Monday, November 24, 2008

Lessons from Grad School: Classes

I thought I’d share some of the things that I’ve learned in my first year as a master’s student at TAMU. People always say that graduate school is completely different from undergrad but I always kind of assumed it couldn’t be THAT different. I guess it depends on your degree, and the school, etc. But I did my undergrad at the University of Delaware—a school of about 18,000, but my department was within the College of Agriculture which was kind of like a school of its own. The wildlife department was even smaller, and most of the people were entomology. The bottom line: I was a big fish in a small pond by my senior year. Right now at A&M, I feel like a small fish in a large pond. Or maybe just a fish in a polluted pond. Pretend I didn't say that.

Despite the size of A&M’s department, it is unbelievably hard to find “good” classes to take. And its not just me. How can a nationally ranked wildlife department have no good classes? I took a lot of similar classes as an undergraduate at UD, so that is some of the problem, but not much. Another problem is that they seem to make it extraordinarily difficult here to find out what IS available. The catalogs don’t have descriptions for most graduate classes, and they seem like they are offered at odd times (every other year, etc.). It’s hard to tell if classes will be offered in spring or fall. Or maybe I'm just stupid and can't find this information. Even outside the department it’s hard to find classes to take—unless you are interested in range management (its Texas), which I am not. But these problems are rather trivial when it comes to the big picture…what classes SHOULD I take?

As an undergraduate you mostly have a plan laid out for you. As a graduate student you are able to pick what you want (for the most part). This is annoying to me, because what I want to take is often different from what I probably should take. As a grad student you SHOULD take things that will help you with your thesis, and eventually with your career. But what is that? And you could get away with taking a bunch of BS classes, but that’s the undergrad way, you might as well drop out if you just want to breeze through. Its not about the grades anymore, its about learning. Something most undergrads never realize.

In an article by Stephen C. Stearns called “Some modest advice for graduate students”, he suggests to avoid taking lectures because they are inefficient. Get the background essentials in your field, and take as few lecture style courses as possible because its important to learn to think for yourself, not to listen and regurgitate information. (This advice is probably geared towards PhD students, but I think it is good). However, he also mentions that you need courses that teach specific skills that will help you with your thesis and eventually your career.

There it is again, career. So here I am in graduate school, I have a solid background in the basics, I’m going to fill in some gaps of what I missed as an undergrad (which isn't much it seems), but what else do I need? What am I going to do with this degree? I have no idea still—which makes it hard to plan my courses accordingly. Plus, there is no time! Graduate students typically take 2 courses/semester for only 4 semesters (8 total classes). Sounds like a breeze compared to undergrad but don’t forget all of the other things going on. For instance, this winter/spring I will be writing grants in hopes of getting some extra research money, compiling and analyzing my data from season one, preparing for my second season (which includes hiring of several field techs, and a bunch of other stuff I don’t want to think about right now), TAing ornithology, and taking two classes. Most students have work on a larger project and/or a TA position which is like their job, plus their own research, and classes—so your time is quickly taken up. So now, with room for only two classes at a time—which ones are important enough to take NOW and which ones can you put off or never take? Well, for me, I feel like I need everything NOW because I have no idea what I’m doing! Panic!

Statistics. I took two semesters of statistics thinking that I’d finally be able to get a grasp on analyzing data, but in reality those classes don’t teach much that is directly related to what is used in wildlife science. Now I need to take more to get to the stuff that is actually useful. Ugh. Statistics—this is another lesson’s learned topic of it’s own, and I’m not going into it right now.

So what is my conclusion? Maybe classes aren’t really important at all at this point. Maybe worrying about taking the best classes in the right order is stupid. Because really in the end it seems like what you need to learn is very narrowly focused, and you end up sitting down with someone who knows what they are doing to learn it (because they sat down with someone who knew what they were doing, or so we hope). The best way to learn is to do it yourself. You just need a little guidance first from someone who’s been there. There is no answer to the question: what should I take? This is my opportunity to think on my own and decide what is best for me at the time.

This leads into the overall lesson learned so far: there is no cookbook for graduate school, or wildlife science, or life in general. We all want it to be easy, laid out for us, just tell me what to do and I’ll do it. Tell me what to learn and I’ll learn it. But, alas, this doesn’t exist in the “real” world even though we are tricked into believing that it does as an undergrad.

So for now, I'm just plugging along, keeping in mind that grades no longer matter (which is too bad because it's also easy to get As in grad school), and what really matters is learning to think. (Thinking creatively, not mind noise, but that's also another topic, ha)

1 comment:

g+j said...

And this is why I didn't go to grad school...