Astronomy Sophomore Alysha Shugart
Like numerous other people, at any stage in his or her life, I have only a vague idea of what I'll choose to devote my life to. When I was in grade school, I knew that college was in my future. While growing up, I considered every career and field of study, from medicine to computers, sky-diving instruction to oceanography, but I knew that I was going to attend college. It was in high school that I decided the sciences were my calling, and it was even earlier than that when I discovered astronomy fascinated me.
That was a start, but shortly after I began attending undergraduate school, the idea of attending graduate school was burrowing itself in my thoughts. I understood that it would open up infinitely many more opportunities for fields in astronomy and physics, but I had a million questions. It was in October of 2007 that I heard about this program, and, as fate in all its beauty would have it, I was also enrolled in my first astronomy course. My mentor, an astronomy graduate student, and the teacher's assistant for the course, generously agreed to clear some of the fog surrounding the mystery of graduate school.
My mentor and I devised a schedule that would be primarily concerned with answering my questions concerning admittance and preparation for graduate school, and those more important questions concerning whether it was for me. I attended astronomy colloquiums weekly, ranging on topics from planetary science to theoretical cosmology. The field of astronomy has so many subsidiary branches of study and research, my mentor and I felt that the most beneficial thing for me would be to get a light exposure to everything. I was able to speak to researching scientists about their lives and their work, and I wasn't surprised to learn that if requires a lot of tedious computer work, an open mind, and an even larger capacity of patience. However, I found that every person I spoke to had a strong sense of pride for their work, and happily committed themselves to their research, despite the sometimes overwhelming consequences of a life devoted to astronomy. As the semester progressed, I quickly decided that an active research career was my calling, and that graduate school was looking like the best way to follow it.
After each of the lectures I attended throughout the week, I met with my mentor and talked to her about what it would take to get in to graduate school, and what it would take to be a graduate student. I was very surprised to learn how different it is from undergraduate school. From the schedule my mentor has, it can best be described as having a full-time job, while attending classes and having excessive amounts of homework, without getting paid. Her research is an enormous time commitment. She hardly has time for summers, while undergraduates have the option of leaving it free. She committed herself to a career before she had her graduate degree.
The more time I spent talking to my mentor and faculty members and research scientists, I learned that the work of graduate school was going to begin before I got there. Research is going to be a crucial part of my undergraduate studies, and beginning as early as possible is important. Throughout the semester, my mentor found the time to introduce me to her faculty supervisors, and a few of their colleagues, some of whom have research projects that involve undergraduate participation. I was pointed in the right direction about what classes I should take before finding a project. One of the major things I hadn't considered before was the importance of being somewhat technologically competent, and I was recommended to scientific programming courses that would help me get a project later. My goals became more concise as the semester continued, and I found that my interest for the subject grew simply because I was immersed in it.
The meetings throughout the semester revealed quite a bit more than I saw at the time. The first meeting, I was like everyone else: a stranger in a room full of strangers. Everyone had a different story and a different desire. I spoke to the students in my group, and became acquainted with an senior engineering major who had managed to find a project, a freshman liberal arts major who planned on graduating early and going immediately into law school, and a communications major who knew exactly what she wanted. I was nervous at first, because it seemed that everyone but me had at least a good idea about what they needed to do, and more importantly, what they wanted to do. Then, I spoke to more students and learned that many were in the same boat as me. They did not have a clue about graduate school, or what specific studies would be the best for them. I was strangely comforted by this, and became more aware of the fact that I was not alone in my confusion. I had panicked about my career indecision before, but I am now open to the fact that I have more time to explore before I make a commitment than I had previously thought.
The third meeting, when the graduate students came and answered questions, I found to be quite revealing as well. Even though there were no researching-science graduate students at the meeting, I did get the opportunity to speak to a student who was going for her masters in mathematics. She and I had an interesting conversation about the possibilities of getting into interesting research through mathematics, and opened my mind to more prospects of research. It's not all done in a lab coat, and it's not all dull. She told me about mathematics in theoretical astrophysics, and especially in the early stages of the universe. She is just an example of one of the many encounters I have had this semester that have made me aware of possibilities I would not have considered otherwise.
