Things I like about being a graduate student (yes, really!)

StudentSpeak is pleased to share this guest post from Kelly Chacón, a fifth year Ph.D. student and president of the OHSU Graduate Student Organization.

Venting about what stinks about graduate school can be a really nice way to commiserate with my fellow graduate students – especially over a whiskey. Whether we talk about how hard it is to obtain an email reply from our advisors (or the double-edged sword that is their cryptic two-word response), or about how we are still sometimes treated like first-year undergrads while in our thirties, it can be really cathartic to share what makes grad school tough. And I don’t think we should ever stop sharing those things, whether face-to-face, or on our blogs. It’s real talk!

But on one sunny day a few weeks ago, when my experiments were going O.K., my caffeine levels had reached that perfect zone and my boss had given me some rare praise…I decided to consider what I like about grad school at OHSU. Because, actually? It’s a pretty good gig, and I think I sometimes forget that.

First off, I often forget the significance of the fact that I get paid to get my doctorate. Sometimes it’s important for me to let that sink in. And sure, if we look at my pay versus how many hours I work, the hourly wage is…not great. But! I love doing science, and at the end of this journey, I will have a doctorate, and I will get some kind of rewarding job – after all, I don’t really think most of us are in science for the money. It’s worth taking a loss on my immediate earning potential for these five years of school, even if just for the joy (?) of telling people “I’m not that kind of doctor, so no, I won’t look at your goiter. I mean, I’ll definitely look at it, but it really wouldn’t be very constructive.” And of course, let’s not forget about the many devoted Ph.D. students in the humanities and even some science fields who do their research for free, or pay for the privilege. It’s amazing to walk out of here with no more student debt than when I walked in. Except for that stupid parking ticket. I guess I still owe on that.

And I guess this next thing ties into my stipend, too: paying so little for decent health care. We have it pretty good up here on the hill; I encourage you to ask our fellows at other universities about their insurance coverage and quality of care…which I have done, and then quickly shut my mouth about my own. Anyway, I had a serious allergy to some meds two years ago and had to go to the ER at OHSU. Three nights in the hospital under excellent care (they loved that I was a biochemist and we all had a big nerd-out, even with my face swollen up like a plastic surgery disaster), numerous referrals to specialists and all the many prescriptions came out to less than a grand. Although I wasn’t thrilled to use my already battered credit card, as someone who grew up with little to no insurance, I know how much an ER visit and follow-ups usually are. Plus, if our complaints about life and work move from occasional to overwhelming? There are excellent (free!) therapists just minutes away from the lab bench who specialize in listening to science weirdos like us blather on about our work and home stuff. I was just asking for a friend one time and was pretty impressed with the care. I mean, uh, the friend was impressed.

Hmm…what else? Oh! I shouldn’t forget about the plight of female grad students, who are usually at their most fertile at this stage of life and often have long-term partners they want to start a family with. The new student parental leave policy at OHSU makes it so that young families, or those planning a family, can take paid time off – and that goes for moms and dads/partners. This really changes the overall climate in the lab, I think, because an advisor (in, like, the most unrealistic evil boss scenario) can’t really make a student feel guilty for something the university supports so strongly! So that’s nice, even though I don’t want kids myself. It feels awesome that we don’t have to “decide” between a family and a career like so many female grad students had to in the past. I guess an accident could happen for me, and I’m glad I’d have support… but yeah, I’m still totally planning on just being the cool aunt that buys your kid the really good young adult books and also Big League chewing gum because it’s gross.

There are lots more things I like about OHSU (our recent stipend raise, our highly subsidized Trimet pass, and that meowing barista guy at the Mac Hall coffee shop)…and of course many things that I think could be improved. I’m the president of the Graduate Student Organization here, after all! It’s my job to improve the student experience however I can by being a student voice, and I’m sure we have plenty of work to do. But that’s what I like most about being at OHSU: we students are actually heard. Yes, things aren’t perfect, and no, they didn’t save the Java Junction, but big stuff like stipend raises, family support, good career development workshops and being able to get my eyes checked regularly do add up.

I’m going to try really hard to remember all of this stuff the next time I’ve finished a series of 12-hour lab days that end in failure and then my boss wants to know what I’ve done all week, or when someone outside of school asks me in that incredulous lilt,  “So when are you gonna graduate?”

5 responses to “Things I like about being a graduate student (yes, really!)

  1. Great post Kelly! As a former graduate student, I can appreciate the ups and downs of the whole experience – it is difficult to appreciate some of the amazing experiences, opportunities and benefits of being a graduate student when you are focused on the 894th failed experiment that week… but I can tell you from first hand that the experience is well worth it and will be something that you look back on with pride and a true sense of accomplishment. The benefits you have outlined along with work from motivated students like yourself will continue to make OHSU a great place. Stay strong, and try to let the “When are yo gonna graduate” questions roll of your back!

  2. Thanks Jackie! Sometimes it does seem like my degree is a million years away, but I do feel like I am getting my Ph.D. at a really good institution. I think I’ve realized that I need to try to focus on the journey and not the destination, and get involved with my campus and community whenever possible to feel like life is more than getting a doctorate.

  3. Kelly, you are a great writer — witty and spot-on!The GSO has done some awesome things this last year for students; so glad you choose to be involved 🙂 Thanks for this glimpse into the life of a grad student at OHSU

  4. @ Annika: Yeah, it definitely bums me out to either have an exhausting bike commute or a long dreary Trimet commute at beginning and end of each day! Let’s just say I am sometimes secretly glad when I get sick and need to see student health…because I get delicious free parking. Is it just me that feels that way?

    @Lorie: Thank you for the support Lorie! You always have our grad student backs, too!

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