The truth about (chemistry) grad school

4 years ago, I packed my life into my tiny Jetta and drove from Wooster, Ohio (where I went to college) to Boulder, Colorado to embark on a new phase of my life: chemistry graduate school.

I’ll just be honest, my first year of grad school was absolutely miserable. Classes were unbearable difficult. In fact, I got a 9% (yes, single digit 9) on my first organic synthesis exam. I was used to college exam class averages in the 70’s or maybe 60’s, but exam averages in grad school ranged from 30-50%.

I made a handful of great outdoorsy friends who made the weekends less lonely, but come Monday, I wasn’t the same outgoing/confident person I used to be in college. I stopped running because of all the stress (when it should have been the other way around – run to relieve stress) and gained 15 lbs. I’m so thankful for the friends I made in those first months, because I’m tellin’ ya, if I didn’t have them, I woulda been a goner.

I remember calling home multiple times a week, crying, mostly because I felt like a fraud; a failure; like I wasn’t smart enough to be here. My non-grad school friends questioned why I was putting myself through this. My grad student friends seemed to be doing just fine. I was too embarrassed to tell anyone how much I was struggling.

Fortunately, by second semester things started turning around. I liked my classes more, I started training for a marathon (thanks to my good friend and soon-to-be roomie), and I started working really hard in my research lab to produce results. My advisor and labmates respected my work ethic and I finally felt like I was contributing.

Second year was academically even harder than the first year. We had to pass these cumulative exams and the big oral qualifying exam. The cumul. exams beat me down and stole my confidence, but didn’t take my determination to push through. By my second year, I knew I wanted to get through, so at least if I didn’t make it through my exams, at least I’d go out fighting.

In grad school, preservation trumps all. If you really want to be in grad school, if you really want to get through, you will.

So to all the folks out there considering graduate school (for chemistry, science, or any degree for that matter): times will suck. And it’ll be hard. And it’ll make you feel like you’re not smart enough. But guess what? Everyone feels that way. And you ARE smart enough. And you CAN get through it.

No one wants to admit weakness, but I bet you a million dollars, every single grad student feels the same way I felt during my first two years here.

I’m about to start my 5th year (woah, time flies) and couldn’t be happier that I stuck with it and pushed through the suck of the first 2 years. I love my lab mates, advisor, the research I do, and the easy-going lifestyle. The freedom of showing up when you want/leaving when you want… nothin’ beats it.

I love being on the forefront of new research and technology. I love collaborating with people fifty times smarter than I am. I love working with undergrad research assistants, and teaching them lab skills. I love stumbling through hard research projects and asking my labmates for help. I love that moment during group meeting, when I feel like maybe – even if just a little bit – I impressed my advisor.

Grad school seriously rocks. Plus, when it’s all done, I’ll have 3 shiny new letters following my name… Ph.D. :)

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19 Comments Add yours

  1. Cara says:

    And it doesn’t hurt to have met your awesome husband there!!!

    1. Efo says:

      Chatting, having fun, and working next to my hubs all day?! I’m livin’ the life. :)

  2. I went to grad school for my Master’s and I totally agree. The first semester sucked. But, things slowly got better, and I finished strong, and totally loving the experience. haha, it also doesn’t hurt that my degree was just 2 years :)

    1. Efo says:

      That’s awesome! What did you get your masters in??

  3. Lauren says:

    thanks for this post. I am going to call you crying my first semester of PT school and lean on you for encouraging words.

    1. Efo says:

      guuuuurl you know I’ll be right there by your side with cupcakes and puppy play dates to get you through the hard times. you’ll do awesome.

  4. Wow! Your program sounds so hard!! I was terrible at chemistry so my grades would probably be in the negatives. I definitely have an artsy brain! What do you plan on doing once you have the fancy Ph.D title?!

    1. Efo says:

      I wish I was more artsy like you! I’m not sure what I want to do post-grad, but I really love teaching… so… maybe high school chemistry teacher? Follow in the footsteps of my father?

  5. kaitwatts says:

    I’m doing some soul searching now in terms of if I want to go further with a PhD, take an offer in the corporate world, or go back to teaching high school-something I loved, but got burnt out of. It helps to hear of other people’s experience in a PhD. Thanks!

    1. Efo says:

      Corporate world sounds like a good gig. I’m torn between that and teaching HS chemistry… why did you feel like you got burnt out teaching HS?

      1. kaitwatts says:

        Just about every teacher says that around year 6 or 7 they hit a wall. They become jaded, cynical, and tired of the politics. The best teachers I know take a break and do something different for a year or two or come back. I seem to be no different. Now that I am gone, I miss my kids, the classroom, being needed, ect. Why wouldn’t you want to get a college teaching position?

  6. Mags says:

    “In grad school, preservation trumps all. If you really want to be in grad school, if you really want to get through, you will.”
    I couldn’t agree with this more. I work 40-60 hours a week, workout every morning, and am in night school for my MBA (on top of everything else life throws at ya!). I have 6 months left of my Masters program, and it’s draining and exhausting, and like you said, times do suck, but if you want it bad enough you do it. And at the end, you have those three shiny letters after your name that no one can take away from you, Ph.D or MBA or whatever your grad degree is. And in the end, it’s all worth it :)
    I’m proud of you friend!!! Way to go!

    1. Efo says:

      I’m proud of YOU girl. I can’t believe you do MBA night school on top of a full work schedule. Geeze.

  7. stefla says:

    I am going to CU Boulder for my MA in Art History right now (I just finished my first year), and I can totally relate to how you felt. I am constantly feeling like I am the worst in my class, that I bit off more than I can chew, etc. But at the same time, I know that I am just being too hard on myself and that grad school is geared to be challenging. Thank you so much for posting this!

    1. Efo says:

      Thanks for speaking up! It’s nice to meet local grad student friends. Congrats on making it through your first year of grad school!

      1. stefla says:

        For sure! CU Boulder is the place to be, isn’t it? Good luck with the rest of school! A Ph.D in Chem is something to be super proud of!

  8. you’re definitely right that grad school sucks sometimes, especially at the start when you’re still finding your feet. i have a close friend doing a PhD in chemistry at Pitt, and his experience sounds much like yours. but congrats on making it so far, and i hope your fifth year is the best yet!

    i just got a J.D., and while it’s pretty meaningless until I pass the bar, no matter what happens I have a doctorate and no one can take that away!

    and once i get licensed, and it’s “alexandra deitz, esquire,” well then i can die happy ;)

    1. Efo says:

      Hahaha! You’ll rock the bar, don’t you worry! When’s the big date (of the exam)?

      1. july 24-25. two days, 6 hours per day. and many celebrations afterward.

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