Educated Woman: The Grad School Adventures of Micella Phoenix DeWhyse--Chapter 1: Why Am I Here?


Hello, my name is Micella Phoenix DeWhyse--Cella for short. I'm here to welcome you to graduate school in science and engineering. What's that, you say? Hell on earth? No, not always. Torment beyond belief? Maybe. Insanity for all? Yes!

Actually, I'm here to tell you about myself and my trials and tribulations as a grad student, which is what I've been since last fall. I'm in the materials science and engineering department at a large land-grant university in the Northeast. Last semester, I took five classes (16 hours), and this semester I'm taking four classes (12 hours). It's almost like freshman year from hell all over again.

In fact, I've recently been wondering why the heck I'm here. To try to figure that out, I dug out the essay I wrote for my graduate school applications. Here's some of it: "I have enjoyed the challenges of research since I was in the 10th grade. ... There are times when I love nothing better than exploring new technologies and facing the challenges of discovering and interpreting something different and profound. ... Without the benefit and challenge of graduate study I feel my mind would stagnate and that my full potential would be cut short. ..." Obviously all that was enough for the admissions committee to let me in. But will it be enough to get me through the next 4 to 5 years?

To be honest, I'm at this university in large part because of its comprehensive program in materials science, which I enjoy because I revel in the diverse world that materials science and engineering involves. Materials are everywhere--from the bodies of people to the bodies of computers. And materials scientists are everywhere, too: medicine, electronics, packaging, preservation, construction, and demolition--you name it, and the chances are that a materials scientist does it!

Another reason I'm here is guaranteed funding for 5 years. In fact, there is no way that I'd be in grad school if I had to pay for it.

Although learning and discovering excite me, I'm also afraid. I'm scared of what I don't remember and of how hectic this year will be. Qualifiers start (very) soon, and I have to readjust my body and mind to the study/learn/function mode.

But let's get back to the question at hand: Why on earth am I doing this to myself?

My Ph.D. is a steppingstone, a validation for the next steps I wish to take in my professional life. I realized during my year off that my passions lie in science and education policy rather than in basic research. It's a matter of wanting to look at the entire forest rather than sticking to a single twig on a single branch on a single tree. And although the corporate R&D experiences I had during summers as an undergrad were great, I want to influence things and people on a much larger scale than an academic department, a research area in a corporation, or a particular segment of the scientific community. Moreover, most of my current role models have the prerequisite Ph.D. that gives them the credibility I seek for myself.

That's the theory; but what is the practice?

Just getting started, it can be hard to keep my long-term objectives in mind. Nevertheless, I know for my own survival and sanity that school, although it will be the central organizing principle of my next few years, cannot be my only way of life. I need outside interactions and stimulation to keep me balanced and, more importantly, sane and healthy.

Being in touch with who I am and what brings me joy through this process has helped me remember my diverse and eclectic tastes and interests. As an undergrad I was everywhere, and I knew many in my community. Helping to found a Black Women's organization; allocating money through the Finance Board of the Student Government; taking classes; tutoring; TAing; working at the front desk of my dormitory; acting; and my friends all kept me happy and busy.

I'm in the process of getting similarly involved as a grad student. I've found out about university offices such as the Graduate Student Recruitment and Retention office and the Graduate Student Grants and Services office that offer support to all graduate students and put out information that I can use to find funds to finance my education from outside the department.

In addition, the offices and organizations specifically for minorities and women seem to provide some of the activities (few and far between) in which I may be able to get involved. I already know that I will be attending the first few Black Student Union meetings to get to know a few more black students on campus. It'll be nice to recognize a friendly face on those rare occasions during the day when I actually get outside of my building. Maybe I'll even find another black graduate student or two.

Playing the Game: Schmooze or Lose Getting to Know You (So You Can Help Me)

The "Playing the Game" sidebar will be a regular component of the Educated Woman column. Check it out for tips on how to navigate through the usual graduate school muck without losing a great deal of sanity.

I'm not only getting to know other students on campus, I've already met some of the campus VIPs (e.g., chancellor, deans, heads of the offices I mention in the main text, and department chairs). I'd recommend that anyone starting the graduate school process make these introductions. Part of it is simply the networking schmooze that I hate (but do well), but another part is to form a support structure by showing your face in the offices and letting people know who you are. If problems arise within your department, you'll have influential people to go to who, even if they can't help directly, can point you in the right direction so you're not alone.

This schmoozing must also include departmental and graduate office administration (i.e., the secretaries). Be nice to them, period. These are the people who make the world go round, and the sooner you acknowledge and appreciate that the better off you will be. They have the ability to "lose" important documents quickly, hook you up with a free hotel stay when you come to visit, or give you an "in" on a new fellowship. (Besides, I've often found them to be much more personable than the people they work for.) As my mother always said, you get a lot more with honey than you do with vinegar.

Speaking of alone, my first-year class seems to be pretty cool. We all went to dinner one night to bond and talk and get to know each other outside of school, another activity I'd highly recommend, although I wish we would do more of it. Going out makes forming study groups so much easier, and study groups are essential when everyone's handling so many classes. But not everyone is dealing with THAT very well. I've already encountered individuals who hate classes and want them done so that they can begin their research, finish up, and move on as soon as possible.

But I digress. ... Let's get back to alone. I'm the only black woman in my first-year class, as I knew I would be. Actually, I'm the only black woman in the department; the woman who was here when I interviewed just defended and joined a company in Boston. I haven't had the official "give me the lowdown on what I should expect from the department" conversation with her, but I will in the coming months. There is a black man from Tobago, and another who is beginning his fifth year who should be done relatively soon. In all there are seven women, the other six of which are white. The 18 men in the class are a little more diverse: six white, six Asian, and six international. So, overall, we are a relatively diverse group of people, something that I value greatly.

As for the rest of the department, it is not NEARLY as diverse as this class. As on most campuses, the number of minority and female professors is substantially worse than bleak--in fact, I think it is abysmally shabby. The department's first female professor in 30 years was hired this year, and as for minority professors--yeah, right. I know it is like this in many disciplines and departments all over the country, so I knew coming in that this would be the case. It has been for most of my life: The faces in the places I could potentially want to be look nothing like me. Thus, I'm learning how to play "the game": learning to make it in a world that doesn't really understand me (and may not want to) and play it well.

And so the madness of graduate school begins. I find myself ordering books that aren't required but are recommended by both students and faculty in the department. And I realize that in concentrating my socializing efforts on campuswide organizations I've committed a slight error by omitting to pay sufficient attention to my vertical socialization in the department. But I've already started to catch up. Eating lunch with older graduate students, simply doing work in the lounges in the building, and asking for help with classes allows me to talk to a number of other students. Many of the people in my class (particularly the overachieving and overanxious) have already been talking to the professors, as well as a plethora of upperclassmen who seem happy to share old textbooks, old exams, old qualifying exams, and such. Thus far, I've met a few upperclassmen, and the first-year party held by the older graduate students allowed me to meet a great many more. Now, if only I could remember their names.

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