The existential crisis of being a graduate student

 Feb 6, 2017    by Lindsey Parkinson

So, we’re in graduate school, ready to throw ourselves into a new chapter of life as “early career scientists.” Now what? We’re in a new world with endless possibilities and unknown limits - where do we even begin?

My first year in Fairbanks, AK I worked as a technician at the University of Alaska Fairbanks (UAF) and spent much of the first few weeks of the academic year pestering any natural sciences professor that would listen to me.

“I don’t have any funding - come back with a question and maybe we can figure something out.”

The quote above, from my biased memory of the discussion, came from one of my first conversations with a professor at UAF and was also the most frustrating. Looking back it seems harmless, maybe even supportive, but at the time I didn’t take it that way; it felt curt and dismissive. Leaving the professor’s office I remember thinking: I just moved here! I don’t know enough about Fairbanks to know where to start let alone how to create a research project, learning how to do a research project is why I want to go into a master’s program in the first place! I’m just going to find a professor that sees how amazing I am and they will give me a well-defined project and many years of funding.

However, as the weeks went by and my Fairy-Godadvisor didn’t show up, wave their wand and make the grants appear, I began to more seriously consider specific research questions of my own. I had made one good graduate student friend by this time so she received the bulk of my inane questions as we attempted to keep our fingers from freezing while measuring trees for her advisor in the last days of field work before winter.

    Me: What about…. This!

    Friend: Been done by Dr. So-and-so

    Me: What about…. That!

    Friend: Nope, done.

My “research” continued in this vein for a while.

Eventually I pulled a few pieces of information and research gaps together and, quite humbled, contacted  the professor again. It seemed like I passed some test as I was greeted at our next meeting with partial funding and a likely teaching assistantship.

I started in the master’s program at UAF this past September; since then, I’ve modified my initial idea and transformed it into another one that I’m quite pleased with. I have also formed my thesis committee and things are moving forward - though I still need to hash out a few more specifics before I plan for my first field season.

So what I have learned? Graduate students, particularly master’s students, make their way to and through their programs in a variety of ways - I moved to Alaska and started knocking on doors. Another student met his advisor in Central America, someone else had her advisor relocate to another institution part-way through her thesis and she’s largely on her own; while some  are lucky enough (although it truly is a bit of luck on top of  a lot of persistence and hard work) to step into a fully formed project and hit the ground running.

Before committing to a graduate program, it is important to research not only the subject and faculty you want to work with, but also how the university and department you are interested in can support you (or not) through the two to six years it takes to complete a masters or PhD. Some universities stipulate students must be fully funded up front, while others not at all and the student may end up paying for part or all of their program costs. In the University of Alaska’s case, a student and advisor must show at least one year of funding, though that can include working for the university as a teaching assistant. It doesn’t hurt to have a back-up plan for funding. Maybe too many students applied for teaching assistantships one semester or the fiscal situation of your program changed; consequently it's a good idea to keep a list of potential fellowships and grants and their annual deadlines handy. There is a snowball effect to grants too; once you get one it is often easier to get others. Start applying early, it’s good practice and will look great on your CV.

When I reflect on what I’ve done in the last few months, I’m confident that I’m progressing. My topic has narrowed considerably to something I can study in two field seasons. I’ve made connections in the community, but at the same time I find it difficult to know if I’m doing well. Someone would tell me if I’m way behind or off base, right? And will I understand where I fit in the vast web of university and professional research before I graduate? At least I have a few gates to get through in the near future that will keep me on the right path (proposal defense, committee meetings, thesis defense).

While it’s sometimes difficult to explain the intricacies of grad school applications and finishing the actual degree since no one student comes at it from the same path, I’m grateful for the diversity of life experiences the amorphousness brings to the table. And while none of us may know quite what we are doing, or where we stand, at least the undergrads consider us an authority figure. I think.

Lindseny Parkinson is a graduate student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks studying responses of blueberry and cranberry plants to changes in boreal forest fire.

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When you don't know what you are doing with your life, or need a new perspective, get outside. An extracurricular or two are key to maintaining equilibrium. Photo credit: Tom Vrba; Fairbanks, AK