Getting to Know Grad Students

Today I’d like to share some ideas that may seem less immediate than the mechanics of course enrollment and schedule planning, but have been a crucial part of my experience as a chemistry student at Cornell. I believe that one of the most informative resources in navigating the chemistry major does not come in the form of webpages or departmental brochures, but from the graduate students in the department.

Whether we recognize it or not, we’re actually surrounded by graduate students as we walk through the halls of Baker Lab. Although it might seem intimidating to talk to a grad student in settings such as office hours, I have found that grad students can offer a whole world of advice once that initial barrier of hesitation is overcome. Many of the grad students in the department are more than happy to tell stories about their research, explain what decisions brought them to where they are in their educations, and recall stories from their undergraduate days. It’s important to recognize that they’ve already solved many of the exact same problems that we’re encountering as undergraduates, and that many grad students are more than willing to help us figure those sorts of things out. Just like we are told to build professional relationships with our professors and advisors, I would suggest that the scope of an undergrad’s chemistry network at Cornell should also extend to graduate students.

It’s not uncommon for undergraduate students to get along with their TAs, but it’s important to continue that relationship after the semester ends. For example, I regularly find myself turning to some of my old TAs for advice by arranging to meet over lunch or on the phone. It is actually surprisingly easy to get in contact with a former TA, and it is even easier to get in contact with grad students working with you in a research lab setting. After I joined my current research group, I was surprised by how quickly and how genuinely I bonded with the junior and senior students in the lab. As mentioned above, many grad students have travelled the same paths that we are currently following, so I know that they can provide me with authentic perspectives on topics such as preparing for graduate school or envisioning what sort of career I would ultimately be most happy in. I do feel as though there is an understandable, but semi-arbitrary, barrier between the two populations of chemistry students, but there are many rewards to be reaped by undergrads if this barrier is bridged.

While I am only speaking from my experience, I strongly feel that there is currently not a strong culture of forming the undergraduate-graduate student bonds described above. The perspectives of graduate students are not only authentic, but they also in fact very accessible. They have been through the entire undergraduate experience, and can share their successes and failures with a sense of retrospect and maturity that we undergraduates may not be able to access. My advice to those looking for answers to questions about their current and future studies and professional goals is to actively seek these valuable perspectives.

Jon Meinhardt, ’22

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