The Life of a Graduate Student

Megan here-

Heading home for the holidays always provides a nice break from being a graduate student–no classes, no grading, no lab work. But being home around family and friends still involves at least thinking about graduate school and answering the many questions concerning what I study, or what I do every day, or most frustrating: when I plan to finish school. Thus, I give you this introduction to life as a graduate student in which I address the most common questions I’ve received. Of course, this is just one student’s experience and every graduate experience varies based on the school, the program, the advisor, etc. Regardless, I hope this provides a small gleam of insight into the simultaneously exciting and boring life of a graduate student.

“What kind of classes do you take?”

My corner of the office where I have a desk, a monitor to connect with my laptop, and piles of work to complete. The majority of my day is spent either in here or in class.
Every graduate student’s course load varies depending on their area of focus, their university’s available classes, and their advisor. I study glaciology, which means that a strong understanding of math and physics are key to my research. Thus far, I’ve taken three math courses as a graduate student, on top of the required calculus at my undergraduate university. Aside from those, I’ve taken a handful of courses in my own Department of Geology & Geophysics, which range from Paleoclimates to Advanced Data Analysis. I’ve found that choosing classes has required an interdisciplinary approach that extends beyond pure glaciology.

“What do you actually do every day?”

I love this question because it makes me pause and consider what I do and accomplish on a daily basis. I even tried to track my daily habits and activities in order to better explain what I do. Turns out I’m not very good at tracking as I quit writing things down on the second day. However, here is what a typical Monday looked like during the Fall 2018 semester:


    08:45 – Bike to campus
    09:00 – Differential Equations
    10:00 – Do homework while holding office hours
    11:00 – Meet with professor who teaches the class I TA
    11:30 – Homework and read paper for weekly reading group on Tuesday
    15:00 – Work on research (write code, organize and look at data)
    17:00 – Bike home
    18:00 – Pottery class
    20:00 – Finish any remaining homework

Every day is a bit different depending on classes, homework, and meetings. Sometimes I have a nice, normal, 8-hour day and sometimes I’m in my office and working in the lab for 12 hours. Classes and homework, teaching labs, and working on my own research project comprise the majority of my time each day. I often have to work at least one day of the weekend, if not both. However, finding some degree of personal time is important to me. An occasional pottery class, ski trip, or yoga class keeps me happy and balanced.

“You must enjoy your long winter and summer breaks; what plans do you have?”

Sure, my winter break is six weeks long and the summer is two to three months without classes. Unfortunately that does not mean no research or lab work or reading papers. Those long breaks are often the times when my research productivity is highest because my schedule is void of classes and homework. The summer is also an excellent time for field work in Greenland, which means that a full month of my summer is spent abroad. I even spent an extra two weeks of my summer doing field with in California with a fellow graduate student. Breaks tend to be very busy and productive times with the occasional vacation mixed in.

“When will you finish your master’s?”

I don’t know. And many other students are also unsure. In my particular department, a master’s project usually takes two to three years and is thesis-based. This means that there are a required number of course credits a student must take; but ultimately, finishing a degree is contingent upon completing an adequate research project, writing a thesis, and defending that thesis. Research projects are not always straightforward, and often require learning new computer programs or lab techniques. The data I work with is collected and processed, so now I’m in the analysis stage. Assuming the analysis goes well, the next step will be writing my thesis and finally defending it. The potential for issues to arise or things to simply take longer than expected makes setting an actual end date nearly impossible. I usually have a basic timeline in my head, but I’m far too uncertain to divulge should it change.

“What are you going to do with your degree? Are you going to get a PhD next?”

Geoscience industries where graduating students in 2017 have accepted a job related to their field of study. The largest chosen industry for Bachelor’s students is environmental science; for Master’s students, the federal government and oil and gas industry are the largest; and for PhD students, over half of the graduates choose to work at a 4-year university. Source: Wilson, C. Status of Recent Geosciences Graduates, 2017. American Geosciences Industry.
Again, I’m not really sure. Thinking too far ahead tends to make me anxious about the present day. Until I know when I’ll finish, I’m not too keen on looking for jobs or applying to future programs. That said, I always have some rudimentary idea of what I hope to do upon finishing my master’s. Getting a job in geology or a related field is likely my next big goal. I enjoyed my internship with the National Park Service, which offers a variety of education and geosciences jobs. Environmental consulting is a popular path among geoscientists, as is environmental education. Any of these types of jobs could be a good fit for me, but ultimately I do want to pursue a PhD and stay in academia–just not quite yet. A year or two of not being in school could be an excellent opportunity to explore other paths or options. I went straight from high school to college, and straight from that to my master’s. That means I’ve been in school for two straight decades–a terrifying yet remarkable thought. I think that I could benefit from an academic break and see what else the world can offer to a geoscientist.

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