JOIN MICELLA PHOENIX DeWHYSE--GRAD STUDENT EXTRAORDINAIRE--AS SHE MAKES HER WAY THROUGH GRAD SCHOOL IN MATERIALS SCIENCE AND ENGINEERING

I'm sure you've heard that song "What a difference a day makes, twenty-four little hours. ..." I can't tell you how true that song is. Fall semester was rough. Not always because the demands of those five classes got me down (which they did occasionally)--but mostly because my social life SUCKS.

There are so many things to figure out while in graduate school. One of them I discovered while chatting with the chair of another department. "Your department is your life." At the time, truer words had never been spoken. There was no social life within my department, and I had none outside the department. I wasn't having nearly as much fun as I had anticipated I would have.

Unlike our undergraduate years, where friends and associates came from all walks of life and disciplines and, more often than not, you've lived around these random people for a year or two, graduate studies seem to require a special kind of isolation. In this new isolated state, one engages in departmental gossip (because no one has anything better to talk about than the first years) and lives in the lab (because you want to get out into the real world one day and your advisor is itching for results). And so, graduate student life seems relegated to a kind of nonlife, a half-existence, shall we say, on the edge of the scientific earth.

Can you identify with me here?

For some graduate students this nonlife is perfection; they really don't like other human beings. So why waste time, they determine, interacting with people when there are experiments to run, programs to design, grant proposals to compose, chemicals to synthesize, and papers to write? Others (me for instance) need social interaction to stave off the insanity that extended isolation can bring. Some drink in hopes that doing so will lubricate their social juices and free them to exhibit amusing yet entirely inappropriate behaviors that quickly become the topic of departmental gossip.

This half-life existence of graduate students can be minimized in a number of ways; pick a school and department that has a socially active graduate student body; bring a significant other with you to graduate school; attend a school in a major metropolitan area; live in a graduate dorm; find friends in more socially active departments; join a gym or go to the gym on campus; become involved in the surrounding community; suck it up and plan social events yourself for the uninitiated in your department; and finally desperately seek someone--anyone--who will halfway understand your life, i.e., make real friends rather than acquaintances. Given some of my earlier decisions--I'm not going to change schools or departments--my choices have already been reduced, and I'm now limited to the last four options.

Playing the Game: Choose or Lose

One thing we must all remember in the process of applying to or situating ourselves in graduate school is that we do have a choice in the matter. Whether we exercise enough forethought in making that choice is the question. Now, with 20/20 hindsight, I'm not so sure I did. So, make sure you carefully choose the game piece and game board that you'd like to play. Know whether you're a checkers fan, a chess expert, or a Clue addict. Make sure you have enough conversations with current players to know if you'll fit into the game you've chosen, thereby increasing your odds of winning (or at least having fun) without increasing the amount of time you spend whining and complaining to friends. And if, like me, you find out after the fact that the game you've chosen is not quite perfect for you, make the best of the situation, because at least you'll be required to stretch and grow a little, and what's life without growth?

So, I made a friend, Larry, in the electrical engineering department, and found that his department has fun parties. (I'm not kidding!)

So, I joined a gym. Free doughnuts and pizza are not helping my figure (or my arteries). I've also learned that exercise in the morning, before classes and lab, wakes up my brain.

So, I joined a church. It has become my Sunday morning comfort zone, nourishing my spiritual needs. Going to church also connects me to something other than school. Next on my community engagement list is finding a theatre group in which I might participate.

And last fall, I planned a shopping excursion to the outlet malls (girls only, of course). I followed up this winter with a bowling night (although I can barely break 50 without bumpers) and weekly dessert feasts (okay that's nearly as bad as drinking but you don't wake up embarrassed and with a hangover). Oh, and I went dancing with some guys in my class. Some of the other students in the department are catching on slowly. One organized a snowboarding outing, so snowboarding here I come. (Imagine that--a Black woman on a snowboard! Almost as good as a Black woman winning bobsled Gold!)

I'm still working on that last option--finding someone who'll understand. But as the new semester starts, the pressure mounts to get working in the lab, and my qualifying/cumulative exams approach, I'm not sure how successful that will be.

So, off I go, creating my new life. Wish me luck. ...

Micella Phoenix DeWhyse welcomes your comments and letters of support. You can write her at Micella_Phoenix_DeWhyse@hotmail.com.

Former science graduate student and postdoc Micella Phoenix DeWhyse wrote a column for Careers from 2002 through 2008. Micella Phoenix DeWhyse is still a pseudonym. Discussions on the , , , or e-mails to the editor at snweditor@aaas.org or to micella.phoenix.dewhyse@gmail.com are welcome, as she is considering turning her columns into a book.