A reflection on year one of graduate school27 May 2020
The academic year has wrapped up and with that, so has my first year of graduate school (almost).
It’s been a pretty eventful 12 months to say the least, so I thought I would take some time to
document it and write down some thoughts.
An Approximate Timeline of the Last Year
- Submit bachelor’s thesis just in time to graduate from MIT with degree in mechanical engineering.
- Spend summer working, traveling, and relaxing at corner of Germany, Switzerland, and France. Float down Rhine with fish bag a couple of times.
- Start as one of first students in new engineering design research group at Cal. Move into first official apartment in Berkeley.
- Experience campus(and city)-wide power outages thanks to PG&E and California wildfires.
- Get acquainted with new research field and submit first ever paper to conference.
- Start of global pandemic due to novel coronavirus.
- Conference paper accepted! Unclear if conference will actually be held.
- Global pandemic continues. Move out of apartment and back home due to uncertainty (and housing prices).
- Present day
Although a lot has happened, I’ve also used this first year to adjust and try to learn how I can successfully approach grad school in the upcoming years.
Lessons from the First Year
Research is Hard
Some people enter a graduate program and know – or at least, appear to know – exactly what they want to pursue for their research. I was definitely not one of those people. While I do have broader interests within the field, I struggled (and still struggle) to form the more specific questions that can be answered with actionable tasks or projects. This often led to periods of time throughout the past year where I felt like I wasn’t making any progress in research at all. I know that time and experience will mitigate some of these issues and I’m striving to overcome discouragement during the process.
Getting Constructive Feedback
Starting grad school felt a lot like navigating through uncharted waters. Even though there’s so much advice out there, experiences can vary wildly and I knew that I would have to figure many things out on my own. To address this, I’ve made a conscious effort to seek out feedback as much as possible, not only to improve the work on my projects, but also to improve how I work and communicate.
Along with several successes (including getting accepted to graduate school in the first place!), the year has definitely come with failures. For example, I’ve failed at getting fellowships to secure funding for the long-term. I’m sure the upcoming years will be a mixed bag of success and failure and that all around me, I might only hear about success. I hope to not spend too much time dwelling on the failures, other than for motivation and to find areas to improve.
Learning from Fellow Grad Students
As one of the first students in the research group, there were no older students to directly learn or get advice from. This was especially daunting as I had no experience with my particular sub-field from my time in undergrad. However, the situation has encouraged me to think more independently and given me a chance to forge my own path. In addition, it has encouraged me to more proactively reach out to those who are outside my group and even outside my field. Being forced to look outward has helped expose me to more ideas and inspiration.
Motivation During Shelter-in-Place (potentially unique to the current situation)
Right now, this is probably the most challenging obstacle. The reality is that it’s difficult to feel like your research even matters in the face of a global health crisis, especially when it doesn’t seem to have much applicability. The situation has caused me to become more interested in engineering education and how it is affected by having to be physically separated, since that is very relevant in this time. However, overall, I’m trying not be too hard on myself about the times when I make little progress and focusing on making the productive times particularly effective.
Life Outside of Grad School
It’s very important to me to have a well-balanced life! To address this, I’ve made sure to continue prioritizing things outside of school as well. I’ve made an effort to keep in touch with friends (especially those who live in different places). I’ve restarted learning how to play the guitar to utilize different parts of my brain. Finally, I’ve made a (sometimes unsuccessful) effort to keep up a routine of physical activity. All of these have significantly contributed to my happiness during this first year.
It’s been an interesting but overall solid year. At the same time, it’s clear that I still have a lot to learn. I’ll probably look back on this in the future and laugh (or cringe), but for now, back to work!