always helpful, it can be very therapeutic too. I’ve uploaded files into my Dropbox folder (Dropbox has been sitting on my desktop for some time, I think that getting into the habit of using it will make grad school so much easier) and rebooted my Google Calendar. Next week I’m going to sit down with some double espressos and go through a mini organic chemistry crash-course – at the very least it will get my scientific brain switched on once more.

Of course I’m nervous, edgy and uncertain as I contemplate grad school (finally!). What matters is how I harness that nervous energy.

9 thoughts on “Grad School Anticipation

  1. Hey there – Let me know if you want me to put you in touch with Christine & Alex, former students of mine who have both been through PhDs in the US.

    And beside that, just remember to live in the present and everything is going to be alright!


  2. Pingback: Brit In America Problems | St Andrews Lynx's Blog

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