Life of a Grad Student: The Aerial View

Graduate Division

“I think the most important thing to understand is that life occurs regardless of you being a graduate student or not, and the science still needs to happen,” a fifth-year student observed during an October interview.

Our own pursuit of this understanding propelled the launch of the “Life of a Grad Student” column in September 2013. The graduate student writers at Synapse wanted to put a spotlight on the Graduate Division, the largest school at UCSF, and put a metaphorical face to the individuals spending so much of their lives in these halls. We wanted to highlight their tribulations and their triumphs, our differences and our similarities.

To this end, we have been interviewing students from each year in graduate school. They have shared with remarkable candidness their struggles to choose a lab, prepare for qualifying exams and select a career path. The responses have been funny, surprising, heartbreaking and inspiring.

One of the recurring themes throughout all years of graduate school was the difficulty of balancing a personal life with the unique demands of lab work.

As the wise fifth year said in October, life happens, and that’s okay. We are busy graduate students who need to get our work done, but we’re people first. We like rock-climbing and live music and we train for marathons. We struggle with chronic illnesses and deaths in the family and fall in love.

How do you manage all of that and also come into lab at 2 a.m. Saturday for a time point? Synapse wants to find out by digging even deeper into the secret lives of grad students. But before we do that, we want to take a step back and look at the Graduate Division as a whole.

In preparation for this column, we sent a survey to every student in the Graduate Division and nearly a quarter of these students responded. We asked questions like, “What year did you begin your program?” and “Describe your experience in one word.” Over the past year, we have been interviewing the students who provided these responses.

We compared the demographics of this population to that of the Graduate Division in an infographic. The majority of responses came from Biomedical Sciences and Tetrad students, the largest programs in the Graduate Division.

Perhaps surprisingly, there are more female than male graduate students, and there are even more females represented in the survey responses. Most responses also came from second- and third-year graduate students.