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Give me an overview of the grad school experience

  1. Jul 22, 2015 #1
    Hello all,

    For any of you current or ex grad students out there in physics, what was your overall experience like in graduate school? Extremely stressful, working 80 hours a week for 6 years and hating life or more along the lines of 40-50 hours a week and enjoying life while being on the poverty line?

    Thanks for any feedback!
  2. jcsd
  3. Jul 22, 2015 #2
    60 hours per week. Enjoying life. Not rich, but no debt either.
  4. Jul 22, 2015 #3


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    Grad school was never a time of extra money. That is for sure. Occasionally this would get pretty serious. One time I went begging to my prof and he dropped a few $ on me. That got me by. I managed to get through my PhD with no debt and without taking more than about $100 from my parents. I had some kind of scholarship money every year, and I did TA work nearly every year. I usually shared an apartment with other grad students. Renting a house with 2 o 3 other students is usually a good plan since they will have similar schedules and desire for quiet to work. And they will usually have similar levels of tolerance for delaying cleaning the kitchen etc.

    Money is especially tight for a PhD student because you are usually expected to be full time for the full year. Most schools have limits on how many hours per week you can work other than school work. Undergrads are expected to work 4 months per year and go to school 8 months per year.

    Work load varied widely.

    I finished my classes in the first 2 years. Then after that it was thesis and TA work and not much else

    One brand new prof had something to prove. And since he was fresh from a post-doc at a "big name school" most of the department was keen to take his class. He gave out rather a large amount of homework and we all struggled to finish it. Basically, for four months he shut down research at the department. We were all doing 50 or 60 hours a week just on his class. Then he gave out the "take home" exam. That was rather an amazing experience. He gave us 3 days to finish it, and most of us required the full 72 hours.

    When my thesis was getting close I was getting very eager to be done. There were a lot of long days then. And occasionally I would help one of my friends do some "donkey work" on their thesis, photocopying or proof reading or such. This would occasionally produce blasts of very long hours. And exam time is pretty obvious.

    On the other hand, I did manage to find a few hours pretty much every week to do something fun. There was a trip to the pub with other students on Friday most weeks. We knew where the cheap beer was served.

    Heh. Uni was a time of experimenting and new experiences all around. One time we came home from the pub about 2AM. Me, my room mate, and two other guys drifted to our apartment. And my room mate gave out bennies, did not take any, and went to sleep. The bastard. The rest of us were up until noon.

    I still had time for chess and D&D and to attend the local science fiction convention and one or two other pass times. Also, I rode my bicycle nearly every day when weather was nice. That goes with saving money since I could ride the bike a lot cheaper than I could take transit. And membership at the athletic centre was included in tuition costs so I could go for a few laps in the pool when I wanted. Or use the other facilities.

    There were often interesting things going on at the university. Lectures by guest speakers including Nobel winners. Interesting events such as conferences on topics related to my research. Movie night at one or other building's main meeting hall. Somebody put on a live chess demo once, with people dressed up as the pieces and moving on a chess board with 2 meter wide squares.

    Graduate school also has the possibility of staying in graduate residence at some schools. At U of Toronto where I got my PhD there is a place called Massey College. It is bedrooms, a cafeteria, a library, arranged around a charming rectangular central area. Trees and grass and a fountain and a clock. It's almost like a monastery dedicated to learning. Except it's co-ed and nobody chaperones you. I only stayed there one month in the summer once, but it was very pleasant. If you can get such a place to live you are surrounded by other grad students, all working hard on their degrees, and in a very nice place.
  5. Jul 22, 2015 #4


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    Two things that can help a lot with finances:

    1. Share an apartment instead of living by yourself. During my first year, I found another physics grad student who was looking for a roommate.

    2. Don't own a car. I bicycled a lot, and used public transportation occasionally. I didn't own a car until the year before I finished my Ph.D., when my parents decided they didn't need two cars any more and gave me their older car.
  6. Jul 22, 2015 #5


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    I was a math grad student more than once, having a decent time outside of class, but never finishing. The last time around I was serious, I worked constantly, didn't smile for three years, then I graduated with a big grin and a degree.
  7. Jul 22, 2015 #6


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    A lot of the graduate experience is what you make of it.

    It's a lot of work, but then it's graduate school. There are times when you'll have to put in long hours. Examples: studying for a comprehensive exam, a candidacy exam, preparing conference abstracts, preparing manuscripts, responding to referee reports before the deadline, putting your thesis together, grading a pile of exams or lab reports as a TA, etc.

    But there will also be times when you'll have a fair amount of flexibility with your schedule. Depending on your supervisor there's no actual requirement that you be in working at any particular time. You come and go as you need to (provided you're getting some work done). Looking back, during my time as a graduate student I actually had a lot of freedom.

    Financially yes, you won't have a lot of pocket change, but you'll have some money. Most graduate students don't have to take on more debt. I had a part-time job outside of school and TA responsibilities for most of my time as a grad student and it allowed me to live in my own apartment and eventually buy a car, and save up for a down payment on a house.
  8. Jul 23, 2015 #7


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    Your financial situation depends on the school. You can definitely live somewhat comfortably on my stipend even though rent is ridiculously high (living alone is unaffordable for the most part).

    I just finished my first year, but what I get is that while grad school can be very frustrating at time, it can also be incredibly rewarding at others if you put in the work. You also have a fair amount of freedom depending on your advisor. Really no hard short term deadlines for research, you just need to be very productive.

    What I also really enjoy is interacting with my peers. They are a ton of fun and I also learn a lot from them about all sorts of things.
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