Surprises in Graduate School

My graduate experience at Princeton was so different from the environment I experienced during my undergraduate.

Surprise #1 –  People exceptionally social

I recall that I decided that it was a good idea to go to organized events during Princeton’s first days. I was indeed very excited to be starting my Ph.D. One memory is that we had the intro session in the Frist Center basement, and round tables cover the whole area. I sat in one of them, and maybe there were ten people at the table. It was effortless to turn to the person next to you and say, “Hi, my name is Kevin” and strike up a conversation. Indeed everybody was too open to have a chat and introduce themselves. I am pretty sure not everybody felt that way, but that was my impression of it. In that table, there was Uno Vaaland and Hugh Wilson. They became long-time friends, and now that I reflect, most of my close friends came from serendipitous meetings at the beginning of my first year. 

During those intro days, I was in the queue to enter the Richardson Auditorium to listen to President Eisgruber’s speech. A colleague from ELE was in the line, and her roommate was with her. We started chatting, and that is how I met Noemi Vergopolan, and we remain friends until now. 

Within the ELE cohort, we were all walking to some class – I think it was devices, and I ran into Murat Ozatay, and we chat for a few minutes until we arrived at the class. It turns out many people from ELE knew about me already because I decided to write probably the longest (half a page) bio ever in the admitted graduate students’ booklet. 

These were random occurrences, but the place where I run into most people that I did not have any connection with was the meals at the graduate college (breakfasts, dinners, and brunches). There are long tables that probably can sit 40 people, and at those times, you could connect with anybody living in the GC. In other words, you could meet people from all departments. 

All of these were characteristics of the first months.

Surprise #2 – Can call a professor by their name

Back in Peru, the thing to do was to call the teacher/lecturer: Professor. I saw no other way than to address them this way – I think it was also possible to add their first name after ‘Professor.’ These days, whenever I exchange an e-mail with my undergraduate adviser, I start the e-mail with “Hi Prof. Abel.” It was the norm, and I did not think there was any other way. 

At Princeton, I call my adviser by his first name. I think he would be OK with anybody addressing him by his first name. There are few other faculty from my department that I call them by their first name, as long as they are ok with that. If it happens to be the first occasion I will meet with a professor I will use: Prof. “Last-name.” Each reserach group’s interactions are quite diverse in my department, and everything is pretty much setting dependent. 

Over the years, I heard my adviser greet other Professors with “Prof. First-name/Last-name.” So, in all settings outside of our group meetings or individual meetings, I refer to my adviser as Prof. Last-name. This is his etiquette, and as his apprentice, I decided to follow suit, but I am sure there are no rules to it, and he did not inforced it on me either. 

Was it unusual to navigate how to call a Professor at Princeton University? It was! It took me one year to get used not to call my adviser professor in a casual setting, but since everybody around me was doing it, I decided to adopt.

Surprise # 3 – The graduate level infrastructure

Master and Doctoral students do not have the same culture like the one I found at Princeton. During my early undergraduate years, I did not interact with any master or doctoral student in the physical sciences – I mainly learned from my undergraduate adviser and senior undergraduates. I saw a few graduate students from far away, but the way things run in Peru is so different that I could not translate anything to my new to face experience at Princeton.

Surprise # 4 – Wide range of ages and experiences

When I arrived at Princeton, I found out that there were older and younger students than me. The younger ones became graduate students by the age of 19 or 20 – I thought that was a terrific academic achievement. On the other hand, there were a few peers that were five years older than me. 

They were not only older but experienced. Some held Master’s degrees before coming to the Ph.D. Others have held positions in research institutions, where they have crafted more of scientific research skills. Some people took the graduate course that we took in our first semester a few times already, and even had TA it at some point – it was a breeze for them. There were some that the graduate-level course was their first interaction with a new field, and it was not a comfortable ride – the graduate level courses here are very demanding indeed. 

I did not only find differences in ages and experiences, it was more subtle, but I also found differences in wealth. I had a friend that bought a house for himself, with support from his family, after he arrived at Princeton. Some other folks came with quite a few thousand to get them started – a parents gift. Some were using the stipend monthly, but there were no more responsibilities beyond just taking care of oneself. Last but not least, I found friends who were sending some money back home every month. 

Some folks had PhDs running in their family for a few generations, and for others, it was the first time being a first-generation Ph.D. or college student. 

Every person had a different story. I had the impression and somehow believed that a Ph.D. does not distinguish the details of the student. However, that unique story that we all carry when we start our Ph.D. will affect how we approach and ride graduate school. 

Surprise # 5 – Students take the lead

After my general’s examination, I noticed that I did not see my peers from my department’s Quantum division as often as I wanted. Up to that point, everybody was pretty much within their reserach groups, and I did not find many occasions to socialize – we only had cookie time on Friday afternoons.

During a conversation with Prof. de Leon, the idea of having an ELE journal club resurfaced. One year before, there was an effort to run a journal club, but the free food was missing. Then Prof. de Leon asked me if I wanted to give it a shot at running the journal club, and I said sure!

Prof. de Leon and I walked downstairs to our graduate program coordinator, and she asked if we could get money to run the journal club. The graduate program coordinator said: yes, of course! I had to take care of a few details, but soon everything was settled. The ELE department supported us, graduate students, with ~ 10,000 $/year to discuss scientific literature, a.k.a., the applied physics journal club. I am pleased that the journal club is still in operation.

Surprise # 6 – Surrounded by talented students:

During my undergraduate, I stood out from my peers with a combination of good grades tons of undergraduate research experience. All of that effort was reflected in my admission to the Department of Electrical Engineering at Princeton University. 

Axiom: Every person starting his/her Ph.D. at Princeton University stood out from their peers in their undergraduate programs.

As a consequence, the starting cohort of Ph.D. students is a collection of incredibly talented people. In this new environment, it is now more challenging to stand out – couple that with the fact that graduate-level courses are challenging and demanding.  

In other words, at my start at Princeton, I felt like a tiny fish in a big swimming pool, where there were a variety of sea creatures. 

I believe that the ‘reward system of standing’ out led me to pursue better grades and more opportunities in Peru, but five years ago at Princeton, where everybody was excellent – standing out became quite challenging. 

The outcome was imposter syndrome. 

Nevertheless, there is a lot to gain by being surrounded by exceptional people. I think I can’t have all the right ideas, so now I can tap into others’ experiences and intellect to rocket myself forward.

(photo by Kina Action)

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