Surviving First Term of Grad School… You Can Do It!

So I began the Fall quarter at Dartmouth in September, signed up for three real classes and two faux ones. 10 weeks of grueling problem sets and killer exams later, I can proudly say that I came out of the experience invigorated by the material, excruciatingly tired, 15 pounds lighter, and sporting three high passes on my transcript. My goal here is to give those entering grad school an idea about how I survived and thrived during this rigorous first term. What will follow is broken up into five aspects of grad school life that I feel we need to have more than a modicum of mastery over: the qualification exam, organization, coursework, your social life, and research. If anyone has anything to add to this sparse guide, I’m sure the advice will be greatly appreciated.

First off, the qualification exam. This needs to be passed by the end of your second year, so make sure that you design your course load to fill in any gaps you may have in fundamentals. Here’s an example of some of the old quals that were given here at Dartmouth:

Don’t be afraid to try to take the exams right when you start grad school; I did and passed them on my first try. If you are able to do this, it will give you a lot more flexibility in the classes you can sign up for, allowing you to pursue courses more for your own interest in them as opposed to having them be gap fillers. If you don’t pass, well you still have till the end of your second year to do so. It’s highly recommended that you show up to your grad school about a month before the term begins. This will give you plenty of time to review, find copies of old qualification exams, and work on as many problems as possible before the department throws the qual at you.

Now I hope you realize that you will be spending A LOT of time in your office. This means you have to organize yourself to be comfortable there. Your desk will be your home away from home, so make sure it’s clean. Get some crucial pieces from your library there, bring extra USB cables, a charger for your phone/iPad/Kindle/toaster. Bring a teddy bear to cuddle with on the office couch, and some chocolate to cure a late night sugar craving. Buy some plants, especially if you’re in the Northern climates. When the Winter hits, you won’t be seeing green for several months, and a nice palm or flower on your desk will certainly help to fight back the Winter blues. Lastly, if you have some extra dough lying around, get yourself a desktop computer. Laptops are nice, but given the amount of time you’ll be staring at a screen, your eyes will thank you for a 27 inch monitor instead of a 15 inch one. It took me about a month to get my desk space up and running, but now I feel at home every time I step into my office.

By the way, if you’re the type to write in pen, I highly suggest checking out these amazing .3mm muji pens. Hopefully you can get your workspace setup before classes begin, but if you don’t then try to sooner rather than later. Being organized is the first defense against a grueling term. Now, coursework…

My faux classes were typical first year grad courses, one on ethics and the other on teaching techniques in preparation for being a teaching assistant. These were both a bit of a joke to me. They met once every two weeks, and involved a bunch of case studies. After having done a bit of work on an MEd at City College in New York, not to mention my years of teaching experience at both the high school and undergrad level, I found the case studies to be rather pedantic. Nothing compares to simply being thrown into a classroom and finding 10 ways to explain the same thing on the fly to teach one how to teach. That being said…

I took three real classes: Classical Mechanics, General Relativity, and Mathematical Methods. Each one had a grueling problem set assigned every week, requiring a temporal investment of anywhere between 10 and 20 hours. Though I was self taught in a large majority of the coursework, I still found myself thinking very hard about some of these sets, Mathematical Methods in particular.

If there is one piece of advice I can give anyone, it would be to start on a problem set as soon as it is assigned. Don’t procrastinate! For the first half of the quarter I was finishing problem sets about half a week before they were due. However, as the quarter progressed, and the inevitable mental exhaustion descended, I soon found them being completed closer and closer to their deadlines. By the last two weeks of the quarter, I was still working on them the night before they were due. I spent several nights, passed out on my office couch, after finishing a set at 4am. Fortunately, most of these occurred at the start of the quarter, and believe me, pulling an all-nighter to complete an assignment early is infinitely better than pulling an all-nighter the night before it is due.

My attitude towards exams has pretty much always been the same. I don’t study for them. I take meticulous notes in class, make sure that I completely understand each problem assigned on every homework set, and read up on any extra material professors mention during lecture. Most importantly, I DISCUSS problems with fellow classmates. If I can figure out how to explain an idea to someone, that means that I’ve internalized a concept. By adhering to this kind of behavior, I find time in the days before an exam to simply relax. I go out to restaurants, I read a scifi novel, I play a little Skyrim. I know everything that I’ve learned is stewing in my subconscious, and I want to make sure that my mind is fresh when the exam comes so that I can access all that information. My advice here is simple, study hard all term, so you don’t have to study before an exam. If you haven’t put the time in to understand Banach spaces during the course of the term, it’s highly unlikely that a night of cramming will get you where you need to be.

