My graduate student career is drawing to a close, and as such this will be my final post to this blog as a graduate student. In this post, I want to share some brief words of wisdom that have been very helpful to me when making important decisions over the past five years. During my graduate student orientation, I attended many information sessions on a variety of topics, but the one memorable comment was made by an experienced graduate student (not in mathematics) who said to all of us “you are an exceptional student but you are probably not the exception.”
As an undergraduate, being an exceptional student is being the exception. A typical undergraduate student body consists of students with a diverse set of talents, both academic and non-academic. Those that excel in math (for example) and choose to pursue it professionally are characteristically atypical and, as such, expect themselves to assume atypical amounts of responsibility and endure atypical levels of adversity. The experienced student’s words of wisdom to us were meant to caution us beginners that in graduate school this would no longer be the case. Being a good student no longer makes a student exceptional in graduate school. Almost all graduate students were exceptional undergraduate students, and all of them share a certain devotion to their particular field of study.
The student’s advice has been very helpful in both making decisions and defining my expectations as a graduate student. For example, when enrolling in courses each term, I aimed to strike a balance between learning interesting math through coursework and making time for research. It is always tempting to sign up for every interesting course I see, but I remembered this student’s advice and realized that the most successful advanced graduate students in my department were often enrolled in very few courses and it seemed unlikely that I was an exception to this phenomenon. The student’s advice is meant to encourage students to emulate those who came before them with similar ambitions. As graduate students, we are in charted waters and have available to us the advice and experience of mentors whose success we hope to achieve.
If I had to add my own advice on graduate school based on my own experience, it would be simply this: work as hard as you can.