The things I didn’t believe in graduate school

Posted By Pamela on Aug 5, 2008 | 11 comments

I would like to start this blog post by saying graduate school sucks. Any romantic longing for the better days of my youth that you decide to try and read into this post are very false. If you get from your bachelors degree to your PhD without crying, without wanting at least one of your committee members to get stranded without phone or Internet somewhere very far away, and without generally deciding you must have been crazy to decide to go to graduate school, well… then you are either very lucky or very oblivious. I personally cried a lot, wished spontaneous teleportation to an alternate universe on more than one person, and decided I was utterly crazy and opted to (admittedly temporarily) leave academia altogether when I was done.

Graduate school is a hazing ritual, designed to make sure you really truly want to be allowed through the gates into the Ivory Tower. Those who don’t want it hard enough, generally can’t make it through the gauntlet of tests, homework sets, research walls and periodic failures of weather, equipment, software, satellites, and sometimes all of the above. (I experienced all of the above.)

Nonetheless, there are certain things I deeply miss. Today for some reason, I have both journal clubs and observing on my mind. These are two things I never really realized would go away to the degree that they have, and I feel like an entire part of my life was amputated when I wasn’t watching.

As a graduate student I spent obscene amounts of time at McDonald Observatory logging night after night on the 30″, 107″, and 82″ telescopes. My first observing season I logged 45 nights in 3 months, and that trend pretty much continued across the years. Alone in the dark, on the top of a mountain, I’d blare CDs (this was a pre-iPod universe), work on problem sets, abuse the printer to print journal articles, and sometimes sneak off to the library to read conference proceedings entirely unrelated to my research. One run for reasons I can’t explain other than explosions are cool, I read an entire conference proceedings on cataclysmic variables just cause. Alone in the night, I could get through my emails while the world slept. I could monitor the sky, the seeing, and my stars as I chewed through ideas, and projects, and silly little messages from friends. I could switch filters and switch fields as I filed away papers for future consideration and wrote software to cull through my photometry for clusters. There was something magical about living out of step with time. The people who occupied my work-a-day world couldn’t reach me at 1am with their business hour bothers, and I could catch-up and breath without distraction.

I am a night person at heart. Left alone my schedule rotates around to a 3am dinner and 5am bedtime. I love the sun and love to be outdoors, but the night is my natural habitat. I have been lucky enough to spend most of my career teaching night classes, but a married life means a certain amount of conforming to my husbands 9 to 5 schedule. New projects with friends in the EU and UK have rotated me even further away from my default mode, with my eyes now popping open at 6am as my mind tells me it’s 1pm in Germany. I am a professional, and my life is defined by my connections, my collaborations, and my ability to communicate in real time on issues we are all trying to solve together. No longer can I live the asynchronous life of a graduate student observer working on my solitary corner of my solitary project. I now must be the responsible professor and project manager – I must be the one creating the business hour bothers, some of which may not be able to wait.

As someone who chose to work at a university without an observatory I knew that those long nights on the mountain were something I was in a way putting away with my childhood toys. While I would like to think I was an excellent telescope operator, I know I was a cloud charmer. The vagaries of the weather wore on me, and after my final 22-night run with just 4 nights of sky… I was ready for data mining.

What I hadn’t realized in my return to academia was how little time life as an academic would leave me to just learn. As a graduate student, I remember being aware that the journal clubs were only occupied by postdocs and graduate students. Our advisor (the faculty member who said to us – go off and form a journal club!) would ask us for summaries of what we learned. I hadn’t realized this was his way of identifying cool new papers rather then his way of checking up on us. I remember noticing that the seminars on various sub-fields (stars, galaxies, planets…) were often empty of faculty, with everyone only showing up for the weekly out of town colloquium speakers. What I hadn’t realized was why. Given all the stupid pieces of paperwork – all the forms, and grants, and reports; given all the emails from colleagues and students, the university and public beyond the university; given all the distracters that demand attention, there is very little time left for me to just learn, and I suspect many of them felt the same way as they focused only on their subfields (causing us students to get angry in class when we knew a new result that wasn’t mentioned in lecture). Time is now the most valuable thing I have, and as much as I may want to spend it on something I don’t need to know, there are weeks I can’t justify the luxury of sitting in on a seminar in my physics department on thin films in photonic systems. While lasers are cool, the time it takes for me to learn the language of photonics is time I can’t spend trying to become current (I don’t think anyone ever really is current) in my own subfields of astronomy.

