Lessons Learned in Graduate School vol. 1

I finished my first semester of graduate school in the Department of Aerospace Engineering in May of 2011 (I started in January) at the University of Maryland College Park and I can summarize it in several bullet points.

  • Graduate school coursework is much more demanding than undergraduate. This is obvious to many, but it must be stressed that you cannot let your guard down in any class because it will hit you square between the eyes. Do every problem with intensity. Give yourself time to check and double check your work.
  • Being a graduate research assistant places special emphasis on getting your hands dirty early…and if you don’t, you suffer the consequences of being labeled a simpleton. It will take a very long period of hard work to shake this label. I’m still wiggling.
  • Working with other graduate students is a privilege that many students will take for granted. Once we graduate, we’re going to be leaders in our respective fields.
  • Developing a good relationship with your advisor, mentors, and instructors is essential to your development. Almost everyone you interact with wants to help you become a better performing student. It’s in the best interest of the school to make you better.

My experience at UMD has been compelling. When I arrived in Maryland, I called Bowie my home. It’s about 13 miles from my campus, so it wasn’t a wise decision to live in Bowie. But it looked reasonable on Google Maps.

  • LIVE CLOSE TO YOUR SCHOOL

I didn’t have any friends when I arrived. I didn’t know anyone in the College Park area. I had no money (and not much has changed) and I had no furniture. I shipped most of my clothes and books from Arizona across the country. I had no bed for two weeks and slept on a couch, sometimes on the floor with cushions.

  • COME PREPARED

I ate bread, McDonald’s hamburgers, and macaroni and cheese every day until my first paycheck (a month after my arrival thanks to prerequisite paperwork). I did buy a jar of peanut butter after my first week. There wasn’t anything productive about being miserable. It was cold. Snow was on the ground and there was more waiting to fall from the sky. I’ve never been in temperatures like this, I thought, as I was metaphorically buried deeper and deeper each day. But I wasn’t depressed. I was still happy that this change in scenery had happened.

  • A LITTLE MONEY TO GET YOU STARTED RIGHT

I don’t know what it is about minority engineering students, but we’re poor. Our families rarely have financial infrastructure and while we may end up getting very generous research assistantships, it’s not really enough after taxes. And the family can’t help out. In fact, I’ve actually had to help my family out this year. It can get tough.

  • EXERCISE

While graduate students are hard workers who appear to never leave their offices, they’re usually pretty fit. Taking some time to exercise is the best physical activity you can perform to boost your metabolism and mental health. A little will go a long way, but a good, steady amount (3x a week) will give you the energy to take on every day and all it throws at you. I ran between classes every day for a semester. I worked my way up to a really good pace and ran a 5k. I ran instead of studying before one of my finals. I was very relaxed and did well. Exercise is essential.

  • MAKE FRIENDS

Make friends as fast as you can. There will be a lot of people who care about the same things that you do. Enjoy their company and work with them toward a common goal.

  • EVERYONE IS SMART

When you’re in graduate school, everyone around you is smart. They’re as smart as you or smarter in a different way. The difference is working hard. The hardest workers will look like the smartest.

I’ve made a lot of observations after 1 semester (and a summer of research) and I did not list them all here. I owe a lot of thanks to students I’ve had conversations with that have motivated me to work harder. I look forward to next semester (which will surely be challenging). I look forward to reflecting in 5 months.

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