So this is me penning down the highlights of one crazy year of MS in the USA.
I’m writing this in the hope that it inspires students who are struggling with their MS, and need a pep talk.
So if you are one of them, or just someone else looking for some advice on tackling life in the USA, read on.
Phase 1: The Beginning
I had applied to 7 US universities, out of which Iowa State was one of my top choices.
After a heartbreaking three rejections and my MS dreams almost going up in smoke (My rejections were all from ‘Safe’ universities), I finally got a postal mail telling me I got admission in Iowa State University.
My joy was beyond words.
I was ecstatic, and for a good reason, since I wanted to go to the US to pursue my MS and perhaps a Ph.D. in civil engineering.
The three hard months sitting at home, killing flies and fearing the worst was over. I also got an admit from NCSU (North Carolina State University) and was shortlisted for the Young India Fellowship Program, one year fully funded liberal arts program in Delhi, one of India’s most prestigious fellowships for youth leadership, in the coming weeks.
Well, that was a lot of good given my long and anguishing wait for some good news. So three tempting choices (you might feel an engineer heading for a liberal arts program is weird, but I was really into leadership initiatives back then) and only one to pick.
NCSU was a better school, the YIF was tempting and a fun prospect, giving me a chance to hone my other talents for a year, as well as add gloss to my resume.
It was then that a voice at the back of my head told me…’ Pick Iowa State..please‘. I listened to my gut. Iowa State it was!
Part 2: The first months in Iowa State
Let me be honest. The first month in the US was hard.
There was the jetlag, which made me feel homesick initially.
Then there was the money, which gave me sleepless nights (I was unfunded and had to pay 100% of the tuition, a pretty significant amount) and my roommates were both Ph.D. students and were not too keen on cutting corners on food.
I had my mindset on a professor at my department for months but did not mail him back when I was in India since I wanted to speak to him in person. I wanted to work with him, even though he seemed without funding.
I managed to get a meeting with him and told him I would like to work for him for free since I wanted his research work amongst all the other professors. He agreed, saying he would evaluate my class and research performance( I was taking a class with him) and decide from there.
I was mentally prepared to go a month without funding. I did not apply for a part-time job, despite my friends calling me crazy for working for free and not speaking to other professors.
I was steadfast: I wanted to work with this prof and this prof alone, and an on-campus job would take away my study time.
Part 3: The Ups of Grad Life
September 6th, 2014. The professor who I spoke of above corners me after our research meeting and told me he’d found me a quarter-time RA!
I am overjoyed. Perseverance pays off.
To add to that, I get a fantastic deal on my graduating friends Volkswagen Passat sedan (Used Card Buying Guide for Students). I am the first Indian from my batch to own a car. I felt like I was at the pinnacle of awesomeness
Part 4: Reality
So I was now an RA. My prof put me on a project which he was starting up, which needed the grant to become a fully funded one. I had a year of funding to get results and bag grants. I was game for the challenge.
I also had a rigorous professor for one of my subjects who made learning very stressful.
He gave me poor grades on our first midterm and advised me to drop his class.
I promised to buck up. The first semester saw me taking three courses (one of them I had touched upon in undergrad) and research work. It seemed manageable. That was when reality struck.
I for one, was never a very organized person back in undergrad. Then again, most of us are not, as we have one final examination we study for, and that counts for 100% of your grade. Then theres the chilled out engineering hostel life attitude that followed me to the US. I was aware of it, but shaking it off my back was going to take work and effort, which I was short of at that time.
The class which I was struggling in was linked to another class I was taking. To put it, I had to drop both of the courses, something my department did not allow.
I had to cope with a course, where the chance to get Passing grade was bleak, and deal with two other courses side by side. Then to make matters worse, I fell Ill with fever on the day of the midterm, of course, no 2, not a hard one like course no 1, but my feverish brain did not let me answer well, and I flunked it.
Cause: Stress due to Course 1.
Also, my research work was going wrong, I did not have time to work in the lab due to me having to play catch up in my coursework, and I didn’t have the easiest of projects. It had an outcome that was just not practical with any methodology I came up.
We had poor research results, and my advisor was not happy.
We were behind on time too. I started wondering whether
I would have been better off at NCSU or as a Young India Fellow for a liberal arts program.
Part 4: Letting go
By that time, I was emotionally drained. I had a nervous breakdown and sought counseling advice. Meditation helped make things easier.
I decided: To hell with course 1 (The one with the mean professor and poor grades) and focus on saving my classes in the other courses.
