First-year Fears (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

The transition to graduate school is an exciting time in the life of a first-year graduate student, but it can also be a terrifying experience.  As a first-year graduate student, I will admit that the first couple of weeks of my graduate career were extremely overwhelming.  I found myself in an unfamiliar city surrounded by students who seemed to be more comfortable in this environment than I would ever be.  Many students already held advanced degrees, while I was making the transition straight from undergraduate.  Doubts arose and I asked myself the most daunting question that a graduate student can pose: “Do I really belong here?” Amidst the panic and feelings of discouragement, I hadn’t noticed that I had fallen victim to a prevalent phenomenon known as the “Impostor Syndrome.” Continue reading “First-year Fears (Throwback Thursday)”

Surviving Grad School: Some Advice

As my graduate student career slowly, slowly comes to an end, I’ve been reflecting on the lessons and skills that I’ve learned along the way. As graduate students, sometimes (actually, most of the time) our graduate work consumes us, and we can lose sight of all the other things that happen around us. Here are a few key things that I’ve learned and that have kept me sane throughout this experience:

  1. Community: the very nature of grad school is isolating. You’re working on a novel project, which few people outside your lab or department understand. You see the same five (or ten, or whatever) people every day. Your loved ones don’t really understand what you do, or why (they might think that you’re just an overgrown college student). So it’s very, very important to build a small community of people to walk with you through this experience. Friends who will drag you out of the lab to have lunch before you forget to eat. Colleagues who will remind you that there is a light at the end of the tunnel. Mentors who will encourage you to press on when you’ve convinced yourself that you can’t do it.
  2. Diversify: have a side project that you work on in the lab. Learn a new skill like coding or data visualization. Teach and get one of the TA Project teaching certificates as well. Start a blog (or write for this one! =D). Take something out of this graduate school experience which isn’t just your dissertation project. It will keep you busy when you’re waiting for cells to grow, or to get comments back on your writing. It will give you something to make your resume/CV stand out when you’re looking for jobs or postdocs. It will introduce you to new people or things. It will give you a place to channel your pent-up frustrations.
  3. Step away: Yes. Step. away. from. the. bench. Or laptop. Or desk. Remind yourself of the world outside the ivory tower. Hang out with people with whom you talk about things other than your work. Take a walk and enjoy nature. But just do something, sometimes, to help you clear your head.

What are some other bits of advice you have for surviving graduate school?

3D Printing at Rutgers

Since I am going to be using 3D printing as part of my research, I’ve been on the lookout for places to print at Rutgers for quite some time. If you’re also interested to do some 3D printing for your research, or you just want to 3D print something for fun, then I have come across a number of options that might be useful for you. I’m sure there might be even more locations available. So, if you happen to know of any other locations that allow for open use of printers, please let me know.

  1. Douglass Library, Fordham Commons area Fablab, Douglass Campus: on the ground level of the library are two MakerBot Replicator 2’s and computers with design software. You can schedule an appointment to print your project and to get pricing estimates.
  2. Rutgers Makerspace, 35 Berrue Circle, Livingston Campus: MakerBot Replicators and other fun items, like a pool table, are available here. The Makerspace normally has regular drop in hours for printing or just hanging out. The space is run by Rick Andersen who has lots of experience in computers and electronics including web design, Arduino and soldering.
  3. Rutgers Mechanical Engineering Dept., Busch Campus: the department has a few options available for Rutgers affiliates to use, including a Stratasys Objet350 Connex and Stratasys uPrint SE. The contact person for setting up an appointment to get your projects printed and for pricing is John Petrowski (petrows@rci.rutgers.edu).
  4. FUBAR Labs, Highland Park, NJ: Fair Use Building and Research (FUBAR) Labs is a nonprofit that provides a local spot for people with common interests, usually in science and technology, to meet and collaborate. It’s an open community offering classes, workshops, study groups, and long term project collaboration. You can join as a member for 24/7 use of the space, or you can drop by for one of their events to check them out.

End of Semester Events

As another semester comes to a close there are a few activities being offered to help us relax and recharge both mentally and physically.

– This Thursday May 8th the GSA is holding an end of semester social from 8pm to 12am in the graduate student lounge. This is a chance to come out and meet people from different departments and have some fun. The GSA has obtained an alcohol wavier for the event so bring your ids and your own beer, wine coolers, or cider. RSVP on facebook: https://www.facebook.com/events/807834569246342/?ref=22

– Rutgers Recreation is also offering free fitness classes for the month of May to let you work off some steam. For those of you who have a flex pass you should be familiar with Bodypump, CXWORX, Spinning, RU Fit, GRIT, BodyAttack, Zumba, Fitness Yoga, and Willpower and Grace. Those of you have not tried the classes in the past use these weeks to try them out. The schedule of classes can be found at https://www1.recreation.rutgers.edu/Events/eventView.asp?EventID=292&CategoryID=3

Get out and enjoy these and the many other activities that are going on, I hope to see you there.

Conferences in Mathematics

Attending conferences is an important part of academic work. Conferences help us share our research with one another, find new collaborators and research topics, and keep up to date on our fields of interest.

I recently attended a bi-annual conference hosted by Integers (The Electronic Journal of Combinatorial Number Theory). I should say that my travel was generously supported by the conference organizers (i.e. the journal, via the NSF I believe) and my department & advisor, although I should say that one part of the conference experience is waiting with bated breath to get reimbursement forms processed. The government shutdown doesn’t help with that long wait either.

