After a month-long vacation and my first break since starting graduate school, I am back from India. Last year passed so quickly, I still cannot believe that I am a graduate student.
I spent my first semester at home, staying up the entire night to attend classes and take exams due to the entirely different time zones. It seems like just yesterday I was struggling to connect to my Zoom classes and forgetting to mute myself on the first day while my mom talked in the background and my brother played Bollywood songs. So many embarrassing Zoom moments.
By the time the COVID-19 lockdown was lifted in India, it had been a year since I had come to the United States. It was my second time in the country and I was so nervous about starting everything. I had so many expectations for myself: learning everything as soon as possible, keeping up with all the sports I used to play, working full time in the lab and performing the best in all my courses. But while I did well in most of my classes, I also had moments of failure in many.
I understood pretty quickly that all graduate students handle a myriad of challenges, from a lab mates’ annoying habits to the loneliness felt when transplanted to a foreign country. Finding the unknown in this world is a new challenge. As graduate student, when we pursue our passion, it means we want to spend the next five to six years doing something completely new with our heart, soul and mind.
And I won’t say it’s easy. It’s definitely difficult. But we can improve the experience by taking it slowly, by doing little things that excite us: attending campus activities happening around us, joining a club or going for coffee at Levering Café.
I would like to say a few things to last year’s Sudha, who was a bit impatient and had millions of insecurities and unreal expectations.
Doing research is so much fun. We start with a hypothesis. If it works exactly the way we plan (though this is extremely rare), it’s so rewarding. Most of the time, our hypotheses and experimental science results differ between day and night. But that’s what science is all about. At the end of the day, we don’t know what outcome we will see in the following experiment. But whatever it may be, it will be a new discovery that has never been seen before.
There will be many Day Ones when we will restart our experiments or try to implement a new habit, and that’s okay. As long as you keep going, it’s okay. You may not be able to stick to the schedule or you will go off track and feel lazy all day long. That’s okay as long as you keep getting back on track.
Create a support network: your family, friends and anyone else you can reach out to. Be there for people and let people be there for you.
Keeping up with your hobbies will give you so much peace, even if that just means writing down your thoughts, going outside in nature, working out, drawing digitally or watching Netflix.
Ask lots of questions! Never be afraid to ask questions: It’s how we learn! It’s better to get something right because you asked a bunch of questions than to get something wrong just because you were afraid to ask.
Don’t be too harsh on yourself after a failed experiment or a bad presentation. It’s totally normal. Every graduate student will tell you about their experimental woes and their worst presentation experiences.
Don’t compare yourself to others. One thing to keep in mind is we all come from different places and have different life experiences. In other words, no one came into graduate school with a tabula rasa, a clean slate. We are all comprised of our diverse backgrounds. Your experiences provide you with a unique perspective that your peers may not necessarily have. It is difficult to remember that sometimes, but here’s a reminder: You were not admitted to this institution by accident.
I am turning 23 in a few days and I don’t think I have ever learned so much in one year.
Currently, I am happy to be a part of this scientific community, where we don’t think about when we are going home or if we are going to sleep tonight. All we think about is having fun with our experiments, grabbing dinner on St. Paul Street, talking to our family and friends while walking and just crashing in bed at the end of the day.
I always cherish the fact that I get to work with such brilliant people. Just hanging out with my friends from different departments in different research areas, some with different work styles and life routines, is a blessing I often forget to count.
The daily life of a graduate student changes every day as we learn and adapt from the previous day. Hopefully, when I write about my second year of graduate school, I will have different views and understandings. I know I am just lucky to be able to enjoy all this.
Sudha Yadav is a graduate student from North India in the Department of Chemistry. Her column, “Crystal From the Valleys,” talks about the roller-coaster ride of grad life, seeing beauty in chemistry and getting inspiration from nature.