Decisions, Decisions: Graduate School?…or Nah

This morning at 8am, I joined my U215 students (freshmen Hudson & Holland Scholars) in our discussion section where we engaged in a very robust conversation regarding the “college for all” crusade and the question of whether or not a college education is really the “golden ticket” to success. My students, who are extremely bright and vocal, shared their various opinions, but by the end of the conversation, they all reached the same conclusion: college is definitely worth it.

As a graduate student, there are times when I ask myself, “Is this thing called graduate school really worth my time, effort, sleepless nights, MONEY, and all of the other sacrifices I have given and continue to give for this PhD?” Even though I have these moments that sometimes manifest themselves in the form of griping and complaining, I still manage to draw the same conclusions as my students: It really is worth it!

If you are grappling with the question: “To go or not to go to graduate school?'” because of the major costs involved (in terms of dollars and cents and the intangible things like time), do not let those thoughts deter you from pursuing a graduate degree. Yes, it’s important to count up the cost, but do not get so wrapped up in the costs that you negate the benefits, both tangible and intangible. Be your own cheerleader and encourage yourself as you prepare your application. Speak to mentors, faculty members, others in your field about your decision. Extra affirmation is always a good thing. It’s simple. If you really see yourself conducting research, diving deep into areas of interest and informing the work in that field, go for it!

New Experiences as a 6^(th) Year

I’m entering my 7^th (hopefully final) year at Indiana University. It’s been an amazing journey in graduate education for me. I entered in 2009, aiming to get my Ph.D. in Mathematics. Coming from a university where I was involved in math club, student government, voluntarily tutored, and started a discussion group (HIGH ACTIVITY LEVEL), I was really interested in continuing to have a range of activities in graduate school. However, those dreams were immediately slashed to pieces. I quickly found that the demands of graduate school far exceeded my expectations and that almost all my waking minutes were spent reading about hard topics and attending study groups. Before I knew it, my first couple of years of graduate school were over and I had only participated in one summer REU, which I call an extra curricular activity so that there’s at least one to add to the list. Although I knew quite a bit about my discipline, it was a treacherous road of sacrifice to get to that point. I was un happy and left the program.

Before leaving, I made the decision to be more active in my next endeavor. I had a mild interest in psychology so I attended a few lab meetings in the department. IT WAS AWESOME! In 2012, I joined the department. To avoid falling into the same spiral of all work and no play, I made a commitment to go bowling once a week and attend game nights once a month. Being engaged in secondary activities and having a social life was/ is crucial for happiness and success in graduate studies!

Last year, my sixth year, I made the biggest leap of faith thus far. . . I actually committed to an organization! The Emissaries for Graduate Student Diversity were looking for new students to “broaden the participation of underrepresented students; and, to build a more inclusive IU Bloomington graduate student community.” Joining this group has been one of the BEST decisions I’ve ever made for 1. my academic life, and 2. fulfilling my personal goals. It gave/ gives me a sense of personal achievement, and has exposed me to a number of different research topics and personalities outside of my discipline. In the spring of 2015, I visited my alma mater, Morgan State University on a recruitment mission for the program. While there, I found that there was a such a gap between the HBCU experience and Indiana University. Going back opened my eyes to the vast amount of research that happens at HBCU’s (something that is not always apparent as a undergraduate at a predominantly black campus. . . perhaps another topic) and I realized that they are accomplishing their goals on sometimes half the budget that an Indiana University institution operates on. Such an experience gives a breadth of perspective on not only the type of research being done in one’s field, but also perspective on career environments, resource allotment, coworker dedication, and how my life as a graduate student is going to funnel into these areas. WoW. It only took 6 years to get here, but being engaged in non-research oriented goals adds so much to the graduate student experience.

Making Graduate School Your Home

During my time at graduate school, one of my favorite things has been making Bloomington, IN my home. I love my family very much, and when I visit them, I feel as though I am at home, but it is only in my one-bedroom apartment, that I know I am home. I live alone, and I love living alone, but it is not just because I am an introvert, which I am—even though no one believes me—it is because I feel most like myself when I’m in Bloomington.

I have fostered habits, which have cultivated into a lifestyle, which I tend to lose when I leave Bloomington. This is my own vice, but I like who I have become in graduate school. I have met great friends, I have become a member of loving fellowships, and I have worked with intriguing professionals. When I walk into a coffee shop, the people know who I am; they even notice when I get a haircut. The long and short of it is, people care.

I’ve never felt so at home with myself anywhere else. It’s not because Bloomington is a great campus (which it is) or even that the people are inherently friendly (which they are), it’s that graduate school taught me to be okay with myself. I learned to like myself, and that has made all of the difference.

