My First Weeks in Graduate School

22 September 2017

It’s been a hectic few weeks in grad school so far. Here’s what I’ve concluded after my first little taste of life in academia:

My cohort is wonderful!

It’s great to finally be surrounded by people who share similar interests with me while maintaining a fresh air of individuality within their own respective subfields. I hope that we really bond over the course of the next few years. We haven’t had too much opportunity to really interact outside of a few dinners here and there, though. Maybe it’s because we’re still in the class-taking phase of graduate school. Still, the Facebook chat is going strong!

Graduate school is kind of scary.

But not in the way that I thought it would be. In some ways, it’s exactly like undergrad, but in other ways I think it has required me to grow up really quickly. As the youngest person in my cohort by two years, I am a little immature when it comes to bringing real-world-experiences to the table, so learning to be more assertive and to ask the important questions that I have has become a really key motif in the first few weeks.

Graduate school is scary not because it’s new, but because of the vast unknown that lies in front of me. It’s scary because of all of the new terms that everyone throws around (“*-ships”, “grants”, “postdocs”, “tenure-track”, etc.). It’s scary because of all the older married folk in my apartment complex who already have children of their own. It’s scary because of all the things that I have to do without any clear path of how to get there. It’s scary because of the 30-minute bike rides in near-total-blackness on the way back home from the CS building. It’s scary to learn how to cook new recipes each week to keep things fresh. And, of course, it’s scary because for the first time in my life it’s important for me to go above and beyond without really expecting anything in return—everyone goes above and beyond.

There is no hand-holding. At all.

There’s more to this realization than meets the eye. Bear with me.

I think the interim dean put it best when he said “graduate school is where it gets hard”. People have said that “high school is where it gets hard” and “college is where it gets hard”, and I’ve managed to survive thus far, against all odds. However, I really do believe that graduate school is where things get truly hard.

I was told almost nothing at graduate orientation, and instead I was asked to ask questions to figure out the answers to things that I wanted to know about. In some sense, I enjoyed this format a lot more, and it is quite reminiscent of how things work in the research scene—we have to find the answers to things ourselves, and knowing the right questions to ask can be extraordinarily useful.

In another vein, though, what I mean by “there is no hand-holding” is that it is pretty hard to form new relationships with other people here in graduate school, especially in a place like Princeton, where there is a huge focus on undergraduate education. I might only be 20, but I don’t think intermixing with undergraduates is really looked upon favorably here. Many people in my cohort (especially those who have already worked for a number of years) have significant others, as do many others in many other cohorts. It may not be hard to meet people, but being a single person in graduate school sure is tough. There is quite literally no hand-holding here, at least certainly not on my end.

There is a lot of reading. :-o

Admittedly some of it is reviewing things for my job as a TA, but a lot of it is just finding sources online to understand the topics presented in graduate classes in a lot more detail. More often than not, these sources are not referenced by the professor anywhere—again, it is up to us to figure out the right places to obtain a deeper understanding of the material, even in survey courses like the graduate algorithms class here. And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention reading papers! I don’t have a confirmed advisor yet, but reading the literature is really key in developing an intuition for the research scene, and this definitely goes hand-in-hand with the hand-holding one (no pun intended!): nobody tells you what to read.

I’m actually trying to change up my interests in CS, so I’ve been reading and trying to figure out what the heck cryptography is all about.

There are a hell of a lot of barbecues.

I think I’ve been to six get-to-know-each-other events already! It’s great to meet the older students and see what the community is like here. Jorge Cham’s recent PhD comic captures this quite well.

Princeton may be beautiful, but only Ithaca is gorges.

Ithaca is gorges.