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Monday, April 15, 2024

Column: Group effort

Dear Professor Celestia: Today, I learned that, despite the depictions of academics as introverts who labor alone in the lab or library, real research is a team sport. For a grad student to succeed, they must make use of the many mentors available to them. From the advisor who signs your papers and keeps you on track, to the collaborators who trade you bench space for a co-authorship, to your labmates who keep you sane, and the many others who will review your manuscripts and write you letters of recommendation — the list is long, and there is never enough room on the Acknowledgements section of your thesis for everypony.

In short, please send more money to cater the grad student happy hour. We need sweet potato fries for Science. Your faithful student, me.

There, I made a damn Pony column. Are you happy now?

Fan service aside, friendships are quite important for effective graduate studies. The Ph.D. is a long process with many potential pitfalls, both research-related and personal. It’s helpful to have a strong social network to unwind or commiserate with as the case may be, beyond your advisers. Also, research is inherently a collaborative effort strengthened with each person involved. Someone might know something you don’t, or be familiar with a technique or resource that hadn’t crossed your mind. You’ll never know if you spend all hours alone in a windowless room.

It is with the heartless goal of improving efficiency that the campus provides resources for graduate students to interact with each other. For example, there is a Graduate Students Association, which is like ASUCD — only nobody cares about it. There’s also the free Coffee, Bagels and Donuts day at a time and location I will not share with you thieving undergrads. My free food, mine!

Individual departments also provide avenues for talking to other humans, though the extent of these opportunities depends on size and funding. Most departments have seminars. Boring, foodless seminars. Others have events ranging from department-wide barbecues to nothing at all. I’m lucky to be in entomology, which is small enough that everyone knows everyone else but big enough to justify large social gatherings, and even a separate Entomology Grad Student Association that provides further chances to relax with your peers over snacks and beer … I mean, science and books. It really makes a difference to be in a highly social department, which is something to consider if you’re applying to grad school in the future.

While some professors insist on being called “Professor Last Name” when talking with their students, these are rare. Professor-to-grad-student relationships tend to be more informal, with many on a first-name basis. Some professors invite students to their homes for parties or celebrations, and vice versa. It all depends on how social and outgoing everyone involved is, and how nice their place is.

Whether grad students spend their free time with undergrads is also dependent on personality, not to mention age. The range of grad student ages varies wildly. Some are 20-somethings fresh out of college, some are planning their weddings, and others already have grandchildren. The student writing a history paper about WWI who uses her own diary as a “primary source” is no myth.

I happen to be among the younger end of the spectrum: Several undergrads in my department are older than me, which would make establishing a hierarchy difficult. Do I respect my elders, or do I outrank them? Are you my senpai or kohai? Since we’re not in Japan, I find it easier to be informal with everyone. I spend more time with undergrads than grads, actually, because they’re closer to my age and run most of the campus clubs. I’ve got a few more years before I have to put up a professorship or marriage-shaped boundary between myself and the undergrads, so I will enjoy their company and make the most of being in college again.

MATAN SHELOMI is aware of all internet traditions. Reach him at mshelomi@ucdavis.edu.

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