Graduate students are a strange species. They have characteristics of both undergraduates and of their faculty counterparts. They are still students, but not really: they often take student loans, they stay up late and get up (somewhat) early, and they can subsist on pizza alone for days at a time. However, they are part of the “real” world, unlike undergraduates who can still use the excuse, “But I’m just a poor college student.” Give one a teaching assistantship and he or she will become as bull-headed as the most grizzled professor you’ve ever had. As a senior undergraduate, I’ve had my share of interactions with graduate students. If you know a graduate student, you already know what I mean. If you are a graduate student, you may beg to differ, but believe me, you’re weird.
That being said, I have to insist that interacting with a graduate student in an intended field of study has to be one of the most valuable experiences for an undergraduate, especially one planning on going to graduate school. I know this because I have done it, and I’ve been doing it since I was a freshman.
When I graduated from high school, I wanted to major in computer science, chemistry, mathematics, literature, music, philosophy, and psychology. Knowing that I did not want to spend the next nine and a half years as an undergrad, and that having seven baccalaureate degrees would be cool but not much more useful than one or two, I decided to narrow my scope a bit. A psychology mentorship in high school sparked my interest in the field, and I decided to pursue that area.
With my newfound field of interest and my severely diminished funds, I started the quest for a work-study job, and ended it in a reading and language laboratory on campus. My duties started out small, with some filing and errands. Soon, I began to run subjects in one of the experiments being conducted in the lab. I was then promoted to the ERP lab, where I took charge of several experiments over the course of a year. More recently, I’ve been given the status of ERP lab manager, and have also become more involved in experimental design and analysis. My job is now two-fold: the maintenance and nitty-gritty jobs of the upkeep of the lab on one hand, and on the other, running subjects, looking at data, and learning lots of cool stuff.
Throughout all of this, I was sort of under the wing of one of the graduate students working in the lab. It was mostly with her research that I worked, from the behavioral studies to the ERP lab, and she has worked closely with me from the beginning. My research job has been more valuable than any of the courses I’ve taken, especially in terms of practical experience.
Graduate students can be a link between undergraduates and faculty. They aren’t as intimidated by faculty as many undergraduates are, and they aren’t as intimidating as many faculty are. It works out quite nicely. Also, although they are generally as busy or busier than most faculty members, they aren’t as far removed from their undergraduate careers, and most remember what it’s like to be a confused undergraduate wanting a direction in life. They will generally take the time to speak with you and answer your questions.
Of course, my research job has led me to interact with many grad students in the psychology department. For all their weirdness, they have generally been extremely willing to help. Spending my undergraduate career in a research lab has helped me to focus my future plans. I have no worries that I won’t like what I chose. I’ve already been doing it for four years, and I love it. I suggest all undergraduates do the same, preferably as early as possible.
It’s been fun, it’s been a learning experience, and it’s been an indispensable facet of my education. I really need to go thank the graduate students around me that took the time to answer all my questions. And yes, I still think you’re weird.