Fours years ago I had just moved from Radford, Virginia to Clemson, South Carolina to begin my participation in the physics PhD program at Clemson University. I was devastated to leave Radford – I think I had developed a fairly strong bond to the town from my four years spent living and studying there. I think some of it was also being young and aware that Radford was the first “home away from home” for me and I was leaving it. And a sprinkle of the reality that is taking on bills and life on my own in a new way, even farther away from home. Home home. Out of state. Where I know no one. And am not familiar with any surrounding regions. And am really nervous of my ability to even participate in a PhD program of any kind. Yeah, so lots of feelings. Of course excitement was there, too. I’d experienced a big change before and loved every minute (going away to college) and I was fully aware of the opportunity that lie ahead of me at Clemson! With big life changes comes the usual fear of the unknown but so should being open to a new chapter of your life, one that could bring great things to you (but easier said than done amirite). What’s that saying? You know, ‘replace fear of the unknown with curiosity’?
The astronomy community, the LG (local group), at Clemson, spring 2018 (two years into the program). This photo makes me laugh because apparently I had told Ross (the one crouching) that he was blocking someone and apparently he was not.
I put a lot of pressure on myself that year. Entering graduate school is when I realized that I had anxiety issues and it was hitting the point where I could no longer ignore its impact on my life. I talk more about it here. When I entered Clemson, I began teaching introductory astronomy labs in conjunction with taking full time coursework. The Clemson physics and astronomy department does a placement test to help you figure out the proper track for your PhD program. I ranked the lowest score of my incoming class. They suggested to me that I take year zero, which would require two years of full time course work and re-visit courses that I was weak in (thermo, quantum, haha just kidding, all of them). I was the only one to enroll in year zero courses from my class and was the only graduate student among undergraduates for the entire first year of graduate school. I registered this as my first failure. I’m already falling behind, great. But, I was taking this seriously. I asked the department chair at the time, what are your success rates for students if they follow their recommended tracks? The students who do not succeed are almost always students who were recommended year zero and choose against it and failed trying to muscle through courses they couldn’t understand. Personally, I’d rather take six years to earn my PhD than just not earn my PhD at all. So, even though for whatever reason (ahem, imposter syndrome) I felt a little embarrassed being the only graduate student in my year zero classes, I signed up for them, and it turned out to be possibly the smartest decision I could’ve made at the time. (P.S. I’m pretty sure the only person to “look down on me” for being in year zero was myself and if it wasn’t, kindly fudge ’em.).
Of course I didn’t come to appreciate that decision until later. There were two new aspects to my life that, at first, made me very uncomfortable. Teaching to students my age Being the dumbest person in the class and be the only graduate student there.
I struggled with both that entire first year. I had a big teaching and course workload. My first semester in graduate school, I was teaching three 2-hour astronomy labs per week, grading, reporting grades, offering feedback, working with students, facilitating projects, grading paper reports. That’s just the teaching portion. Oh yeah and for astronomy labs we had to offer weekly observing nights as a final project. So we were out once to twice per week at night observing with the students, fall and spring semesters. On top of that, I was taking three courses: electromagnetism, classical mechanics, and quantum mechanics. There were all very hard and very time consuming, even as a year zero course.
It became obvious the first lecture that Clemson undergraduate degrees in physics were way more involved and intense than where I just came from. I was impressed and also terrified. This was mostly all new material for me but it wasn’t supposed to be. I was very aware of the holes in my education and this intensified my anxiety but it also intensified my determination. I didn’t prioritize social interactions my first year in Clemson and it was another added stressor to my life. It got lonely! But I was pretty busy studying physics, after all, I was catching up and was still quite a ways behind. And, ya know, teaching.
It was a lot having to balance all of these added areas to my life and it took some time to find the right balance. I kept my head down that first year of Clemson. I consider that a long phase where I was a little seedling waiting for the right time to sprout and bloom in growth! It was a very difficult year, and the second year at Clemson was not any easier. Graduate school really is no joke. Not to mention, there are a lot of problems that we still need to address in academia, too, so we can better support each other as we progress in our careers but, it’s equally valuable to be grateful for your experiences and your fervor to overcome the negative ones and how they have helped you grow into the scientist (or whoever you are!) that you are today. That is something to always be proud of.
While yes, it was exhausting and hard work, I changed a lot as a person (for the better, I think) during that short time and learned a lot about myself along the way. There’s so much more I wanted to mention with this first year of graduate school but admittedly I have been struggling with a bit of writer’s block and can’t find the right words. Nonetheless, I hope the bit I have shared can help someone pull through an awkward time of their life, one that maybe fosters similar emotions.