Rather than talk about the math, which isn’t really the point of this blog, I wanted to share some of the peripherals — the details of the conference, its format, what the experience is like. I have heard stories from other fields of study, and conferences seem to be very different from place to (figurative) place.

The departure is usually a bit of a rush of packing and preparing slides for presentations. Beamer (or equivalent) have become the de facto presentation method at math conferences, having (somewhat recently…) displaced the long-reigning overhead projector. After a day of travel, including a bit of a drive to Carrollton GA (home of UWG), I got some sleep before the first long day of presentations. I don’t travel much, and it is certainly stressful and tiring, but in the end I do enjoy it, especially driving.

Conference presentations are usually split into short (20 min) and long (50 min) talks, the later being given by specially designated (invited, plenary, keynote etc.) speakers of the conference. Most talks aim to communicate some new results, ideas, or insights into some type of research, and even for a specialized conference, there is a great deal of diversity in the subject matter. Some speakers speak to the general conference audience, while others speak to the very best experts in their slice of the research world. Many of the most interesting talks, to me at least, don’t probe into the depth of the subject, but give a gentle introduction or overview, and then outline or sketch the major new results or ideas. I’m more of a breadth-first guy.

The conference lasts for several days, as many conferences do, with talks back-to-back from about 9 to 5 every day. There are breaks for meals and coffee, and many conversations — professional and social — branch out from the main group during and after the sessions. Conferences are a great way to meet, re-meet, or quasi-meet people. I re-met Brian Hopkins, who has done some work related to my talk, and Bruce Landman, who has also worked in a related area (and is one of the conference organizers). Both of them (and several other audience members) had interesting questions and comments following my talk — one of the best parts of a conference is getting insightful feedback from colleagues. But I also met a few people more socially. I had a short chat about hockey with Cam Stewart after overhearing him talking about the sport, and sat at a table during the conference banquet with Steve Butler, Mel Nathanson, and Neil Hindman. Mel proposed an interesting problem at the conference that provided stimulating discussion and that I’ve found to be an interesting diversion even after the conference ended.

I also met other grad students like myself, many from closer to UWG (from schools like UGA, Georgia Tech, etc.), including Kate Thompson, whose advisor Jon Hanke  spoke here at Rutgers (by coincidence) only a few weeks after the conference (he was not at the conference). Making acquaintances can be quite beneficial — in this case, Kate and Jon know quite a bit about quadratic forms, which is something that is at least tangentially related to some long-term research ideas I’ve kicked around for a little while (but quadratic forms, on the whole, is a foreign subject to me). One day, if it comes up, I know somebody I can email if I stumble across questions or ideas I can’t wrap my head around.

Conferences in other fields can (apparently) be very different — my friends in the humanities tell me that conferences sometimes (often? always?) consist of reading papers aloud and asking prepared questions, while I have seen that some (many? most?) scientific conferences revolve around poster sessions and other such media. But for us in math, at least in my experience, it is a long sequence of presentations aimed (usually) at general information for the research-level audience, describing research ideas and perspectives and leaving technical details for the published page. I like this format, especially because it promotes dialog, discussion, and feedback — and helps people like me reach out a bit and meet others with similar interests and ideas in mathematics.

First-year Fears

The transition to graduate school is an exciting time in the life of a first-year graduate student, but it can also be a terrifying experience.  As a first-year graduate student, I will admit that the first couple of weeks of my graduate career were extremely overwhelming.  I found myself in an unfamiliar city surrounded by students who seemed to be more comfortable in this environment than I would ever be.  Many students already held advanced degrees, while I was making the transition straight from undergraduate.  Doubts arose and I asked myself the most daunting question that a graduate student can pose: “Do I really belong here?” Amidst the panic and feelings of discouragement, I hadn’t noticed that I had fallen victim to a prevalent phenomenon known as the “Impostor Syndrome.”

The Impostor Syndrome is characterized by feelings of inferiority that may be coupled with the idea that you are a “fake” or that everything you have accomplished thus far can be attributed to luck or any external factors not related to your own abilities.  These feelings can be quite debilitating and may interfere with your school work.  However, as graduate students we need to keep one important idea in mind: These feelings are absolutely unfounded.

So how can we overcome these feelings?  Well, one of the answers is in the question.  It is important to realize that you are not alone.  Other students have undoubtedly been through a similar experience.  Graduate students belong to a unique community, and it’s important to reach out to the other members of the community.  So talk with your fellow peers about their experiences as graduate students.  You may find that they share or have shared the same concerns as you, and they can help you find ways to resolve them. 

 It is also important to realize that none of us are perfect.  Most of us will encounter a moment in which we may start to question our competence.  At this point, it’s important to take a step back and recognize how far you have come.  This will give you a different perspective and will help you to realize how much you already know.  Keep in mind your moments of success and the steps you took to achieve this success.  At the same time, it is beneficial to identify potential areas of improvement.  Categorizing your weaknesses is a key step in working past these barriers in order to grow as a person and as a student.

Finally, take care to remember that you do belong.  You were accepted at Rutgers because your professors were impressed by you and believed that you would succeed in your program.  We are all talented and bright intellectuals that have the potential to make an impact in our respective fields.  When you are struggling with negative feelings, do not quit.  Be persistent in your efforts to overcome these feelings.  Have confidence in yourself and believe that you can accomplish great things – a positive attitude will yield a world of possibilities.