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Welcome To My Nightmare

Aging tenured professors often describe graduate school in terms reserved for first loves and walks in the Paris moonlight. They were happy, free to explore, intellectually stimulated, and their productivity soared unfettered by the burdens of administration and teaching.

Lacking the rose-tinted glasses of nostalgia, grad students tell a rather different story. They know that even at its best, graduate school can be a supremely unnerving experience. And at its worst, the pressure can kill you.

But the pursuit of a Ph.D. isn't all doom and gloom, either. Just because they have tenure doesn't (necessarily) mean that professors are delusional. There must be a reason so many of them recall graduate school as one of the most meaningful and rewarding periods of their lives, right? Well, yes...And no. Yes, grad school served your advisor very well. It is the reason they have their current job. But no, it isn't a great place for everyone. The good news is that--contrary to popular belief, you can influence the course of your graduate career. And that is what this column is all about: learning how to survive and thrive in graduate school in the sciences.

Survive and Thrive will be a series of monthly articles that explore the pressures, anxieties, and absurdities that science students will inevitably face as they pass through the various stages of their graduate education. In the articles, I will illustrate the challenges of grad school--and offer a few strategies for overcoming them--by sharing stories drawn from my own experiences and from the experiences of my family, friends, enemies, and colleagues.

Other Places to Go

The Survive and Thrive series can't have the answers to all your grad school dilemmas, not least because in my own graduate school career I did not experience everything that could confront a student. For example, I try to avoid laboratories. In fact, you couldn't pay me enough to wear a white lab coat and fiddle with test tubes full of toxic chemicals or contagious viruses. I never even dissolved one of my baby teeth in a glass of Coke. (It always struck me as a doubly wasteful proof of the obvious; I'd rather drink the Coke and sell the tooth to the Tooth Fairy.)

To compensate somewhat for my essential narrow-mindedness, Science's Next Wave will offer the Survive and Thrive forum. If something in one of the columns piques your interest and you want to know more, you can simply fire off a question to the forum. I'll be checking in periodically to offer whatever ideas I have. But as I said, I don't have all the answers. So if someone posts a familiar sounding question or predicament, please chime in with your advice or share a similar story from your life. Particularly if it has anything to do with test tubes.

And don't forget to check out the Survive and Thrive resources page. Here, we will post a continuously updated list of books, articles, and Web sites. But we need your help...We are always searching for useful information to pass on, so if you come across something that you found helpful, please tip us off and we will add it to our list. Your colleagues will thank you, if only in their dreams.

Fundamentally, graduate school, like most of life's endeavors, is all about people and relationships. Which means that it is messy and subjective and that its problems are resistant to simple cookie-cutter solutions or lists of dos and don'ts. Suppose, for example, that you are having a dispute with your advisor. I could suggest that you go consult with your department chair. That sounds like good advice, and it often is. But acting on it without pause could get you thrown right out of graduate school, if your chair and advisor happen to be unscrupulous comrades-in-arms who easily take offense when "sneaky" graduate students try to go over their heads. And if you are shaking your head and thinking, "That never happens," let me assure you that it does.

So hold on to your hats, folks, your adventures in the grad school zone are just beginning. ...

But before we go racing off after the next degree, let's pause for just a second. By the time you finish a Ph.D., you will be several years older and drenched in blood, sweat, and tears. Will it have been worth it? That depends on what you expect to get out of graduate school. So in the next article, we'll take one step back to ask (and maybe answer...) the question that haunts every graduate student like an unwelcome ghost on a late night walk through the graveyard: "Why the heck am I doing this?"

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