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Zeynep Isvan | Brookhaven | USA

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Getting out

I wrote this while I was working on my thesis, and never got a chance to polish and post it. Since then, I’ve survived my interviews, defended my thesis, accepted a postdoc, and started working on two new exciting experiments. I got to travel to China for one of them! This week I’m finishing my relocation and moving from the lab dorms to an actual apartment. Complete normalcy finally resumes.

When you type ‘getting in to’ in the Google search bar, one of the four auto-complete recommendations you get is ‘grad school.’ It’s appropriate considering it’s quite a big deal, both in terms of its significance – you’re starting the next stage of life – and in terms of how much effort it takes. It’s stressful because there is (almost) one and only one way to do it. There are strict deadlines; there are a set of tests you need to take offered on one of two days; there are a set number of recommendation letters, and even a word or page limit on the application essay. To make it even more structured, this all takes place over the same few months each year, with applications submitted around winter break and offers made mid-spring for the term starting the following fall. It’s a lot to do in a short time and challenging for an undergraduate, so they tell you exactly how to do it. Professors, research advisors and graduate students are full of advice, sometimes unsolicited. There is an industry devoted to applying to graduate school from test prep to rankings of different departments.

Getting out of graduate school is no smaller feat. This time, though, there is no one way to do it. “When should I start writing my thesis?” you ask, or “when should I start applying for postdocs?” and you get the same answer: “It’s never too early.” Right. For more specific questions everyone has a unique answer based on their experience. It only leaves you wondering what your answer will be in a couple of years when grad students are asking you.

It’s a game of scheduling finalizing the analysis, writing and defending a thesis and getting a job for when you’re done. These all overlap and are correlated, of course. You need to apply and interview for jobs, which involves giving a seminar. The analysis needs to be almost finalized and approved by the collaboration for publicizing before you can give a seminar. Applications take a negligible amount of time but if you get an interview, which is what you want to happen, you have to make time to prepare and often travel for it, all with short notice.

If you get an offer you need to respond within a few weeks, but most likely there are other offers and interviews with non-overlapping response deadlines. You want to wait for other options but worry you’ll miss the one, and at the time only, job offer you have. While everyone’s telling you to make your own decision and choose what you really want to work on, the same people are also offering their opinion or pressing you to decide on their own offer. You frequently find yourself about to make a major career decision out of exhaustion.

If and when you accept an offer, it poses a hard deadline for when you must be finished. If, like me, you need a visa for the job, they require that you have your degree before they can obtain the visa. A bit of a cyclical problem, one I’ve yet to solve. The employer wants you to start as soon as possible, their detector is taking data. The university wants you to allow ample time for the defense committee to read the manuscript. The advisor wants you to write the best document possible. Add to all of this up to two intercontinental moves – one from your overseas experiment to your university, another for your next job – and you suffer a minor anxiety attack. (This last one is not the case for me, but the decision to only apply to local jobs was a deliberate one with pros and cons).

I’m only partly done with all of this, and maybe my relaxation is the result of getting too used to being stressed, but I’ve come to the conclusion that I won’t fret it. I’ll work hard and stop worrying about things outside my control. I’ll even allow myself to dream about two months from now, with a fresh title and a new experiment. Stepping away from the computer and going for a run (or a pint depending on time of day) has been the best solution to my temporary misery throughout the process of getting out. If you’ve made it this far, you’ll make it all the way. It turns out there is no right way to do it, but there’s no wrong way either.

Type ‘getting out of’ into Google and it autocompletes with ‘debt’! Ironically, this is never too low on a 7th year graduate students’ to-do list. 🙂

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