The idea of discussing material with fellow classmates naturally brings me to one of the key things that will keep you from going insane during your first year: SOCIALIZE! Misery adores company, and your fellow first years are going through the same hellish time that you are. Get to know them! Hang out with them, grab coffee together, make fun of the baby-faced undergrads together, and now and then have some beer and a glass of scotch with ’em! You guys are in it for the long haul, so put some effort into building social ties, to knitting together that safety net which will get you through all those all-nighters! But don’t constrain yourself to your fellow first years, reach out to the older grad students. You can get a pretty good feel about a department, courses, professors, lines of research by just talking to your fellow indentured servants, and use that information to better steer you ahead in the coming years of late nights and research.

That said, don’t confine yourself solely to your own department in forming your social network. Join a club, an outing group, meet people from other departments! This is crucial, especially at a small school like Dartmouth. Unlike my undergraduate alma mater, the Dartmouth physics department is sadly bereft of a strong GLBT component; the community tends to gather more at Business School and Medical School social events. It took several months to figure this out, but it was great to find, if anything, for the sole purpose of helping me hold on to my sanity in a strange, and incredibly small, new world. You too have to be proactive about becoming a part of a community that makes you feel comfortable, that will give you a place of respite during the hard work ahead.

Speaking of hard work… your research advisor. Many of you think to choose a school because you know who you want to work with, but boy does that change real quick. Make sure you spend some time getting to know your potential advisor(s), not just from the conversations you have with them, but from the perspective of their current grad students. Don’t forget you will be working with them for years to come, and if your personalities don’t mesh, then you are in for a world of pain and suffering and the path to the Dark Side, yada yada. So… go to the colloquia, go to group lunches, go to tea. Talk about research, and find out what made YOU fall in love with science in the first place.

Just to unload a little about my own problems about this, I discovered that I really don’t know what line of research I want to pick up! I came in thinking to do only one thing, physical cosmology, but after a marvelous term with a professor who knows her physics/math so well it makes your brain hurt, I’m now torn between that and a possible research path in quantum information. To remedy this, I’ve already started looking at Summer Schools, in the hope that several weeks of lectures in each topic this summer will help me decide which path to take. I’ll make sure to post in the future exactly how I went about finding and choosing these schools.

All in all, I can say that my first term at Dartmouth was an amazing success. I started it pumped up, rocking the qual and my classes. I made quick friends with the majority of the first years, and came to genuinely adore their daily company. I spent several all-nighters working on assignments, arguing about physics with my classmates, and reading about cosmology. Then, after rocking my midterms, my brain overloaded and I got hit by a bad depression. For a week and a half I bitched about life and posted the most depressing updates on Facebook.

Fed up with my melancholy, I journeyed out of my office, and decided to drink scotch and draw at a local pub/restaurant. Some random social event was happening and the place was filled with grad students and locals, so I just started drawing every person who stayed put for long enough. The next thing I knew I was surrounded by people talking to me. Conversation flowed, and I found myself being dragged to several house parties, and meeting some of the coolest people in Hanover. I realized that the reason I’d been getting blue was that I was leading an unbalanced life, studying too much and not socializing enough. After making some new friends, I went back to my studies with a renewed sense of balance. I finished off the last weeks of the term and kicked the crap out of my finals. There really is no way to describe the feeling you get when you look at your course grades and find out that all the hard work paid off.

I can honestly say that I’m pumped up for Winter term to start. I’ll be taking classical electrodynamics and quantum field theory, and I’ll get to teach a recitation section twice a week. Coupled with spending time reading research journals and hanging out with good friends, this is shaping up to be a rigorous and fantastic Winter! I hope these few short words have been some help to anyone venturing into their first year of science grad school.


7 thoughts on “Surviving First Term of Grad School… You Can Do It!

  1. Excellent blog post, and sage advice. A post I will definitely came to in the future. I didn’t realize qual’s could be taken at the beginning of a students grad term. I’ve had friends wait, simply because qual’s differed each year, depending on who taught the material those 3 quarters. I’m assuming the professors at Dartmouth don’t write the qual exams for their graduate students (??) This is based off of friends attending the UC’s (UCLA, UCB, etc).

    One of the most surprising points you made in your blog, however, is your studying technique. Speaking aloud, and discussion, as a means of further solidifying the concept, coupled with intensive studying via hw, etc, without direct study before an exam. I have to admit…that made me sweat a little haha. But it’s certainly worth a try.

    1. The profs do write the quals each year. There’s a committee that puts it together each year, and they’re always pretty rigorous. Taking it when coming in is considered a ‘no fault’ trial, so it’s no big deal if you don’t pass it your first time, plus you gain the experience of having sat in on one.

      Thanks for the comment!

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