Being a new graduate student at Northwestern University

Edited by Joao Moreira

Last year was a big change for me. I became a graduate student and I moved from Seoul, Korea to Evanston, U.S.A. Transforming both my career, life style and culture has been both stressful and exciting.

I chose to come to Northwestern because, as eager as I was to come to one of the best research universities in the world, I also wanted to explore the world and experience other cultures, and I thought Northwestern could provide me both. In addition to having an outstanding research environment, the university and its surroundings would let me experience an abundant and enriched culture.

In the first quarter, before joining a lab, my main concern has been getting good grades and finding a lab that I will enjoy working at for the rest of my grad school years, which was more like being an undergraduate than a graduate student. And I thought all my problems would end as soon as I get over with those two. But unsurprisingly, questions about your life never end and starting research also made me think of some of the questions and I have been trying to answer them since.

The biggest question is the expectation of being a graduate student. How much should I push myself in order to say I had a good five years by the time I get my degree? Although it may seem like a simple question, it can be very tricky to answer: graduate students are students, but at the same time the school is also your work place. If you are an undergraduate student, your minimum responsibility is to pass the class. Everything else is your choice. It is up to you whether you are going to join a club or do homework and you have a flexible timetable. Also your ‘jobs’ as a student, such as internship and extra curricular activities helps you to improve yourself. If you are working at a company, the company tells you what to do and your job is to finish it within the time limit, and your work is focused on the corporate development rather than yours. I think being a graduate student is little bit of both. The research you do at the lab is your job but at the same time also your personal development.

I think, as you get older you have more things to do and it gets harder to figure out how to do all of them. My everyday tasks are doing research, go to classes, read papers and as you know even if you have perfect schedule on your calendar, it never works out. And as a human being you have to see your friends and relax from time to time. To do all of these 24 hours a day seems a little insufficient. I got an advice from a very well organized friend to plan my day the night before and be specific about what I am going to do. This helped me greatly although I need to not overestimate my capability and have more realistic schedule.

The last thing I want to talk about is about being a data researcher. As I started working with data, I felt like there were just too many factors and models to fit the data to and my assumptions were only a part of what really caused the result. It is not just plugging in variable into equations and expecting the right answer. I must have intuitions of what the data represents and at the same time know how to prove my logic quantitatively. This requires lot of experience and learning. And the only way that I can do this is to read as much as possible and be curious about what other people are doing in this field.

I feel that by being a graduate student at Northwestern University, I can explore my capability and extend my limits as a researcher as a person. Fortunately I have 4 more years to learn and have many good people around me to ask for advice.