19 April 2010

Skills and Drills

I've neglected this blog for about eight months now, but I had a realization today that inspired me to go online to chronicle it.

First, some backstory: Starting grad school has been, on the whole, wonderful. I've made friends, joined clubs, and have generally integrated really well. One aspect of this experience, however, has been difficult: my courses. First semester was challenging, but this second semester, I feel completely swamped by my workload and the expectations in my classes. It doesn't help that I'm being required to learn a new programming language as I eke through the assignments for one extremely difficult and one moderately difficult class (my third class is in my area of research, and it's cake!). For about three months now, I've been considering what life would be like if I were to just get a job. I could go home at night and not worry about my work after hours; I could be making real money; I could be doing things that actually matter. There were some late nights where I was giving real thought to whether or not I will be able to finish the PhD, if I'm having so much difficulty right off the bat. I've been feeling bad about my skills, feeling way behind my classmates (even the undergrads!) and just plain feeling down.

Today, as I was waiting for the elevator after class, it hit me: Right now, I'm being asked to do things I'm not good at (programming, in particular) and that's difficult for me, but that's not what grad school is about! In fact, grad school is about training to be a researcher, which requires much more than programming skills; it requires clear communication for writing grants and papers, a creative mind for designing experiments and working through research questions, and sociability for collaborating and sharing results. Just because I'm struggling with taking classes, does not mean I'm going to struggle through the rest of grad school. In fact, this is just a small portion of the experience, and these skills I have trouble with are not the most important ones for my future in academia. I'm getting better at programming through this experience, but even if I never become an ace programmer (and I'm fairly sure I won't), there's still a lot of hope for my career as a researcher.

Getting to that understanding was a major boost to my outlook. I feel better about myself and my place in a PhD program. And now, back to homework!