May 7, 2019

GUEST ROOM | Graduate Students: Who are We?

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Think of a graduate student. We’re the chemistry teaching assistant who gave you consistent B’s on lab reports and the first-year writing seminar instructor who invited you to their office to talk about how they could support you. We’re the sleep-deprived, scatter-brained, sixth-year, glassware-dirtying person that you meet each morning. We’re the second-year Ph.D. student crying in an office as we stress about our upcoming qualifying exam. We graduate students interact with nearly every group on campus, but we’re often dismissed as an isolated, uninvested population that is just here to finish a degree.

Graduate TAs are often the first responders when an undergraduate student faces personal challenges. If we’re lucky, a graduate TA has some training in mental health first aid, or they can go to a faculty member who has the time to support both the undergraduate student and graduate TA. Few Cornellians realize that as much as 70 percent of course instruction is led by graduate TAs. We graduate students are integral to this University’s mission, but we’re not always trained to support the undergraduates we teach. Although programs to train TAs exist — including the TA Development Program and the compulsory International Teaching Assistant Program — many of us who teach receive no formal training to support our undergraduates.

In addition to more obvious roles at Cornell, many grads are also advocates for change. After all, what better time than grad school to develop ideas and plans for the future of our disciplines? As expected, the majority of this work seems to be done by graduate students who identify as belonging to underrepresented groups. So in addition to all the responsibilities listed above (and taking classes), we also advocate fiercely for those who will come after us. We’re all here to get our respective degrees, but we also contribute to the University beyond research and scholarship.

As graduate students, we constantly revise our assumptions about our role in our community. We receive training in research and some training in teaching, but little guidance in mentoring or other essential tasks that fall to graduate students or staff when they’re not assigned to anyone.These informal roles are integral to the function of Cornell. Our supervisors and advisors are often overworked and rarely equipped to show us how to develop our own mentoring skills. As with teaching, we learn to mentor on the job. Cornell isn’t alone in this problem, but we grads, faculty and staff rarely engage our colleagues across the University to share strategies for supporting each others’ work. We can do better.

As with most things, there are challenges to the graduate student experience. A lot of us struggle with our mental health, just like the undergraduates we interact with. Job security is, well, less secure than it was. While the number of postgraduates interested in non-academic careers is increasing in number, the majority of graduate programs still train their students for such a career path. Non-academic career paths are still considered offbeat and sometimes ‘not scientific enough.’ Graduating students often don’t know what to expect from the job market or even the different kinds of careers out there with a graduate degree.

Beyond our roles here at Cornell, graduate students do have lives outside of the lab. Most graduate students have hobbies: They volunteer to make local communities better, they bake delicious bread, they cook food, they dance their hearts out on stage, they perform as stand-up comedians and spoken word poets, they do yoga and go cross-country skiing, and … you get the idea. At the end of the day, graduate students are people.

This is possibly the most important message we could put out there. To the undergraduates who are thinking about graduate school: remember why you started college. Remember to create a community for yourself, and remember to pursue hobbies that make you happy. To our fellow graduate students: We see you. We see you juggling all of those responsibilities and doing incredible things with them. Let’s be kind to ourselves and remember that we’re all in this together.

Neither of us fit the stereotype of a graduate student. Natalie grew up hearing that she’d be miserable working alone in a lab, but in reality it’s hard to find the time to work alone. Janani grew up hearing that Ph.D. students practically lived in the lab, but the library and the outdoors have been some of her best workspaces. We both work in the sciences, and growing up, we heard the same stereotypes you did. Grad students often sleep in their labs. We both sleep over eight hours a night — at home in our own beds. Grads should be solely committed to their one true passion: research. Few people are happy spending all their waking hours on a single activity. We graduate students have many passions. Never ask them when they will graduate. Okay — that one might be true. When we think about ourselves and our peers, it’s hard to find someone who fits all these stereotypes. Is it really accurate to group us all under the same Ph.D. comic umbrella?

Janani Hariharan is a second year Ph.D. candidate in Soil and Crop Sciences. Natalie Hofmeister is a fourth year Ph.D. candidate in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. Comments may be sent to opinion@cornellsun.com.