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A compilation of stories, telescopes, internship resources, and other things radio astronomy.

Recap: Term 1

Graduate School: Applying, Living, Thesising

The Professional Student is a blog about everything grad school from the application process to my experiences living as a grad student, being a parent in grad school, and researching the role of chemistry in the evolution of our universe.

Recap: Term 1

Olivia Wilkins

Wow. I've survived my first term of graduate school. If we work out the math, assuming the average completion time of a Caltech PhD student in Chemistry at 5.7 years (i.e. roughly 23 terms), then I am 4.3% of the way to holding a doctorate! That's... well... it's something!

So far, I'm ecstatic that I chose Caltech for grad school. Ever since embarking on my 2900+ mile move across the U.S. (after an approximately 4000 mile move from Köln, Germany), Pasadena has felt like home, providing both comfort and challenges.

Here are some of the highlights.

Pasadena is a great place to live... once you get over the high cost. Alex likes to remind me that we could have rented a three-bedroom house with garage and large backyard elsewhere for less than what we pay for our two-bedroom apartment where we have to park next door, but don't let him fool you; we both love our apartment and living in Pasadena. The occassional envy we have of our friends with large, modern kitchens is quickly remedied by a look at the winter weather forecast for south-central PA. When we first moved here, I shared some of my first impressions of the city, and many of them remain the same. The weather is still awesome, with our coldest nights just reaching the 40s (°F). We still love Trader Joe's, and it still reminds us of the multiple small grocery runs we made each week while living in Germany. We've seen lots of parrots; around 9:00 in the morning, they've been squawking about loudly over breakfast in the many trees that line the streets. Pasadena's tall palm trees still make us feel like we're on vacation. And traffic isn't as horrible as what I expected. Not that it matters because we usually walk to get coffee or to go to the store.

I'm done with most of my coursework. At Caltech, chemistry grads need to take five courses by the time they apply for candidacy (think of it as grad students have two years of probation during which they need to show they both want and are able to go for a PhD), three of which I took last term. With Elements of Quantum Chemistry (Ch 125a), Atomic and Molecular Processes in Astronomy and Planetary Sciences (Ay/Ge 132), and Social Media for Scientists (Bi/Ch/ChE/E 107) on my transcript, I've learned a lot about the science behind the research I'll be doing over the next five years as well as gained insights into how to communicate it. Sure, the problem sets could be challenging (read: brutal), but I learned a lot about the theory and practice of spectroscopy. Sure, I had six assignments for my three courses due over the last two weeks of term, but I never have to do that again and am rewarding myself by taking it easy with one full course in each of the next two terms.

I joined a research group. Specifically, I've joined the Blake astrochemistry group. I. Am. Exhilerated.

And... I joined the group with an awesome human being: Cam. From a chance-meeting on the first day of orientation and taking two classes together to planning to co-teach a tutorial on astrochemistry, I'm so happy to "seem simpatico" (as our advisor put it) with a wonderful officemate, astrochemistry/telescope enthusiast, and all-around lover of all things space (even if Cam does encourage Alex's almost excessive demands for coffee breaks, frozen yogurt, and take-out).

Cam and me, about to turn in our graduate advisor selection forms.

I had my dream TAing job. This term, I was the TA for Ch/ChE 91: Scientific Writing. Since I loved being a writing center tutor at Dickinson, this was the perfect fit for me. I had lots of fun working with the students, and I also enjoyed thinking about writing specifically in the science (rather than more generally as I had during my writing center days). Combining insights from my three years as a writing tutor and those from the CTLO, including the 4th Annual Teaching Conference, I advised my students on different aspects of the writing process: reading scientific articles, writing scientific perspectives, and peer review.

Being a mother in grad school is much more fun than I thought it would be. More on this in a later post, but not only is me having a family accepted, it is actively welcomed at Caltech. From having two women's lounges/lactation rooms in the same building as my office (and others throughout campus) to having an advisor who is supportive of having kids in grad school, I have had a much more positive experience than your average media outlet would have me believe.

Sure, grad school is tough. I cursed plenty of problem sets this terms, and I cried to Alex about how stupid I felt more times than I'd like to admit. But overall, I had an awesome start to grad school. I have a wonderful family who supports me, an awesome friend who freaks out over anything astrochemistry with me, and I am at a great institution that (so far) supports me on all levels. I'm looking forward to smiling, laughing, pulling my hair out, etc. in Pasadena for the next 5+ years.

A link to "Mom, grad student" has been added under Being a mother in grad school is much more fun than I thought it would be.