Venturing through Wonderland and Drowning in Coffee: The First-Year Experience

By Sara Freeman, with help from and on behalf of our first year class

Originally published December 2007.

Being a graduate student in your first semester pursuing your doctoral degree is like being Alice chasing the white rabbit through Wonderland. All of sudden, life starts passing by in a beautiful, confusing blur, and the only thing to blame for bringing you here is your incessant curiosity. You’re not sure what to pay attention to because everything seems to be critically important to your survival here. As you’re dashing to biochemistry in the morning, the white rabbit’s song rings true in your ears, “No time to say Goodbye, Hello! I’m late! I’m late! I’m late!”

dec12007

Somehow, it is blatantly obvious to everyone you meet that you’re a newcomer, and they feel immediately inclined to inform you about precisely what is going on. If it weren’t for Ron Calabre… oh, I mean, The Mad Hatter… you wouldn’t know what rules to follow in this odd, new world. The Frontiers in Neuroscience seminar series is like the Mad Hatter’s tea party, where nothing makes sense, but at least you get to share a midday snack with your fellow program members and faculty, who somehow understand the entire presentation and interact in the most intelligent way, while you sit dumbfounded.

But above all else, everyone is surprisingly welcoming, activities are entertaining, and people find any excuse to celebrate (“a Very Merry Unbirthday to you!”), especially when you run into the Tweedle Dees, Tweedle Dums, and Caterpillars in the program (you know who you are!).

Among all the distractions and the new friends, you are frequently reminded why you’re here- chasing the white rabbit (a.k.a. pursuing your Ph.D.). At the end of your time in Wonderland, after enduring the Queen of Hearts (when your workload is yelling “Off with her head!”), you realize how to survive in Wonderland and remember the words of the
Cheshire Cat: “Most everyone’s mad here. You may have noticed that I’m not all there myself!”

Luckily, we first-years haven’t gone completely mad yet. In an effort to be unnecessarily scientific, I conducted a short survey of our class. For any future graduate students reading this, your sleep schedule is bound to change significantly (Fig. 1), dec22007and, according to the
habits of our first year class, your caffeine intake will undoubtedly increase as well (Fig. 2).
Despite this dramatic shift in lifestyle, the majority of first-years reported a 4 or 5 on a 5-point scale of how comfortable we are in most aspects of our new lives in Atlanta (5 = very settled in and comfortable, 1 = very disoriented and uncomfortable), such as our living conditions, relationships with classmates, and feeling like a part of the program. There were no 1s or 2s reported in any surveyed aspects of our new lives, and the only aspect with 50% of us reporting “somewhat comfortable” was in getting around Atlanta.

dec32007As the guinea pigs for a newly required course entitled Techniques in Neuroscience, about half of us reported that it was helpful and would recommend that it be continued in subsequent years, although there were many specific criticisms on how it can be made better, the details of which I will not address here.

With credit to the Neuroscience Program’s inclusive spirit, all first-years who responded to the survey said that the people in the program made the transition to Atlanta easier, with almost 80% of first years reporting that it played a large role in easing their transition to grad school. In fact, 13 of the 14 first-years who responded to the survey report that overall, they feel happy/comfortable/satisfied with their choice of Emory and current
life in Atlanta, even if it means that we’ll be falling asleep in our coffee and chasing
our Ph.D. through Wonderland for the next 5+ years of our lives.

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