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Navigating the First Year of Graduate School

Students who are committed to learning and interested in science should consider graduate school, regardless of their past academic records. Although I was never a poor student, I entered graduate school lacking the proper preparation. Yet I was still able to do well. I was able to succeed in my transition into graduate school and beyond thanks to good mentors, excellent time management skills, perseverance, and confidence.

I did exceptionally well in math and science throughout my childhood. My biggest role model was a cousin who was a very bright chemist. She was my closest female relative to attend college and pursue a career in science.

When I started college, I decided to be a pharmacy major because it was the only career I was aware of that would allow me to use my knowledge of science and math. But after taking organic chemistry--the one class that really provided a challenge for me--I changed my major to chemistry and got involved in research. My undergraduate research experience allowed me to get to know the chemistry faculty at USC and prepared me for the transition to graduate school.

Educational Background and Current Position

A native of Columbia, South Carolina, Takita Sumter received her B.S. (1997) and Ph.D. (2002)--both in chemistry--from the University of South Carolina (USC). She completed a postdoctoral fellowship in cancer biochemistry at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine. She is currently an assistant professor of chemistry at Winthrop University in Rock Hill, South Carolina, where she teaches undergraduate courses, does research, and mentors and advises undergraduate and graduate students. Her research focuses on the biochemistry of proteins involved in cancer. To learn more about Takita Sumter, please read "Nothing is Impossible to a Willing Heart".

I started looking at graduate school programs in the fall of my senior year and submitted applications that spring. Because I was doing research, I was able to get my research advisor and other students in the lab to critique my application materials and provide suggestions for improving my application. These discussions were invaluable because I learned things about graduate school that I didn't know before. For example, I found out that graduate school provided a stipend that covered my living expenses and in many cases paid tuition.

Intimidated by the amount expected

I was a bit apprehensive after I learned I would be required to make As and Bs--nothing lower--and that I had to pass two written and two oral exams before beginning my dissertation. I was intimidated by the amount they expected me to know. I felt that, though I had made it through my undergrad training, there was nothing they could teach me in two years that would prepare me to defend my science orally to members of a university faculty. Unsure of my abilities, I spent the whole summer reviewing biochemistry.

During the first year of graduate school, I was bombarded with coursework. Even the orientation was uncomfortable; I met students who had been in research programs all over the world, and they all seemed much brighter than I was. I realize now that this level of intimidation forced me to develop new study habits. Because the coursework was much more difficult than undergraduate-level courses, I studied after the end of each class and participated in study groups each week.

Graduate-level exams tested my ability to apply scientific concepts, in contrast to undergraduate exams which tested my ability to memorize facts learned in class. We also were required to serve as teaching assistants during the first year, and this was another challenge for me. I had to learn to manage my time well, and I often had to review topics such as thermodynamics and chemical equilibrium before I could teach it in class.

The first year was the toughest, but it was also one of the most rewarding times because I met some of my closest friends then. When I entered graduate school, four minorities, including myself, were admitted. This was a record for the department at the time. While only three of us finished the Ph.D., we always supported each other by attending seminars together, studying together, and just listening to each other's problems. These people remain some of my closest friends today; they're usually the ones I call to talk about important events in my life.

Near the end of my first year, I chose a lab, a research project, and an advisor. It wasn't until I entered the lab that I felt I had finally adjusted to the graduate school environment. My advisor and lab mates were instrumental in helping me transition to the laboratory, but the most important information came from minority students in other labs who reminded me to be wary of those who may harbor unfavorable attitudes toward people of color, and of potential political potholes within the department. This bit of advice assured my success in the sciences.

Thanks to my thesis advisor

The person I owe the biggest debt of thanks to, however, is my thesis advisor. He was a source of optimism when I needed it. He helped me choose committee members, read and critiqued written assignments (e.g., research plans), and even asked other students to share their experiences of graduate school with me. When, early in my second year, the date for my oral exams approached, he spent an enormous amount of time making sure I was prepared. Because of his help, I entered my orals confidently and passed.

Those of you who are interested in graduate school should never be satisfied with mediocrity. Set high standards for yourself and work hard to achieve them. I always asked questions, like why certain reagents were added or why particular steps were performed as they were. In the end, these questions improved my critical thinking and made me a better scientist.

Looking back at my early years of graduate school, I realize that I learned a great deal; some of what I learned came from textbooks and experiment protocols, while some came from peers and mentors. Though the learning curve seemed insurmountable at first, things became easier as time went on. If you make it through your first year of graduate school, you have a good chance of completing your degree.