The result: One F in course one which killed my GPA, but helped me make it through the semester mentally in one piece.
I was working harder on my research and coming up with solutions to my research dilemma, though nothing worked. I still soldiered on, thinking good days will come. I just let go.
To my relief, my professor extended my RA for another semester.
Semester 2 meant more challenges:
Improve my GPA and fast!.
I registered for two courses and worked hard all semester.
I joined academic counseling and was gifted with a gem of a counselor who was able to give me back my lost confidence in getting good grades.
I realized I was an excellent MATLAB coder and managed to provide solutions which impressed the instructor in one of my classes.
I managed to earn good grades on the other.
Things were getting better.
Part 5: The Summer
Nearing the end of my spring semester, my advisor called me over to his office. [highlight]He told me, to my dismay, that he was out of funds for me.[/highlight] We did not get the grant we needed.
I would have to find another source of funding. Professor told me to wrap up my research: One more month of lab work, and write my thesis on whatever I had. He told me to graduate as soon as I could since he would not be able to support me from now. To put it, he had lost faith: In the project and me.
Common sense would tell you to move on. To find a summer job and make some money for the fall.
To find an internship.
I did the opposite: I continued to work, unfunded, on my research. I did not take up a part time job. People called me a fool.
Then, one evening, I had to head back to the lab after dinner to turn off some equipment. I was at the end of my research deadline and was giving my work one last-ditch attempt to get some good results.
It was then that I decided to turn on my office computer and do some reading up. I decided to clear my mind on what I knew about the obstacles in my research and look at other areas for solutions.
Now I’m not going to explain technical jargon that would take up how I was able to stumble upon something, but it just happened.
Then and there: A highly possible solution.
Something I had wanted to try a year ago but brushed it off thinking I’d be wasting my time.
I tried it out: And it worked.
It was novel and something no one had thought of before.
My research was back on track.
I spoke to my advisor that week, and he was a changed person. He no longer looked at me with disdain, but with a newfound faith.
He said I could continue for my Ph.D. if my project gets the funding it needs. Another professor I was taking a class within the summer agreed to be my co-advisor and co-fund me if the proposals went well.
My professor’s had faith in me. Again!
I was no longer a victim of ill luck. My MS was back on track.
As of now, I still do not have funding conformed, but will hope for the best. Things were rough out there for a while, but they worked out in the end!
Part 6: Experiences
So a year on, here is what my MS journey taught me
1. Perseverance. Plain and simple: Don’t give up.
2. Stick to your guns and walk the lonely road: People called me stupid for sticking to my advisor when he couldn’t fund me despite working hard. I stuck on. I did not look for an on-campus summer job, which would not have given me the space to think of a solution to my long-standing research problem.
3. Organize: What helped me catch up academically was me starting to organize things. Google calendar is your best friend
4. Treat time as an investment. Save it for what’s most important: I am not against grad students working part-time on campus. Not everyone had the opportunity to have their tuition waived off for a year. But trust me, the time you will save, for the sake of a few hundred bucks, is a considerable investment. Something you will thank yourself for down the line.
5. Live in the moment: I was worried about the future for a bulk of my first year in the US. Counseling and meditation taught me that if you have a positive outlook and work proactively towards your goals, life finds away. Yes, it does. It took me to the depths of hell to realize this. It took me to lose my RA and the belief that I would finish my MS, to learn that life happens for you, not just to you. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger! And nothing is a better medicine for life’s worries than taking things one day at a time. Jim Carry, the famous American actor, and comedian, says:
You can spend your whole life fearing ghosts and dreading about the pathway to the future, but all there will ever be is this moment, the now, that will decide and determine how your future plays out.
6. Have faith.
Steve Jobs once said, ‘You can only connect the dots of your life looking backward, not forwards. You need to trust your gut, faith, karma, anything, that things will work out in the future’. Enough said.
‘You can only connect the dots of your life looking backwards, not forwards. You need to trust your gut, faith, karma, anything, that things will work out in the future. (Steve Jobs)
I write this here out of optimism.
I am yet to be out of the woods, as I still have no confirmed source of funding.
Things look good though, with research back on track, and the possibility of a Ph.D.
This goes out to anyone having a hard time at the moment, not just an MS student.
“Persevere, Work hard, keep the faith, and things will work out.
I am all set for another year, and the ups and downs that my MS adventure at Iowa State will bring me. This time, I come prepared!
Author: Following article was written by Graduate student, Irvin Pinto from Iowa State University.