Thursday, October 18, 2007

More school questions...

The other night I went to a fascinating lecture by Dianne Newman, PhD of MIT. The lecture was called "Bacteria are Beautiful" and it was a general overview of bacteria that didn't get too technical, but contained enough sciency stuff to satisfy the academics. One of the things Dr. Newman mentioned was magnetotactic bacteria. She showed us a video which took us on a "tour" of a Magnetospirillum cell, both in cross-sections and then inside the cell, where we could see the magnetosomes connected to the inner cell membrane. I'm pretty sure I sat there with my jaw on the floor...

I also got to attend an informal luncheon with Dr. Newman and about 15 female science students. We talked about what it's like to be a woman in a science field, how Dr. Newman made her first big discovery and how her career progressed. One of the questions I asked was "did the work that graduate students and PhD students were doing seem out-of-reach and more complicated than you could handle as an undergraduate?" The question sparked a good deal of conversation and I got a lot of good feedback from many of the other students, who, though younger than I am, had finished more of their undergraduate studies.

Another thing we talked about was financial aid for graduate school. I was under the impression that graduate school worked a lot like undergrad school as far as finances were concerned. Instead, I was told that science graduate students don't pay for their graduate degrees... they are funded by the professor/advisor they are working under. Is this true? Is it possible that I could end my educational career with undergraduate debt and a minimal amount of debt from graduate school? It seems too good to be true.

Serious Questions I Would Like to Have Answered:

1. How does the graduate school financing thing work?
2. How does the PhD financing thing work?
3. Did it seem nearly impossible, as an undergraduate, to ever achieve the things that graduate students and PhD students were achieving?

Not-So-Serious Questions I Would Like to Have Answered:

1. How did the woman who used the toilet before me manage to get 5 pubic hairs on the toilet seat?

1 comment:

Sally said...

Ok, I think I can help you out with some of your questions (but you're on your own about the pubic hair...).

1 and 2:

There are a couple of ways grad school and PhD financing can work. In the sciences in the United States, you generally do not have to pay tuition fees no matter where you go (but you may have to pay other student fees). This is usually because you have some sort of employment with the university--either through a TA position or an RA position, or you just may be considered a "paid researcher" of some sort. If yoru advisor's lab has enough money you may be paid via grant money. Here's how it worked in two of the universities I'm familiar with:

At my current spot (University of Oklahoma, in Norman, OK) I was awarded a TA position upon acceptance into their master's degree. (I'm in the zoology dept.) That comes with a monthly salary (through the dept), but only for 10 months of the year. I can also apply for an RA position, which has the same salary as a TA position but I would be researching for a professor, not teaching. As a TA or RA all your tuition is waived (important for me because I am not an Oklahoma resident) but I still have to pay around $1000 per semester in general student fees. Still a lot better than out of state tuition! Note that for my appointment, my tuition waiver is only as long as I TA or RA, so if I want to quit teaching and not research for a professor, and just focus on my master's thesis research, I have to pay tuition fees. As a master's student in zoology with this particular appointment, I am also allowed to take up to 7 units/semester of classes with no extra charge (and the department requires me to take at least 6 units/semester). For the two months of the year I'm not paid (June and July) I can either teach a summer session or apply for a research grant to earn income, or save during the 10 months I do get paid and live off of that (that's what I'm doing now). Or I could get a different job for the summer, but that's field season!

At the other university I'm familiar with (specifically UC Berkeley, and the chemistry dept there) the grad students I knew were basically just paid out of their advisor's grant fund, unless they were teaching. If they were teaching (required minimum of 3 semesters of TAing per student) they were paid by the department at a rate set by the university. Interestingly, the TAing rate ended up being lower than the research rate, even though they had more work during the semesters they taught!

3. YES. ABSOLUTELY YES. In fact, I just presented my first poster at a scientific conference last week, and I'm still reeling a bit from it. I still don't feel that smart. But I'm finding, as I set out on my graduate career, that if you want to do something, you can find a way. There are people who will help you find your way. That's what your advisor(s) and fellow grad students are for. I don't know how to describe it, but even though I know for sure I do not have the knowledge of older, more experienced grad students, I at least feel like I know what to do to get where they are. Does that make sense?

OK, I have to go to bed now, but I hoped some of my answers helped you!