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Ever wondered what the day-to-day grind of a grad student looks like? Is it laid back and relaxed or insanely hectic? I’m sure you’ve seen all the tropes from movies like Good Will Hunting to A Beautiful Mind, but what is it actually like? Let’s explore in this post.
Flexibility is the biggest flex when it comes to graduate school. This is not going to be a typical walkthrough from dawn to dusk describing things that I do supposedly every day because, let’s face it, no two days are the same. Instead, I’m going to describe three different categories of days that a typical engineering graduate student cycles through at varied frequencies, depending on the phase of their research and academic career.
The Lazy Day
To paraphrase Charles Dickens, these are truly the best of times and the worst of times. You may not feel motivated, may wake up late, may relax and slack off, get a couple of hours or less of work done, and may or may not be disappointed in yourself for being unproductive. The important thing is that you cannot escape these days and will have to learn to manage and minimize these kinds of days throughout your academic career. While these days can be frustrating, we have to understand that they are part of the package and may be useful in the long run to ensure you stay sane and focused.
The Crazy Day
On the flip side, there will be days when you are glued to your work with unwavering attention and can get an astounding amount of work done. You will acquire caffeine-induced superpowers to pull multiple productive all-nighters to meet deadlines. This is probably what media portrayals often focus on, when you immerse yourself in your work to such an extent that nothing else seems to be important. While these days can be looked back on in a wonderful light, they do come with incredible amounts of stress. Ideally, you will also try to minimize the need for such days.
THE judgment DAY
Often associated with or closely following crazy days are judgment days. These include traveling to conferences and presenting your work, exams and project submissions, your proposal and thesis defense, or even meeting with your advisor or funding agencies to update them about your research progress. These days are usually emotional roller coasters, as you are nervous but also excited. They can often be tiring. As you grow as an academic, these days can become less and less emotionally dynamic as you learn to manage your emotions and expectations.
During a typical academic cycle, a student will have certain conferences to attend and journal publications to submit manuscripts to. When combined with coursework, student organizations and personal life, all students will go through a weighted superposition of the above three ‘days’ in a typical engineer’s fashion. Weights will be determined and updated based on a host of factors such as deadlines, rate of progress in research, courseload, etc.
For example, in the month of August when the semester just begins, you may go through a prolonged period of lazy days as coursework is just heating up and deadlines are far away. The frequency of crazy and judgment days can be far higher in October or November when coursework ramps up and research deadlines and events are near.
As a graduate student, it is quite clear to me that there is no typical day, and every day can bring a whole host of emotions and responsibilities. However, there is enough flexibility to fashion your own set of typical days which you could cycle through. For my fellow graduate students out there, how has your experience been?
If you found this blog post interesting, you may consider reading “5 tips for being a TA” and “Why You Should Pursue a Graduate Degree in Petroleum Engineering.”