Voices of Experience: Why I Loved Grad School

My greatest fear transitioning into graduate school was self-doubt: Am I smart enough to really do this? As an undergraduate, I struggled with understanding much more than the first few paragraphs in scientific papers, much less following the logical conclusions in the results section and making sense of the materials and methods.

Reflecting back on my relative inexperience as a scientist, my greatest pleasure in graduate school has been transitioning from being a complete novice in my field to becoming a published author with some expertise, albeit still growing. Hard work, persistence, and even some luck all have gone into building my skill set, but I think one of the most important factors has been a passion for my field.

Graduate school can really only be described as an act of love. This may seem surprising given that textbooks and scientific papers are written in an almost sterile manner. But go to any thesis defense and listen, not so much to the content of the talk but rather to how the student presents it. Reactions, crystal structures, and microscopy images— any type of data, really— are presented objectively… but approached almost as if they were great paintings.

I have even heard a fellow student describe J-coupling on an NMR spectrum as “beautiful.”

The passion for improving not only my scholarship but also my craft as a scientist is what drives me to stay up all night monitoring a reaction or even spend hundreds of hours on microscopy to consistently reproduce the one perfect image. I think I asked the wrong question when I started graduate school. The question I should have asked was not, “Am I smart enough?” but rather, “Am I passionate enough?”

About the Author

Nathan Cook
was a graduate student at Rice University. His research focused on the interaction of metal complexes with amyloid proteins.