Tuesday, June 10, 2008

College Kid, hmmm?

I was recently reminded that it is typical for people who understand the reality of some experience to view it much differently than those who merely look in on it. Although after living in some world (such as grad school) for many years, it can be easy to forget how others view one's own world.

To me, graduate school (for computer science at least) is defined by learning and working at the same time, although those two parts can be both symbiotic and in conflict. Graduate school is mostly about research, with the most useful learning not coming from classes but from reading papers, interacting with other researchers, and working. Not only are graduate students learning some small part of their field in detail, they are also beginning their careers by publishing their work, attending conferences, and networking. In a sense, graduate school is almost an apprenticeship where in the end no job is guaranteed, but is still likely to be found. Graduate students are often living their lives as normal adults, sometimes with families but often without, participating in their community, taking vacations, etc. The only main differences between graduate school and an industry job are that graduate school pays substantially less, expects you to work longer hours more frequently, and has more flexibility overall. We don't even pay tuition at many schools, but instead it is waived.

I have recently been reminded however, that many people who have not attended graduate school themselves view it more as "being in college again." As far as I can tell, it is viewed as following the college/university model very closely with just harder classes than are taken at the undergraduate level. As you have hopefully gathered from my previous paragraph, this is very far from the truth in Computer Science! Yes, it can be close to the truth in other disciplines, but even in liberal arts programs the graduate students still take fewer classes than undergraduates, have some form of stipend that pays them to work for the department in some capacity, and usually do some form of research at some point in the program. For instance, I know in Mathematics graduate students generally focus on classes for the first few years and are only then ready to actively participate in research.

I think it's also important to note that there is a different focus in graduate school than in undergraduate education. As an undergrad, one usually learns a very broad range of information including general education requirements. Students learn a large amount of background knowledge that could be necessary in their future careers. In graduate school, this background knowledge is of course assumed, and thus graduate students focus on the area they are most interested in pursuing. More is expected of students overall, as only truly interested and motivated students ttend graduate school (although of course many people who are as interested and motivated in the field choose not to attend).

The department's building is the graduate student's place of work, their work community, and often practically seems like a second home (as sad as that is). Graduate students are generally on a first-name basis with professors, and their opinions are generally valued. Graduate students are often the mentors or teachers for undergraduate students, which may be why grad students often call undergraduates "kids" when talking with other graduate students, even when they are almost the same age. Or maybe we call them "kids" because after a few years of graduate school it's hard to remember being "so juvenile" or "so lost."

Personally, I think at my school the biggest difference is that many undergraduate kids are noisy, obnoxious, and inconsiderate of other people. But then again, I suspect the graduate students at my alma mater probably feel the same about their undergrads.

But either way, do try to remember when talking to graduate students that they have done their time in college and have moved on. They are usually no longer living the college lifestyle except for the fact that they may live in a college town and don't make very much money. They are career focused, independent, and soon to be college/university professors teaching "those pesky college kids."

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