The Reality of Life as a Grad School Student
I am currently in my seventh and final year of graduate school pursuing a Ph.D. in Mathematics at Binghamton University. I started this journey way back in 5th grade when I realized I wanted to be a math teacher. As I went through middle and high school, the age I wanted to teach changed with my current grade level. Throughout my four years at Hamilton, I realized that my professors were all teaching me more than the curriculum; they were empowering me with life skills, being role models in my time of self-discovery, and using whatever subject they were passionate about as the vehicle for learning. This, I realized, is what I wanted to do. I wanted to mentor the whole student at a time in their lives when they were most open to new ideas, opinions, and forms of thought. So I set my sights on getting a Ph.D.
I’m not going to lie to you, life as a graduate student is tough. But before I share the hard parts of being a graduate student, let me share the great parts. Most STEM graduate students (sorry, non-STEM) are funded with either a research or teaching assistantship. While the funding is typically not much, it is enough to live on, and it varies widely by geographic region and university. I am funded as a teaching assistant and typically teach one Calculus class a semester. Not only is this one of my favorite parts of being a graduate student, but all the teaching experience looks great on my CV. As a pure mathematician, my research is done with pencil and paper, and as a result, can be done from anywhere at any time. The flexibility of my research and the willingness of my department to rearrange my teaching load allowed my husband and I to have a child while both still being graduate students. While it is a lot of work to have a baby and be a graduate student, I hazard a guess that it is more flexible than most “real jobs.”
Now for the hard parts. Earning a Ph.D. takes dedication and perseverance. Most math Ph.D.’s take between 5 and 10 years. These are years full of set-backs, struggle, and more often than not, feeling pretty dumb. While you do have an advisor to “guide” you, not every advisor-advisee relationship is great, and you often can’t do much about it. You do have peers and other professors to bounce ideas off of, but by the time you are working on your dissertation, often your research is so specified that no one in the world understands what you’re doing to the level you do (this is also a cool thing). Graduate students are often treated as cheap labor (because they are), and this can wear you down. But I’m still here. All of these negatives notwithstanding, I have powered through for my dream of becoming a small liberal arts professor.
Being almost at the end of my graduate school journey, there are several pieces of advice I can share, both general and specific:
- Before you apply to graduate school, make sure you are truly interested in the field you are applying for and that you are ready for more school. I took a break between Hamilton and my MS to complete a Fulbright teaching assistantship in Vietnam. I needed a break from school.
- If you are applying for a STEM graduate program, do a summer REU (research experience for undergraduates), or get some other research under your belt. This will help you in applying to graduate school, particularly with a liberal arts degree, and let you experience research firsthand.
- Study your butt off for the subject GRE’s. I did terribly on mine (despite my studying) and so my options for graduate schools were VERY limited.
- Know that leaving a Ph.D. or M.S. program does not make you a quitter. It just means this is no longer the path for you.
- Graduate school is a long, hard road, but I’ve been told the destination is wonderful. I’ll let you know when I get there.