When I leave, I will have to bring the qualities I care about with me, but one thing is for sure, I will always have a special place for Indiana University in my heart. I will miss the friends I have made, but I will take them with me wherever I go, and I will never lose touch with them or myself. Graduate school has made me the man I am today, and while home is where the heart is, I have learned to carry that heart a little better.

Coffee: The Great Equalizer

If you don’t drink coffee, turn back. If you don’t like coffee, learn to like it. If you truly hate coffee, drink tea. Coffee will be your best friend in graduate school. It’s there in the darkest of nights and in the greyest of mornings, and soon the Folgers theme song will coddle in you with its loving embrace. You will go to co-ops, coffee shops, and local artisans to find the best and most premium roasts because coffee will become your mistress, and she is cruel, demanding perfection.

Exaggeration much? Yes, but coffee has become my friend. I thought it was a cliché to go to a Starbucks and write, but the more I did it, the more I realized that I was damn productive in a coffee shop. Sitting around other people rather than moping in the dungeon of my home, became the highlight of my days, and I would get excited over my morning cup. It just felt right.

If you are reading this and thinking, what does this have to do with graduate school, it really is just trying to say that you need to get out of the house. Having a study friend at a coffee shop can make all the difference.

You save each other from embarrassing brain farts. Times when you believe “lended” is a word and curse spellcheck for telling you otherwise. Times when you can’t remember any conjunctions for an e-mail correctly, have trouble remembering the date, or start laughing at the sky because it’s there. Exaggerations? No, not really.

Graduate school has a way of making your brain numb, but there is a solution: coffee and friendship. Oh, I guess you should exercise too or take vitamins, but coffee does it faster. In the words of two of my favorite memes: “Let’s get some coffee so we can be hyper-aware of how little we’re going to get done today,” and “Drink coffee: do stupid things faster with more energy.”

I may have given up alcohol during my time at graduate school, but I gave into coffee, and I am definitely addicted to that dark roast brew.

iGraduate School 2.0: There and Back Again

Graduate school is what you make of it. There has never been a truer statement. I know the statement sounds like it was generated by a poorly paid life coach, but there isn’t much more to say.

Looking back on my first post “iGraduate School” I was more optimistic and excited than I have ever been. I was in a new place with new friends and new experiences, but after the warm glow of elation faded, I was left with the bitter reality that graduate school is work. Slowly, I became disenchanted with academia and found myself doing less and less work. Graduate school was just more school, and as such, I stopped reading and only did what I had to do to get by. I don’t recommend this.

Graduate school is a time for personal growth and development, and even if you don’t care for what you are studying or even find your department lacking, you can still use this time to discover yourself. Remember that every failure is a secret success.

During my time at graduate school, I found independence, faith, friendship, and guidance. I stopped drinking, I stopped partying, and I stopped feeling lost. While some of my classes were a joke, I started to realize that I no longer had to be a cog in the academic machine. I have ideas, passions, and beliefs, and just because some people don’t agree with them, does not mean that I don’t have a right to express them.

I loved my time at graduate school, even during the worst and most painful moments. I learned how to deal with those trials and tribulations; certainly, I am stronger for the experiences. I am not an academic anymore. Graduate school taught me that. I realized that in academia I was learning about what others went out and did… but I wasn’t doing anything. Some people can turn this ideology on its head, doing in graduate school rather than just studying, but my perspective has become solidified that academia is no longer for me. I am okay with that. I would still recommend graduate school to anyone who asked, and I wish you the best of luck on your journey. Just remember two things: enter as many open doors as you can, but never be afraid to exit that door it what’s inside isn’t for you.

Scheduling a Committee Meeting  

Students beware, getting faculty together is one of those impossible things that must be done if you want to graduate.

In my department, in order to graduate, I have to have an oral defense with my committee. A committee is made up of at least three professors, usually two who reside within the department, who meet to discuss your work. While this function is in their job description, many faculty look at it as “something extra” they have to do. What this means for a student trying to get them into the same room, is that they are only going to give you their time if it is convenient to them.

Convenient for them does not mean convenient for you. Add this to the fact that you have at least three committee members and you have yourself the kind of fun lamented by graduate students everywhere. This process is jokingly impossible, but it can be done without too much fuss.

The solution: Doodle. Get a doodle to them as quickly as possible and give lots and lots of options/times. If you are lucky, they will find a common time with the first go. If you are unlucky, try, try again. Other methods involve going to faculties’ office hours (if they tell you their office hours) and if that fails, you wait outside their classes (this is a last resort, of course).

