Finding the right balance between coursework and research is critical to success in graduate studies, says Tolulope Morawo.
By the end of your first semester in graduate school, you may find yourself drowning in all sorts of emotional episodes if care is not taken. Often, the excitement and challenges that come with conducting research can be overwhelming. If you’re fortunate enough to have been offered a graduate research assistantship, the dual responsibilities of being a student and researcher can be tricky at first. It is imperative that new students balance that fine line until they become established.
In graduate degree programs where coursework and research activities are expected to run simultaneously, it’s not uncommon for new students to be enthusiastic about their research. I started my master’s in entomology in August 2011 at Auburn University, Alabama, USA and was offered a research assistantship right from the start. At the time, all I wanted to do was hit the ground running when it came to my research. Sounds awesome — but it became a problem when I ended up distracting myself from the “big” credit core courses I was taking. Course-related problems can get you thrown out of graduate school faster than research-related problems will — this happened to a few students that I know.
The not-so-obvious problem is with the graduate study system itself. In most cases, nobody really seems to know that you’re taking classes. Senior students, post-docs and faculty would often ask me about my research, but classes would be rarely mentioned.
My master’s research was broadly on plant-insect interactions. I knew that I would be working on parasitic wasps, but I had no idea how to start. Nevertheless, the pressure was on — I wanted to have something to say the next time someone asked me a question. When you’re under this kind of pressure, you start spending several hours digging the literature, studying protocols, shadowing a senior colleague, designing experiments and collecting preliminary data.
That doesn’t sound like a bad idea. In fact, these are the activities you’re expected to be engaged in. But what about those weekly quizzes, assignments, discussion papers, class projects, tests and exams? The fact is that some of those core courses can be so demanding that obtaining a decent grade means taking a step back from the research.
This is where effective time management becomes important. As much as you want to get up to speed on your research, you may want to consider taking those courses more seriously in your first semester, at the least. One of the courses I took in my first semester landed me with a “C” in the midterm exam. That was the turning point for me — I knew I had to pay more attention to that class and ease off on the research for a while.
Although graduating with a 4.0/4.0 GPA in graduate school may not count for much, starting with good grades will certainly boost your self-confidence. As a developing research scientist, you’ll need that self-confidence going forward. Foundational courses that teach the fundamentals of your discipline or train students on research and writing skills are self-evidently important. Looking back, I realize how important those core courses were to my understanding of the discipline.
Here’s the good news: most senior colleagues will tell you that coursework was not the biggest challenge of their graduate study. Coursework isn’t interesting to talk about, and it won’t make it into your 2-page CV. However, a bad grade will pitch its tent in your transcript forever. For many graduate students, taking classes is like buying an expensive electronic gadget, only to abandon it four months later. In my opinion, instructors should structure their courses to work towards giving students knowledge that will lay the foundations for the rest of their scientific career.
In the end, finding a personal work rhythm and managing your time wisely will not only cushion your landing in graduate school, but also help you finish in style.
Tolulope Morawo is a PhD Student and Graduate Research Assistant in the department of Entomology & Plant Pathology at Auburn University. His research focuses on insect behavior and chemical ecology of plant-herbivore-natural enemy interactions. You can view his research here.