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Graduate students find challenges rewarding

Nicole Toczauer | Friday, October 29, 2010


Teaching assistant by day, researcher by night — add on another 30 to 50 hours of reading and studying, take into consideration some driving time, and you begin to have a clearer image of the life of a graduate student at Notre Dame. 
Victoria Smith, a graduate student in her second year of a Ph.D. program in the biology department, assists in a freshman biology class. 
Through a teaching assistant (TA) position, graduate students can receive a stipend for their services, she said. Graduate students also obtain stipends through fellowships they have been awarded, or through a research assistantship.
“A stipend is essentially a paid salary for your work as a graduate student,” Smith said. “With a research assistantship, your advisor is responsible for paying your salary through his research funding.”
Karen Tang, a first-year clinical psychology doctoral student, works in a less visible position, focusing her energy into research.
“The stipend that I receive from the University of Notre Dame allows me to devote my time to research and academics, without having to worry about taking an outside job to pay for daily living expenses,” Tang said. “It is an honor and a privilege to have the opportunity to just learn and think.”
Graduate students with paid stipends, Smith said, are not permitted to have any other jobs. Tang found that with her demanding course and research workload, there would be no time for an outside job, even if allowed one.
“Graduate school is a full-time position,” Tang said.
Smith estimates approximately 45 to 55 hours of her week are devoted to research in the lab, in addition to her work as a TA and reading at home. 
Tang spends the majority of her non-class time in the lab, reading articles in her area of interest, attending meetings and working with undergraduate research assistants.
Though students traditionally go straight from undergraduate education to graduate school, Tang took a detour. She had a part-time job where she assisted a professor investigating potential environmental and genetic factors involved in autism. After graduation, she was offered a full-time position in the professor’s lab, which guided her toward her current position. 
“I was lucky to have been introduced to a field that I am so intrigued by,” Tang said.
Thomas Frederick, a first-year chemistry and biochemistry graduate student, entered his field of study by accident.
“When inquiring into undergraduate research opportunities, I was not able to join the original lab group that interested me. I ended up in one that shaped my career as a research scientist,” he said. 
Frederick said this ultimately sparked his interest in protein dynamics using Nuclear Magnetic Resonance. 
Graduate students also take advanced classes on their topic of interest, Smith said. Students in the Ph.D. program have to take two classes a semester for the first two years of the program, and then one credit worth of classes afterwards. 
“Classes tend to be primarily discussion based rather than test based,” Smith said. “They involve reading a lot of primary literature that is being published in science journals.”
Frederick’s course load requires him to take three core classes and three other electives, one of which must be in his field of specialty. 
These graduate students said living off campus has its benefits. 
Though there is the drawback of commuting to work every morning, an especially difficult task on football weekends, Smith is able to have pets and plant a garden.
For Tang, life off campus allows for separation between her work and personal life.
“So much of my time is spent working in the lab, which is off campus, or in classes,” she said. “I appreciate [having] the time at home to unwind.”
After graduate school, Smith said she will likely stay in academia as an assistant professor at a university. Tang hopes to continue working with children with autism and their families. 
For undergraduates looking to go to graduate school, Tang suggested thinking about it early. 
“The biggest piece of advice I have for undergraduates is to not be afraid to speak to your professors, TAs or professionals in the field that you are interested in. Ask questions about what they thought of their program of study, if there are any faculty members accepting students for the upcoming year and even what they believe would be the best fit for you,” Tang said. “People love to share their experiences with future graduate students.”
Frederick said that preparation is key, especially as an undergraduate.
“As an undergraduate, you should go beyond the simple class requirements and seek out opportunities to get experience. Not only does this increase your chances of getting either a good job position or admittance to a professional degree program,” he said, “but it allows you to experience a field of work so that you can decide now, rather than later, if it is something you would like to do.”