I reckon that my goal for semester one of grad school is simply to survive semester one of grad school. This is the semester where I’m new to the university, the area and American academic culture. If shit fucks up…this is when it will occur.
Funny thing is, it feels as if I’ve taken a step back, not forwards: the last time I was at university balancing Masters-level coursework with research was in 2010 at the University of Edinburgh. PhDs in the UK are full-time research from the word go – it feels a bit surprising to be revisiting my final year of MChem. It makes me think that life is constantly moving in circles: one circle has come right around again – since I’m back on the Eastern Seaboard – but so has a second one – being a Masters student.
Things have got off to a good start. Despite expectations to the contrary I passed all my ACS Placement Exams and was therefore given free reign to take whatever courses I so wished. It probably wouldn’t have mattered if I had failed one or two of the ACS Exams (provided I didn’t fail the Organic Chemistry one!)…but for the sake of my moral, yknow, it was a good result.
Graduate school is stressful for me. I have a lot to do, and not all that much time per day to do it in. This is also the only semester where I’m not fixed with a lab group: that will get decided in late December. Until that point my future research career is very much up in the air – which I don’t like. There are a lot of variables between me and my future lab group: competition, resources, personal desires, future uncertainties.
If you want a take-home message from me based upon my first few weeks in grad school, then it is this:
Limit your stress
There is no way of getting around the fact that graduate school is stress-inducing. If you remove or avoid all sources of stress…you’ll get nothing done, and even if you do, you won’t be challenging/improving yourself (why would you study for a PhD if you want to remain just the way you are?).
Instead, the trick is to differentiate between the things that aren’t worth getting stressed about, the things that are worth getting stressed about (but only a little) and the things that are worth getting seriously stressed about.
Part of that is recognising that I can’t be a perfect scholar, student and teacher (a) all at once (b) from the moment I set foot in grad school. Some stuff is going to have to be imperfect and I’m going to have to be OK with that. Reference the Serenity Prayer.
I know there are people out there who give off a lot of nervous energy and who seem to get worked up about everything (…I’m pretty sure that’s not me), as well as there being people who you just can’t ruffle (…that’s not quite me, I think I’m better at projecting calmness than experiencing it). I’m interested in seeing how the “nervous energy” people fare in grad school – I suspect they’ll either burn out or mellow, because I highly doubt they can sustain such an attitude.
There are also people I’ve seen who can’t differentiate between big and small stress-inducing things. Or who can’t see the bigger picture – personally I won’t contest a perceived slight or unfavourable scheduling if it means maintaining good relations with an administrator or supervisor. At worst, bad scheduling is going to last 1 semester..the consequences of pissing faculty off by arguing with them will echo for the next 5 years of your PhD.
This “Serenity” attitude isn’t an especially radical one for me – I’m usually quite pragmatic, I think – but it’s the first time I’ve really articulated it or laid it down as one of my principles. I reckon it’s going to work out fine – but check back at the end of my first semester to see if (a) I’m still alive (b) I held on to that principle!