We're a little crazy, about science!

The transition to grad school

It’s that time of the year again for anyone who’s applied to grad school. This is roughly the time people get acceptance letters, or if you’re like me a pile of rejection letters, but look at me now MIT! Can you tell I’m bitter? Any sort of life transition is hard, be it high school to college, college to work, or even sleep to awake (or is that just me?), transition can feel downright scary. Well the person I’m mentoring “Kay” is about to take that jump and I can’t lie, I’m super excited for her.

As a mentor I typically am a blip in a person’s life. I mentor students, on average, for a single term. Sometimes shorter, sometimes longer, but never really long-term. With every rule, there are exceptions however and Kay has been that exception. We met right as I was getting settled in my PhD and she was just starting her undergrad life. It’s been nearly four (school) years since we started our journey together and now she’s about to take the leap to her PhD.

Mentoring her has been a fun experience. It’s the first time I’ve spent so long working one on one with someone and I have to say she’s really making me reconsider a path with a university because it was a lot of fun to watch her grow as a researcher. Since we’re talking about transitions, let me recap some of the things we did to get to this point, then we can talk about how it all worked out now that I know the ending to the story.

Kay had no clue what she wanted to do for her PhD, just that she wanted to continue the path. So for nearly two years I harassed gently encouraged her every week to figure out what the hell she wanted to do with her life! I think I’ve even written a few posts on this (like this one!) because figuring out what she wanted to do will make her life so much easier.

We (she) narrowed down the search, I put in a good word or two with some of the few PI contacts I had that may have been interested in taking her on, and we played the waiting game for the past six months until she got her official acceptance notification to her top choice (more here). I had a good feeling she was going to get an offer because the PI of the lab spent so much time one on one with her, but it’s always good to have something in writing.

Now thanks to my encouragement (and visibly high stress level for her) she has a good idea about the topic of research she wants to do going in, putting her already ahead of most students, she has a solid lab that she’s excited to start working in, and thanks once again to my harrassment, err encouragement, she inquired about funding and the type of work she would have to do.

That’s where we left the story and that’s a perfectly good ending as far as I’m concerned, but when we met today she shared two pieces of news that made me even happier. First she got an email from one of the PI’s I introduced her to. He wanted to meet to discuss coming to his lab, but since she already accepted a position in another lab, she politely declined and the PI responded that he messed up by waiting too long to reach out, that the other lab is a great choice, and they are lucky to have her. I agree, thank you PI who I will not name (but who is awesome and I’m lucky to know).

The second piece of news is the important part. Funding I talk about your PhD and funding a lot. It’s a key component because under no circumstances should you ever, EVER pay for you PhD. YOU get PAID to do your PhD, you never pay, period. <- see period. In fact I wrote about that as well (YOU SHOULD BE PAID!!). As a PhD student in the US if you’re in an engineering field (sorry non-engineers I don’t know the range for you) you can expect (or at least should expect) on average offers from $25-35k a year (USD), which is very low, but set by most funding agencies so you could get less (if you settle for less, your choice as always), but you probably won’t see more.

I really tried to drill that in whenever I mentor anyone no matter if they want to do a PhD or not because (1) getting paid to do your PhD is not common knowledge, which is frustrating to me and (2) even if you don’t want a PhD now it’s information you can pass on or use later if you change your mind. If there’s one thing a casual reader of my blog should take away from anything I write it’s simply your PhD should not cost you a dime. This really (mostly) applies to US readers since other countries are (typically) more generous about funding for education, which is a whole other rant I don’t have space/time for right now.

Kay and I discussed on several occasions leading up to the in-person meeting she was having with the lab about how to talk about funding and how it’s not rude to discuss payment. In the US at least it’s “taboo” to talk about pay, but that helps only the employer, so I try to push people to discuss it. Specifically as a student it’s important because you’re going to be (probably) moving somewhere new and have expenses to consider as well as cost of living.

Kay was told that she didn’t have to worry and that there was funding for the project she wanted to work on. Which is why knowing what you want going in is important because she had a project she wanted that the PI was already funding, so now she doesn’t have to hunt like I did for money. Turns out she won’t have to hunt for funding at all.

The award letter is covering her moving expenses, along with her stipend (pay), tuition, which will be covered for the next FIVE years! As for the salary range, she’s at the top end, which means she will live modestly, but (ideally) somewhat comfortably for the full time she works on her degree. Her new PI encourages (as did I) her to write a grant or two for practice, but she is set my friends.

To recap, she has a lab, an area of research she is interested in, a project she really wants to work on that has funding, and she herself has funding for the next five years (totaling over $500,000, most of which is to pay for school sadly).

So if you’re a regular reader and see me going on, and on, and on, about funding or picking a project, this right here. This is why, so you can have the best outcome possible when you start your PhD. I could not be happier for her and I swear I’m going to try my hardest not to cry at her graduation, but damn it if I will most likely fail that. It feels like only yesterday I was trying to get her to think about her area of research and now she’s about to take that leap.

Which is a long winded way to bring up the topic of the post, but she has a lot to consider now. Namely moving, finding a place to live, and the commute situation. Here in the US, public transportation can be bad or non-existent, I have yet to find good, but I have seen okay (ish). So she needs to decide what’s right for her, set her budget, which she can now do now that she knows how much she will be paid, and start apartment hunting.

While I will probably be giving her some advice, most of this is preference, so the ball is basically in her court now. I’ve promised to be here if she needs anything (even after she moves), but at this point my job is basically all, but done.

This may or may not be the last we hear of Kay, but I should reiterate that the relationship was a two way street. I learned a lot from mentoring her and it was a lot of fun for me to watch her try and succeed (mostly succeed). If you’re a PhD student and haven’t mentored or haven’t mentored someone long term, I highly recommend it.

I wish Kay all the best, but she won’t need it, she’s amazing on her own. And now I can say I got to help, at least a litte.

But enough about us, what about you?

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