12 Months Of Grad School

It was 8.30pm. I was sitting on a stone bench on Princes Street Mall, Edinburgh. I had a large 50 litre rucksack and smaller wheeled luggage at my feet. I’d eaten dinner at one of my favourite Edinburgh pubs, phoned my family for a brief chat, and was now sitting peacefully in the heart of Edinburgh, watching the sunset set those beautiful granite buildings on fire. I was feeling happy – I was here in the most beautiful city in the world, grateful for being here. In maybe 10 or 20 minutes I would get up and make my way over to the bus station. I would board the overnight coach to London, and in the morning I would fly to America. In 2 days I would start my Chemistry PhD.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA It has been a little over a year since I said goodbye to Scotland. Next week the Graduate Student Orientation Week begins. The week after that I will officially become a 2nd year PhD student.

The decision was the right one. It ended up being 3.5 years between my pro-active decision to go after an American PhD in Organic Chemistry and reaching Orientation Week. That’s a fairly long time to hold on to a decision – especially since I suffered a couple of setbacks in the interim period that extended the gap. While I was sitting on that stone bench I certainly was looking back on those 3+ years. I felt quietly focussed: I had put a lot of time and effort into reaching this point, so I was going to do my best to make the PhD worth it.

***

It *has* been worth it.

***

For most of the past 12 months, I have been happy. Today – after sitting in a coffeeshop for 2 hours writing my diary & people-watching, cycling home to tidy my room and do my laundry – I’m happy, too. It isn’t quite skip-along-singing-calibre happiness, but I feel that I’m getting exactly what I want out of the PhD.

My research project is going OK. The 1st project was given to me with the preliminary studies completed and work on a sister project already polished and published – I was able to hammer the studies out into a publishable form quite quickly. My second project is more of a slow burner: I think this one is higher-risk-higher-rewards. The results so far are OK, but it is going to take time for them to become publishable. The hope is that I will have a good 2nd publication before the end of my 2nd year – which at this point in time is a reasonable expectation.

In any case, I like a bit of stress in my professional life – in fact I think I’m one of those people who needs a dose of stress to feel normal. More importantly, I can disconnect from the professional stress when I get home in the evenings.

The next 12 months will be tricky. In addition to the research challenges, I must pass the exams necessary to advance to PhD Candidacy (in my program, these centre around 2 research proposals). I know for a fact that will be nastily stressful. Second year (and early 3rd year) is where the bulk of attrition seems to occur: full time research is what makes or breaks young grad students, and 2nd year is when you get your first serious exposure to that determinant. I’m going to try my hardest to avoid getting broken.

I hope that in August 2015 I will be writing another blog post, explaining that I still feel happy.

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