Grad school is hard. Most who have been there would agree. The long hours are draining to be sure, but that’s not the hardest part. It’s the constant requirement to prove – that your hypothesis is correct (or incorrect) and why, that your work is meaningful, that you are capable of thinking independently, that you can tackle a challenge and persevere, and above all that you’ve truly earned your degree. There are many hoops to jump through, many hurdles and pitfalls, but on the other side of this lengthy obstacle course awaits accomplishment, and if you’re lucky, you’ll make some great friends along the way.
I entered my doctoral program at the University of North Carolina with the vigor of a burgeoning scientist. Although I had four years of experience at the National Institutes of Health and a solid research background, I quickly found that I still had much to learn. That knowledge was irresistible – I just needed to know. It felt like I had all the secrets of the world at my fingertips, tangible and malleable like play dough. I absorbed it all quickly – I think I learned more in my first year of grad school than I did in all of undergrad. The rapidity with which we were required to absorb complex scientific principles, drawing connections between them and building upon each layer the following day, was an intoxicating task that inevitably led to more questions, more possibilities.
In addition to coursework, our first year involved laboratory rotations, in which I focused solely on virology. I ended up joining Dr. Ronald Swanstrom’s team to study reservoirs of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) harbored within bodily tissues of people who died from HIV/AIDS complications. I contributed to a research paper and a review, wrote a grant proposal to qualify as an official Ph.D. candidate, and authored a section in the Encyclopedia of AIDS, a comprehensive reference book for HIV/AIDS researchers and clinical professionals. To be published in a book was an invaluable experience and a pivotal one that reinforced my love of writing.
Through these experiences, I discovered that my path was not as concrete as I had once thought – to do research in grad school, then in a post-doctoral fellowship and beyond. True, I had spent a few more years at the bench than my classmates, so I had more time to tire of it, but when I’m honest with myself, I realize that I had always wanted to write. After spending a few years entrenched in my primary research project, I decided to take the plunge into writing. By that point, I had fulfilled the requirements for a Masters Degree and laid the foundation for future work on my project. I completed my thesis, privately and publicly defended, and graduated. To this day, I still experience moments of nostalgia for pipettes and test tubes, for my labmates whose guidance and support kept me going when times were tough – thank you so very much – and for that other road not followed. Yet, like the scientific process itself, in which we learn from each experiment, often changing our path based on new data, I know that I ended up exactly where I was meant to be.
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