Asked about how the experience of being an undergraduate student compares with that of being a graduate student, each of these students responds with parallel remarks about the added work, responsibility, and pressures, as well as the opportunity for autonomy in their research and the personal rewards gained from their work.
As an undergraduate student, for instance, Erica Racen recalls that while she went to classes and studied for exams, she felt she could “leave school at school.” Graduate school has been very different in that regard. Now finished with her coursework, she explains: “I don’t take classes anymore, so I am in the lab all day long. It’s fun!” Similarly, Amy Replogle recalls the biggest change she experienced in becoming a graduate student: “As an undergraduate, going to class was my job. When I came to MU for graduate school, this was reversed. While class is still important…my job has become my research project. So it is like having to go to school full time and having a full-time job. That balance was the hardest thing for me to get used to.”
Several individuals note that, as graduate students, they must be independent and self-motivated. Racen, for instance, describes her weekly routine: “I wake up every day and plan my own experiments. I decide what I need to get done, and I do the research. I have to think about it constantly to figure out what is the right experiment.” Brian Bostick agrees: “Graduate school is a lot more self-directed. When you are an undergraduate student, you take classes and tests. While you have some of that in graduate school, a lot of it involves learning on your own what you need to do your research, about the field, and where your research fits into it. At the same time, beyond the science, you are also working on your writing and communication skills to be able to present what you’ve learned.”
Andrew Cox likewise recalls having fewer responsibilities as an undergraduate student. Now finding and funding his own research, writing academic papers, and taking graduate-level classes, Cox finds himself being far busier than ever before. However, Cox appreciates the increased autonomy in his work: “I have an advisor, but I am essentially my own boss, and all the responsibilities that come with that keeps me busy.” Before coming to MU, Cox “worked at a desk in the corporate world.” He admits that there are times now when he wishes he could just go home and turn off his brain at 5:00 pm as before. “That doesn’t happen in graduate school,” says Cox, “because you are always struggling just to keep up with your work load. But I would never ever go back to what I was doing before. This is much more rewarding. I loved being an undergraduate student, but there are deeper rewards available to graduate students.”
While being a graduate student is a lot more work than being an undergraduate student, acknowledges Stevenson, “it is definitely worth it.” In fact, “it’s phenomenal; I’ve learned an insane amount in a short amount of time.”
All of these students agree that undergraduate and graduate school present two different learning styles and environments. While the former provides an introduction to the subject matter, “the questions and the problem-solving skills become more refined in graduate school,” suggests William Donald Thomas, whose advice for undergraduate students is as follows: “Regardless of your major, pay attention to those core classes that you take, for example, chemistry and general biology, because those are your foundations and will help you progress in graduate school.”