I first started at OU in fall 2015 as a graduate student in the Department of Chemistry, which provided a small stipend as compensation for teaching undergraduate courses. This relieved me of some of the financial worries that I know some other graduate students (particularly those not in STEM) face. In return for near poverty-level wages, my teaching assistant responsibilities for CHEM 1315 (most first-year graduate students teach this) included proctoring exams, supervising undergraduate lab periods, planning and teaching recitations, grading student submissions, and holding office hours. On top of that, I was responsible for my own coursework and laboratory rotations (the latter of which can be thought of as academic research “speed dating”). This makes for a pretty busy schedule. I was attracted to OU’s Chemistry Ph.D. program because it was the first in the US to utilize a “modular course format”, which I found quite innovative. During this first year, I was able to rotate through two research labs while completing the necessary coursework in bite-sized modules, all while balancing my teaching responsibilities—not an easy balancing act, I assure you.
Being a graduate student requires the mastery of different life skills than those needed as an undergraduate. I was proud to survive my first two years of graduate school—one of the most stressful periods in my life. I also had to submit a monthly time sheet, which adequately illustrates the noticeable difference between being a student/employee rather than a student with some unpaid teaching responsibilities (the latter of which I experienced at my alma mater). While the requirement to submit my time sheet in a timely fashion seemed to challenge me, you could say that the consequences of not submitting one provided sufficient motivation.
The first two years of graduate school are packed with coursework and examinations in order to propel you to doctoral candidacy as efficiently as possible (assuming you survive to that point); adding a demanding job on top of this makes graduate life significantly more challenging. I made it to my third year, but I know of some colleagues that didn’t make it this far. Graduate school challenges you mentally, emotionally, and physically, and I would say that I bear some scars myself. One thing that could make a real difference for graduate students during this stressful time of coursework, teaching, and research (plus life in general) would be if the university could be more involved with the well-being of graduate students.
While most of us are “chronological adults,” the stress can be pretty severe. University-sanctioned support systems seem to be less available to graduates when compared to undergraduates—not to mention that our challenging schedules make it difficult to participate in campus organizations that might provide an outlet for us. I’m not sure if this is common for all graduate students, but those of us far from home would appreciate some help to improve our quality of life when we are not working or studying.