This week, thousands of new students will begin their graduate careers at UC Berkeley. Though many graduate students in the STEM fields have been entombed in their labs and offices all summer, we can’t help but take note of the newest generation of our peers. Since I was a first-year student back in 2008, I’ve seen the same beats repeated with each new class. In coming to understand this “graduate student lifecycle” both at Berkeley and a variety of other schools, I’ve realized two important points: (1) Berkeley does a very large number of things correctly, and (2) there is one particular shift that would result in an enormous quality of life improvement. More than rewriting any institutional protocol, I see a strong need for a change in the way graduate students interact with each other. Perhaps so many of the negative experiences and connotations of graduate school are passed from student to student, rather than being endemic to the institution itself. We need to replace the sense of pity (for both ourselves and others) with something more useful: compassion.
To appreciate the need for this change, it’s first necessary to understand the current “lifecycle.” (My knowledge of the College of Chemistry’s program is firsthand, while my knowledge of other programs is hearsay; I’ll focus on the former for this discussion.) For their first year, students are immediately (but somewhat unavoidably) overwhelmed. Challenging classes and time-consuming teaching duties only distract from their biggest task: choosing a research group.
Having chosen a group, students spend their time researching and learning the background information necessary to really understand their experiments. In their second year, they present their results to their peers as a talk and take their qualifying exam. During this exam, their knowledge and accomplishments are tested by a board of four professors. The stress and pressure in the months leading up to the exam are enormous.
Though graduate school will never be an easy place, the administrative and bureaucratic hurdles are strongly front-loaded. Some students decide that the sacrifices are not worth the reward, and leave around the end of their second year. For those who remain, the likelihood of leaving without a Ph.D. is dramatically smaller. This implies to me that we need to change the way the first two years of school function in some fundamental way if we want to improve the quality of life for students.
Unfortunately, many of the frustrating facets of graduate student life have developed as necessary evils. Courses need GSIs, background science needs to be learned, and groups need to be joined. The attitudes of the majority of professors are typically in the range between understanding and, at worst, perhaps oblivious. Though a shift in institutional policies could change the overall atmosphere of the department, it would necessitate more action that I optimistically expect.
So what is the other source of graduate school’s (apparently) endemic misery? Senior graduate students need to bear at least some of the blame. From addressing younger students as “Hey, first-yearer!” to making practice qualifying exams so horrendous that they reduce students to tears, senior graduate students treat their departments like fraternities. Though this behavior is not universal, it only takes a small percentage of cruel or apathetic senior students to make the atmosphere of a department hostile. As the new school year begins, I would hope that each graduate student would work to ensure that they are not making someone’s early years at school miserable.
Fundamentally, though, these senior students are also the victims. Every sarcastic and discouraging older student was also once belittled. To change this experience for future generations, we need to break the cycle. That sense of condescending pity needs to be replaced with a sense of compassion. Though it’s a noble goal, I don’t expect everyone to be perfectly altruistic all the time. Let’s instead focus on not actively undermining the students who could benefit from a helping hand the most.