What to Expect When You’re Expecting (to attend grad school for physics and astronomy)

Credit:  Lodjietddnsia

So you’re planning on attending grad school in physics and astronomy. Maybe you’re flush with confidence and belonging, maybe you’re anxious and worried you’re lacking in some manner, or maybe you’re just “whatevs” about the this whole grad school thing. Whatever your comfort, you should be prepared to experience a few of these things:

  • Firstly, expect to get Impostor Syndrome. Impostor Syndrome is characterized by feelings of inadequacy, which leaves you in constant fear of being exposed as a fraud (by your colleagues, by the students you TA, and most commonly, by your advisor). Nearly everyone feels it some time or another. If you find yourself doubting your abilities, remember, the day you were accepted into grad school it was established that you belong there. You’ll naturally make some close allies in grad school: be open and talk to them about your state of mind. Chances are they feel or have felt similarly, and carrying that knowledge around with you is a powerful way to reinstate your self-confidence. Also, follow LEGO Grad Student on FB or Twitter. They frequently post snapshots of the plight of the grad student, and hundreds of other grad students comment with validations of the struggle.
Colleague: “Hey Ben, how was the colloquium on M-theory?”
Ben: “I know nothing.”
  • Most physics and astronomy departments have weekly colloquia. These are typically 50 minute talks given by visiting physicists and astronomers about the research they and their grad students are doing. However, if the colloquium topic is outside of your field, you likely won’t understand most of what the scientist is saying. This is common. Sometimes visiting researchers give talks that are so esoteric and jargon-filled, that you don’t even know what a valid question would be. Don’t worry, you don’t have to ask questions, so don’t stress about not understanding. The onus is on the scientist to present their research in a way that attracts interest. Sometimes visiting scientists are very good at presenting their research in a comprehensible and engaging fashion: try to emulate their strategies for your future talks.

Student: “I was wondering if you are currently in your office? I have a question regarding the assignment.”
Ben: (thinks to self) It’s 8pm on a Friday, does this student really think...
Ben: “Yes, I’m in my office.”
  • You will get a surge of e-mails from undergrads just before an assignment is due. This is naturally frustrating, but take a second to breath and try to be nice. Remember you were there once.

  • You will be asked to be on committees. There are oh so many committees requiring grad students to participate. Don’t feel like you always need to say yes. It is valuable to be on a couple committees—especially those interacting with professors—as you will be remembered for it. However, if you’re spending a portion of every day dealing with committee e-mails and meetings, you will struggle to find time for your research. Check out this professor's blog post suggesting that academic service (in her case, at the faculty level) only benefits a scientist's career in a small and indirect way.

  • You will teach physics to undergrads that you may never have fully learned before. It happens. If you encounter a physics question you’re supposed to teach and you don’t know how to do it right away, don’t waste too much time struggling (learn the value of your time). Just type the question into Google and search for a solution. It also goes without saying, but, do make sure the solution is correct and that you understand it well enough to teach it.

Oh, and of course you’ll do research, take grad courses, teach tutorials and labs, give frequent talks, do outreach, and some days, feel so stressed you’ll take up yoga. But don’t worry, you can handle it.