The following is a guest blog post by Anna Meyer. All opinions expressed are hers.
When I started my Master’s Degree, I had this unfounded notion that things would go quickly. Two years seemed short. Perhaps due to the short, intense nature of undergrad classes where you rocket from beginning to end in a few hazy months of tear soaked assignments and bleary eyed exams, I assumed graduate school would be similar (I was young, idealistic, and stupid). I thought I could crank out a fast proposal, crank out a fast methods section, and crank out a fast field season before popping out some speedy statistics and blowing out of here in record time.
Now, almost finished with my degree, I’ve had the profound epiphany that you cannot sprint through an advanced degree. You need to walk-jog through it. Sometimes you crawl through it. But trying to fly through your masters like a go-cart powered by adrenaline, coffee and jet fuel is unfeasible.
This may be off-putting to many people. A year of our lives, especially in our younger years, is a long time (two years is literally a tenth of my life so far). Putting in two to three years for a Master’s and up to seven for a PhD can feel like signing on for some modern form of indentured servitude. Additionally, there is no good way to rush through these and regain years of your life. So, for you undergrads who want a fast and easy advanced degree, I’m going to stomp on your hopes and dreams: it’s not like that. It will never be like that.
Truthfully, you need to be in for the long haul, through some arduous and will-destroying situations. You may lie on the floor of your office/lab/both at 3 am in the morning, trying to finish something at a high powered microscope but desperate for fifteen minutes of sleep. You may spend 36 straight hours tracking down the last version of a rare manuscript that you NEED to cite for your thesis but is only available in an old book of microfilm that you have to track down deep in the archives of Ecuadorian CSIRO and have shipped to you (via the slower cousin of Pony Express judging by the month it takes to arrive). You may sit in interminable streams of water in a dripping tent at midnight in your waterlogged sleeping bag after four straight days of rain and be ready to head back out the next day to collect data. Your relationships will likely fail in the face of your overarching affair with science (but not necessarily! Have hope! You’ll find someone someday! It’s statistically probable!). You may not get enough data, your data may be lost, and you may have to rearrange your methods.
It would be easy to quit here, right? It would be easy, and even within your rights to give up. You’re probably making less than the average fast food worker. But that’s where being a grad student comes in. You hang on through all of this, you re-enter your data, you rearrange your methods. But you mostly just learn to plow through every imaginable situation you can possibly tolerate, and then write a thesis. Which is also not easy. Writing isn’t just cranking out stream of consciousness thoughts like James Joyce’s Ulysses. You cite everything you read (Meyer, unpublished data). You come up with extremely intricate outlines like you’re making the world’s most elaborate house of cards. Sometimes you wait a year on a year on a colleague to summarize a bit of data for a paper that you thought you would have submitted nine months ago, and then Reviewer 1 takes two months to tell you that your article needs major revisions. But day by day, you find (and claw, and sob) your way through and then you finally emerge, blinking in the bright light of not-your-lab and holding a diploma and a nicely bound document of your finished research. Congrats! Now go apply for your next degree, you motivated Master of Science, you.