This meeting was also important to learning about another concern I had. I felt, initially, that if I were to go into graduate school, I would lock-in my decision, and could only continue my education if I attended immediately. I was worried that I wouldn't go back to school if I decided to take a break. I needed to feel like I could take a professional job after graduating from college, to experience the workforce and make a little money to continue my studies. Listening to the graduate students speak about their experiences, even though many of them were in communications and liberal arts studies, put me at ease quite a bit. I was surprised to hear many, if not all, of them advocating a break between undergraduate and graduate school to explore other things, and to work other jobs. This was a relief to me, in a sense, to know that I would have the option to go back later, especially if I had burned out after my undergraduate studies.
Despite the numerous undergraduate and graduate students I have spoken to throughout the semester, I still could not cope with the fact that I did not have any original ideas about what I could contribute to astronomy research. I struggle because I don't know which project I should choose, or if I would have to commit myself to a specific field of astronomy if I happened to work on a project now. One of the most revealing conversations I had this semester was with Dr. Craig Wheeler. He did not even decide on a career in astronomy until he was in graduate school, and let his personality lead his choices. He told me that my career path was probably going to be like his: a pretzel rather than a straight line. With a little bit of luck, a lot of determination, and a good amount of time following his nose, Dr. Wheeler found himself doing what he loved. My interview with him- the second assignment for this course- served as an awakening to me. It was more comforting that someone as distinguished as him began the same way I am now: confused and somewhat lost.
Another common factor among nearly everyone I spoke to, from graduate students to faculty, is that they had found a balance between research, school- attending classes or teaching them- and their other interests. Among my primary concerns for attending graduate school was regret for the time I knew I was going to lose. My eclectic taste in everything has led me to take courses like Russian history or complex variables, and I have worked, while attending school, as a legal clerk, a lifeguard and a receptionist, to name a few. I'll kayak on Town Lake one day, and watch television the next. I worried that I would not have the chance to do the things I enjoy if I went to graduate school. I learned quickly that, though all of the students I spoke to have hectic schedules, they all found time to enjoy other things, as well as what they were studying. My mentor still finds the time to play informal sports, and still takes classes for pure enjoyment. Dr. Wheeler told me in my interview with him that he always wanted to be a novelist, and though he has not written any lengthy works of fiction, he still finds time to enjoy it as a hobby. He doubts that anything will be published in the future, but is very proud of what he does, even though it was not where he initially envisioned himself.
All of my activities do not have a lot in common, and I know that as I get further and further into a research career, that I will not have all the time I want to learn everything I want to know. Even within astronomy, the research can get so specific, that it narrows the window of exposure to all of the other fields. To say that astronomy fascinates me is a vague statement, but I feared being faced with the task of winnowing away my other interests to study only certain astronomical phenomena. I discovered that many graduate students and professors felt this way at first, but were still able to learn just by talking to colleagues about their respective studies, or by attending everything from guest lectures at their school to international conferences. No one felt they were missing out on other interests because there would always be someone from whom they could learn.
I wasn't able this semester to actually participate in any conventional research, but this mentorship served as my own research project. I devoted a lot of my time to attending lectures to learn about what kinds of research were available in my field, talking to students and professors about their lives and experiences, and discovering everything I could about the process, the benefits, the commitment, and the life of graduate school. I was eager to take notes at the lectures I attended. I have plans to keep them for years and use them as a reference. I did not shy away from the opportunity to meet someone new, or to ask questions, as dumb as they seemed at the time.
Graduate school had always seemed like and unreality. After this semester, I found that it wasn't a necessity or a luxury, but a commitment and passionate devotion to the study. Graduate school is a door that opens to a hallway, full of more doors, stretching on almost endlessly. It allows for a substantially more expansive path of discovery, which requires an immense obligation that begins as early as undergraduate school. After this mentorship, I've found that, despite everything it requires- the work, the time, and the knowledge- continuing my education at a graduate school is the best path for me, even though it may look like a pretzel.