As a researcher, I have to accomplish all the things I did as a graduate student, and I also have to do all the stupid paperwork, and serve on committees, and participate in telecoms. I like working with people, and most days it’s fun to find new ways to transform my middle of the night scientific “I wonder…” questions into science projects, but…

But I miss the freedom to spend 5 hours a week in seminars if I feel like it. And I miss the freedom to be a vampire. I’d been warned it would all go away with graduation. I just had never believed my advisors. They were right. I was wrong.

Is this the academic equivalent of becoming my father?

I wouldn’t change anything (accept maybe the weather on some of those observing runs and the satellite that exploded), but I can still wish for a week alone on the mountain, and a few hours a week less paperwork that I can spend sitting in on a journal club…


  1. “…failures of weather, equipment, software, satellites, and sometimes all of the above. (I experienced all of the above.)”

    I want to hear the story of the exploding satellite!!! 😉


  2. Your post makes me nostalgic for something I never experienced! Well, I was a grad student but not in astronomy, and I loved getting productive alone time in the middle of the night. I’m sorry you can’t spend as much time just learning, with everything clamoring for your attention. Maybe this is why we need to go to Mars, so we can get an extra 39 minutes every day. 🙂

  3. Nice post. Really enjoyed reading it.

  4. Pamela:
    You need an observatory. That’s all there is to it! You’ve got to find the time (on weekends at least) to catch some photons! I’ll bet that there’s an amateur near you with deep pockets and a Paramount & a Ritchey-Chrétien who’d love to do a little hard science. Perhaps the Center for Backyard Astrophysics can help…

  5. Does this still mean I should go to grad school?

  6. On the other hand, McDonald is one of the better places to be for long observing runs. I practically ived in that 30″ dome.

  7. “I personally cried a lot, wished spontaneous teleportation to an alternate universe on more than one person, and decided I was utterly crazy…”

    Thank you, thank you, thank you for reminding us who are still in grad school that we are not alone in these thoughts.

    I’m going to appreciate my journal club much more now!

  8. Hi Pamela!

    I’ve always wanted to go to grad school and become a professional astronomer but with the given circumstances, I can’t. That’s why I really look up to you because you’re all I ever wanted to become – a woman astronomer, an achiever and a promoter of astronomy. I’m indeed one of your fans :D.

    Maybe you’re just too overwhelmed with the things you’re doing right now. You’ve really have done so much. Not all people can do those things and consider it as a blessing. Just think of it as a path to getting the best thing in life – the prize of having some time alone and doing what you’ve always wanted/chose to do.

    I also know your efforts and passion in sharing astronomy to others. I am doing exactly the same thing and I thank you for being an inspiration.

    Please don’t get tired yet :D.

    Ad Astra Per Aspera! 😀
    (A rough road leads to the stars)

  9. “What I hadn’t realized in my return to academia was how little time life as an academic would leave me to just learn.”

    Get off the university committees unless you really need to be there.

    Learn to say “NO!” It’s hard, but it’s a skill definitely worth learning.

    I never wished any of my committee members to disappear, and it saddens me that one of them died all too early. Everyone who is honest with themselves has doubts at some point in earning the PhD. That’s part of why some us, like me, walk away and never go back. I can look back and see what might have been. But I also look at my life now and have no regrets.

    Being a grad student is a grand and wonderful adventure. Like kindergarten, it is wasted on those who don’t know what they’ve got until it’s gone.

    Drat! Have to get back to getting ready for classes in two weeks. Responsibility looms.

  10. Pamela, Great post.

    >Perhaps the Center for Backyard Astrophysics can help…

    Or global-rent-a-scope:
    Timed right it can observe 24hrs a day anytime (weather notwithstanding). All you need is internet connection and some money – the rates are very reasonable. Of course your research needs to be aligned with their capabilities.

    (I have no affiliation with them at all.)

  11. I never got a PhD, or even an MS. It was my misfortune (or fortune?) to be an undergrad who somehow wound up with a fair amount of friends who were either chemistry or physics grad students, all with stories of the struggle – Tales of sadistic advisers, potentially lethal experiments, impossible hours. After some months listening to this, I asked myself: Why would I want to put myself through this? And so, I took my BA in Physics and ran off to join the circus known as Industry.


  1. Pamela on being a graduate vampire | Bad Astronomy | Discover Magazine - [...] Pamela Gay has written a nice post on what it was like to be in grad school, complete with…

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