A Grad Student’s Life for Me!

We work and we research throughout five long years.

We’re lab rats for life. Oh no!

In our data we pour our blood, sweat, and tears.

We’re lab rats for life. Oh no!

Oh no, oh no, a grad student’s life for me!

A special thank you to George Bruns for composing the song I just “pirated” and put my own grad student spin on.

Get it?

I know. Lame, lame, lame. That’s STEM humor for you.

The “lyrics” that I composed represent something paradoxical: the bittersweetness of being a graduate student. It’s a love-hate relationship in the sense that we love the opportunity of learning and studying something that no one else ever has before and forming friendships with like-minded nerds. But we hate constantly banging our heads against brick walls trying to figure out why our data looks awful; why we work 80 hours a week for meager pay; and why we seem trapped in an ever-shrinking prison that is our lab.

There are three questions you should NEVER, EVER ask a grad student:

  1. “How is research going?”
  2. “When do you graduate?”
  3. “Do you have a job yet?”

And why should you never ask them these questions? Because most of the time the answer is a resounding “no,” and you have only served to remind them of their miserable plight.

  1. “Research is going; where it’s going, I don’t know.”
  2. “Your guess is as good as mine; or as good as my adviser’s.”
  3. “If I had one, do you think I’d still be here?”

When I was a first-year grad student at Cornell, I volunteered to help out for the new grad recruitment weekend. Why I volunteered, I don’t know. I was most likely the worst person to help serve as a positive image of what Cornell had to offer. Actually, I think all the first-years were. We were in the middle of our second term and still reeling from our first semester. Just trying to keep up with the material was bad enough, but in our second semester we also had to start working in our labs.

For each of us that volunteered for the recruitment weekend, we were assigned a “buddy,” whom we had to contact prior to their arrival. The people coordinating the recruitment weekend sent us a template for a “suggested” email.

What was suggested: “Congratulations on your acceptance to Cornell University!”

What we wanted to say: “Dude, the feeling won’t last long.”

What was suggested: “Cornell offers a plethora of opportunities to her students.”

What we wanted to say: “Run! Turn around and run while you still have the chance! Get a job, work 8 to 5, and live off of something besides Ramen noodles and coffee!”

Sending that email was bad enough, but the weekend itself proved to be an even bigger challenge.

We had just finished a 24-hour midterm (that really had taken the full 24 hours) and were getting ready to welcome the new class. We tried pasting smiles on our faces but weren’t 100% successful since we had been awake for 40 hours.

When the coordinators wanted the students to have an up-close look at what life is like for a Cornell engineering graduate student, they definitely delivered.

This sounds awful, doesn’t it? Who would want to live this way? Little sleep, little pay, constant frustration.

And yet these are some of my favorite memories.

For my qualifying exam, I had to write a research proposal before the beginning of my second academic year. That summer, all first-year students spent a ridiculous amount of time in their labs. Now that we weren’t taking classes, we had the time to devote to learning the techniques required to generate some preliminary data.

I, in all my stupidity, decided that since my lab was always hopping that I would work during the night and sleep during the day.

Probably the worst plan in the world.

Once a week my research adviser had a one-on-one meeting with each member in the lab. Mine were always scheduled around 10 AM. If I had worked normal hours, that time would have been completely manageable. However, I was going into work around 5 PM, working until anywhere between 3 and 7 AM the next morning, going to bed around 9 AM, and waking up around 2 or 3 PM.

So incredibly stupid.

By the time I met with my adviser, I had been awake for close to 20 hours. Try explaining crystal data on 4 hours of sleep. She must have thought I was the biggest idiot, in spite o not knowing about my “master plan.”

In order to get ourselves through those nights, my best friend (who also worked the graveyard shift) and I would make frequent trips each day to Collegetown Bagels, the hip coffee join right off campus and just down the street from our building. The place closes at 2 AM, so we would fuel up when we got to work, stop in a couple more times for something to eat (and of course for more caffeine), and then return to stock up around midnight to get us through the early morning hours until they opened again at 7 AM. Then we could go get our dinner of bagels and, of course, more coffee before going home to get some sleep. (At that point, we had had so much coffee that we had become immune to the effects of caffeine; but because we still enjoyed the taste we would reward ourselves for getting through another day of work.)

Again, that sounds crazy, doesn’t it? And yet that is one of my favorite memories of all time. My friends and I bonded over our shared love of coffee and commiserated over our insane work hours and lack of sleep.

But it was all short-lived. We didn’t stay sleep-deprived. We finished our quals, got some rest, and then moved on to the next ordeal (which presented its own challenges).

And that is why that in this blog post, written shortly before I re-enter the wonderful world of graduate school, I hope we can all learn to live in the moment while not being bogged down with all the stress and pressure that accompanies it. Embrace the chaos that comes your way, and remember that everything is temporary. You can never get those moments back.

Did you “suck out all the marrow of life” (to quote Thoreau)? Did you take that opportunity to grow in ways you never thought possible? Did you enjoy every second of it?

Added to our names, the letters Ph.D.

We’re lab rats for life. Oh no!

I would not have done it differently.

We’re lab rats for life. Oh no!

Oh no, oh no, the life’s no longer for me!

I definitely would not want to do it differently.

Peace, Prosperity, and Organic Photovoltaics,

Chic Geek and Chemistry Freak

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s