Thursday, August 18, 2016

An Academic Journey: Arrival

I arrived in town after two pretty average flights that were uneventful and uninteresting. I connected with my roommates and made my way back to our new house, to unpack my single carry on suitcase full of clothes and settled into my essentially-empty room to get comfortable on the floor I would be sleeping on for the foreseeable future. Not exactly the most glamorous life, I suppose, but it isn't the first time, and I don't think it will be the last. I went through the same things with my masters, living at subsistence levels, because that's essentially what graduate school is: being broke, stressed, hungry, and miserable. (And paying for the privilege) Experiences may vary, but probably not by much, and definitely not for any of my grad student friends and colleagues. 

So of course, because I was here before, for my undergraduate work, and I worked here for 3 years, I'm still fairly familiar with the campus and how things work there, even if a lot of the faces have changed. I did some exploring of the new layouts and buildings, caught up with a couple friends, got my brand new student ID card, and then we entered today!

Today was spent in the kind of jumbled back and forth impromptu meetings you'd expect from a sitcom, I met with four different professors 6 different times, in 2 different buildings, all just to... not really get any answers to my questions or really make any tangible progress. Combine that with the insane level of e-mails and the raw stacks of paperwork before classes even start, and it's essentially already exhausting. Let's not forget the mile walks each way to/from campus, which isn't so bad or along walk, but still a pain. Especially in this heat.

The thing is, the hardest part of every academic adventure I've started has always been administrative crap. Paperwork on top of paperwork, in a bed of emails, letters, and meetings. It is the nature of the beast that something is always getting messed up. This time around, it was seeing that my paperwork was initially misplaced, then the replacement copies I sent were accidentally shredded. They initially tried to charge me for my student ID because I was still in the system from my undergrad days, which thankfully was quickly sorted out. Today, I discovered that the university email system had failed to send my TA assignment information when it was originally sent to us, the insurance paperwork was all messed up, AND the awesome tuition stipend of my program doesn't cover the $500-or-so in EXTRA fees that probably can't be waived, because public research institutions are still a business first. Let's also not forget the ridiculous cost of applying for graduate schools (I spent $1500 on PhD program applications, and probably half that on masters applications after undergrad.). This cost is in addition to moving, finding a place to live, and paying for all of your normal expenses. Attending graduate school, even a funded program, is a ridiculously expensive prospect that requires dedication to the field and the craft that transcends your rational desires to be able to feed, clothe, and house yourself. If you're curious as to what that looks like, I'll leave you with this pleasant anecdote of the fact that I only had a bed to sleep on for half of the last 3 years, and that I lost close to 30lbs in 9 months because I couldn't afford to feed myself AND stay not homeless. This hasn't changed, and I'm still super stressed about the financial gymnastics required to maintain some semblance of human dignity while also balancing work and school. Forget about any dreams of a social life, I gave up on that long ago.

That's the thing: it is completely stupid to me that the hardest parts of higher education have almost nothing to do with actually getting the education. Applications are based on volume of output and how well you can sell your strengths and flaws, and each one costs enough money that quickly builds up. (Typically between $60-$80 from schools I applied to, and most won't waive that fee). Moving and financing and keeping your ahead above water are, a least for me, infinitely more stressful than exams and the thought of completely learning new skills. I've done graduate courses. I've done accelerated graduate work at a rather prestigious institution. I am not concerned about that. I'm concerned about the insistence that poorly paid students who are already in debt, magically come up with a few hundred (or thousand) dollars and the mental fortitude to repeatedly jump through the fiery rings of administrative idiocracy. 

All for the privilege of adding academic and professional pressures to their financial woes, all of which are generated nearly entirely by higher education.

I will obviously touch on the mental health aspects of this more later, but I still have a metric shit ton of emails to send (which I'm sure is the SI unit for emails) and then I'm going to eat the dinner I honestly can't afford to have bought while I lay on the empty wooden floor which is my bed and pretend that this was a completely good idea. After all, half the battle is fooling yourself enough to convince yourself the pain is worth it.

Friday, August 12, 2016

An Academic Journey: Beginnings

So here we are, a few days before my flight leaves for New York so I can spend the next few years working on my next degree: a PhD in biology. This is something I want to share with the world, the whole journey, from start to finish. The thing is, I don't consider this the beginning. I spent a lot of time working towards this. I got my bachelors (from the same institution I'm going back to for my PhD) and then went and got a masters, and those events were all stepping stones to this. I have a hard time seeing them as independent events, because they were always considered part of a different end product. To that end, this isn't my first move or my first struggle to find housing or pay for the non-education related costs of going to grad school. It isn't even my first time waiting a long time to accomplish a goal, although I do think the process from my masters to now was one of the most frustrating and disheartening times in my life.

I got through it, though.

So, what I learned before, is that it is almost essential to have people around you when you start grad school. Friends, or family. Anyone, really. No matter how good you were at things before, you are going to have a tough time. I made the mistake, in my masters, of thinking I could handle it all alone, in a strange place surrounded by strangers, doing hard work which I had probably underestimated. There are some days when I'm still not sure if it was actually a mistake, but whatever... I got through it, and the experience I had was something I'm grateful for,even if it isn't for the reasons I had hoped to be grateful for it.

So here I am, not really packed, stressed about bills and classwork, and rotations and teaching, and I don't start for almost 2 weeks. You know what's cool about it though?

I'm excited.

Seriously. It was a risk. I considered this process a long shot. I hoarded rejection letters from programs for two whole years before I got this yes. It was a weird two years of extensive job searching and moving to a new state (again) and it was a nice (unintentional) break from academia. Now, I think, I'm as prepared as I'll ever be for this.

So now that you've got the sob story, let's get into the details! The program is funded through a Teaching Assistantship, so I get to teach a lab or class for a few years. I also do rotations first year (2 or 3) in order to find a lab/PI to work with for the duration of my doctoral work. First year is undifferentiated curriculum leading to a qualifying exam to test knowledge of the topic areas, and year 2/3 is another qualifying exam based on an oral presentation/defense of a research proposal/grant. Obviously, these will be things which I will tackle in greater detail as they approach.

I guess the biggest thing now, is going to be just getting there. The positive part is that I've been there before, so I know a lot of the names and faces. Another huge positive is that I happen to not only know quite a few people there (including fellow PhD students at other local unis or in different departments) but I'll also be living with some good friends. So we'll get to see how big of a difference having a solid support system around will make in this process. I also have the benefit of experience: I sat through a rather intensive graduate program that had me do 72 graduate level credit hours in 9 months, so I know all about that life.

So here is to my new beginning, which I will gladly share with you. Expect some complaining (whining), and maybe some personal tips and tricks, and probably a lot more talking out of my ass about stuff. I'll try to be as candid and forthright as I can, and I'll even keep the cussing to a minimum (unless I get carried away). Also, I suspect that I will still intersperse the Academic Journey series of blogs with shitty poetry and bad short stories, and maybe the occasional rant. We can't all be perfect.

As always, thank you for reading! I look forward to sharing this experience with you all!