I am giving you an example of the worst case scenario, but the big take away is that scheduling faculty meetings is its own assignment. Some will ask you to write your own exam questions, sign their signature, pass your e-mails to someone else, or even bring them an actual calendar. Whatever pitfalls you find yourself in, remember, you are not alone. Many students have had the same challenges you have.

Finally, if all else fails and you have put in as many man-hours as you are willing to give, contact your departmental secretary. They are usually skilled in diplomatically reminding faulty of their duties. Remember, however, this is a passive aggressive strategy and once a bridge is burned you have to rebuild it.

These have been my experiences and they are not shared by everyone, but during my time in academia, I have found diplomacy and bureaucracy to be very good friends. Treat people like people first, but some tact can go a long way.

Revisiting the Alma Matter

Recently, I had the opportunity of heading back to the ole alma mater. I had expectations of being welcomed back with opened arms and warm smiles, but I was slightly disappointed. While I was sorely missed by friends and dear faculty, the general feeling I received was one of ambivalence. I was no longer a paying customer, and as such, for them, I had moved on. While some faculty were interested in my accomplishments, most did not want me to discuss them with their classes or recruit for my graduate school.

I knew that education was a business, but this felt more like a Rockefeller oil yard or a Carnegie steel mill, it was strict and confining. I write this post, not to dismay any reader or to advocate separation from one’s alma mater, but rather to illustrate that sometimes expectations of a warm homecoming can be misplaced.

Do not expect your alma mater to go out of its way for you. They have given you your education and piece of paper (diploma), and they do not owe you anything else. While this may sound rather blunt, the underlining principle is more important: people are people. Stay in touch with faculty you care about. These are the people that will go out of their way for you. Do not look at your alma mater as an institution; instead, look at it as a dorm housing your friends, colleagues, and favorite teachers. Return with happiness in your heart, and connect with those that really matter

I for one, when I returned, discovered some of the people for whom I cared about did not share the same feelings toward me. But, even as several teachers shunned me, many others brought me back into the folds with good conversations and caring advice. In fact, a department I once though disliked me, in fact, had nothing but respect for my ideas. I am very thankful for the trip, and I hope to stay in touch with teachers I no longer simply look up to, but instead, look at as friends.

Thy Thesis Come

So, you’ve have made it into graduate school and you’ve finished your course work, but there is still one more thing to do. Daunting, at the edge of your periphery, your thesis has been looming for the last two to three years, and now it is time to complete it. At this juncture, you have one of two options. One, you take every bit of knowledge you have been learning during your time in graduate school and start from scratch. You’ve earned your knowledge, and now you get to implement it. Or two, and this set-up is a slight misnomer, you have already been working on your thesis for the past two to three years.

Personally, I recommend option two. Use your classes, your course work, and  your assignments as templates for your thesis. Gear all of your work and your endeavors toward that final goal. This is NOT double dipping, it is working smarter, not harder. Some committee/departments will not allow you to do this, as they want your thesis to be entirely original, but for the most part, you will not find any roadblocks. This method saves you times, and in graduate school, time is everything.

Whatever option you choose, find your own way to tackle this process to make it easier.  Do not be lackadaisical in this endeavor, whatever your department says, remember, your thesis is a big ordeal.

In addition, discover your department’s guidelines before your final semester. Sometimes (cough, usually) your first draft of your thesis does not mean it is you final draft, regardless of whether your department likes it or not. You may also still have to take exams and have an oral defense over what you’ve written. In the end–and I’m saying again for emphasis–make sure you have time. Time is your biggest threat. I for one, only took thesis during my last semester of graduate school, and it still took me the entire 15 weeks to complete the process. Good luck and God speed!

Getting Your Hands on That “Mean Green”

Money money money money…some people gotta have it, some people really need it. It’s only fitting to begin this post with the lyrics of renowned soul group The O’Jays from their hit song For the Love of Money. These lyrics definitely describe graduate students’ sentiments regarding funding our graduate education. Graduate school is not cheap, and it sure is not free! But don’t be alarmed! What’s the best way to fund your education? SImple. Get someone else to pay for it.

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Emerging Researchers National (ERN) Conference in STEM (Washington, DC. 2015)

Last month, I got an amazing opportunity to interact with some of the brightest researchers across the United States. I was part of the IU-team (Dr. Yolanda Treviño (the Assistant Vice President for Strategy, Planning, and Assessment), Dr. Garfield Warren (physics), Dr. Sara Skrabalak (chemistry) and myself) that attended the 5th annual Emerging Researchers National (ERN) Conference in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) held in Washington, DC on February 19-21.

About 1000 undergraduate and graduate students presented their research at the ERN conference. Continue reading