On Transitioning into Graduate Life, One Year In

This is a post that's more about what's going on in my life right now, so if you would have liked to see a software review or an otherwise more technical/generally topical post, fear not! That shall come in at least one more post this month. This post is more about some thoughts I've had about mentally and socially transitioning to life in graduate school after a little over a year in it, so I just hope that anyone going through a similar transition may find this even mildly interesting. Follow the jump to see more.

A little over a week ago, I traveled to MIT to visit friends, relax, and decompress over a weekend and a Monday. The previous two months had been quite busy and productive, and that weekend happened to be the beginning of my fall break. (Of course, as a graduate student, I couldn't justify taking the entire week off, so I came back after that Monday to work the rest of the week.) Moreover, just before my trip, I had a week-long take-home midterm exam for MAT 321 — Numerical Methods. It was a very long and tough exam, and I felt fried at the end of it; in particular, where solving problems for the problem sets for that class would usually feel rewarding and would get me to think a bit more about the problems in general afterward, finishing that midterm just gave me relief about the midterm being over, and I didn't really want to think about classes at all for a while. Given that, I felt even more justified in taking a break for a few days. I did it to see close friends from college whom I hadn't seen in months, and in many cases in over a year, as I made a similar trip around the same time last year.

Seeing those friends was a great experience, and I definitely was able to relax and decompress as I wanted. Yet, I also noticed, upon comparing my thoughts about this recent trip to the similar one that I made a year ago, that I don't really miss MIT as a place anymore. I feel like when I went last year, a lot of my close friends were still on campus, and the campus itself otherwise looked pretty much the same as when I had graduated, so coming back at that time 5 months after graduating made it feel like I hadn't quite left. At the same time, I hadn't really settled into Princeton mentally or socially at that time. In a sense, I was then almost in denial that I had moved to a different university, so the nostalgia rushed in. This time, though, I didn't really feel any of that nostalgia; MIT didn't really feel like my campus anymore. I think a large part of that was that I don't really know that many students on campus anymore, so I felt more like an outsider being on that campus (except for being able to meet the faculty and other staff that I know). In addition, it was interesting to see my conception of the MIT campus turned upside-down with all the construction activity going on now (that, for the record, wasn't going on a year ago); a lot of the familiar classrooms and other spaces had been reconstructed, and a lot of my favorite routes around campus were impossible to take due to construction blocking those paths. Those two things (more so the first, but also to a degree the second) quickly showed that I had indeed moved on. In particular, being in Princeton for a year has helped me settle in mentally and socially, and having been part of a research group since January has especially helped with that, in that I've been able to see myself mature intellectually into something closer to (but still not quite absolutely close to) an independent researcher as opposed to an undergraduate student still taking classes. Moreover, in the past year, I've socially settled into a good group of friends in and around my department. Overall, then, I really do feel like a Princeton graduate student, as opposed to an MIT undergraduate student who hasn't quite moved on.

Of course, I still do miss being around my close friends from college, and I anticipated fairly early on that I wouldn't be able to form relationships of the same degree of closeness [as I did in college] after college. While I know I have a good group of friends at Princeton, I'm seeing more that we're becoming busier; also, given that we're not living close together (like undergraduate students would be) and that we're generally not in the same research groups, I feel like our social group is atomizing to some degree, and hanging out is happening less frequently. All that means though is that we just have to keep pushing to spend time together, against the inertia of graduate school (both in terms of living separately in different apartments as well as working separately in highly specialized fields) that tends to keep people apart, and I do think we're capable of that. As for my friends from college, the wonders of technology (i.e. phone, text messaging, instant messaging, video chat) allow us to keep in touch easily, so all we have to do is commit to it and not lose touch out of complacency; again, I think that I at least am capable of that. Plus, if nothing else, Boston is easy enough for me to visit once in a year for the next few years that I'm in Princeton.