My Expectations for Graduate School

 Adrian Lara portrait

As I start my fourth year of graduate school, I’m looking back and reflecting: What was it like coming to UNL? What was I afraid of? This article is about my expectations before coming here to pursue a Ph.D. in Computer Science and what I know now. I come from Costa Rica, so a lot of international students may find that they have similar hopes and fears. And if you’re a domestic student, you might have similar experiences transitioning from undergrad to grad school.

As an international student, I think it was much harder for me to picture what life would be like in Nebraska than it was for me to understand what graduate work would be like. I had no idea what UNL was going to be like! Before coming here, I was a bit worried about leaving Costa Rica for five years. What would happen to my family and friends? Would I be lonely and not have a social life when I got back? Honestly, I was more worried about this than starting graduate school!

It’s hard to know what studying at a new university will be like if you don’t even live in that country. I expected classes to be similar to how they were back home. I assumed a Ph.D. program would be like a Ph.D. in my own country: first, two years working as a teaching assistant (TA) and lots of coursework. Next, the qualifying exam (which I dreaded like I’ve never dreaded an exam). Finally, getting a research assistantship (RA) and working a lot on my thesis. I didn’t know what to expect of my advisor or the topic I’d be working on. My undergraduate education was very broad and I didn’t specialize in one specific topic, so I didn’t come to UNL with an existing research goal in mind. As a result, I was open to ideas from my advisor.

Some of my expectations happened as anticipated, some did not. And I discovered new things that I didn’t expect at all.

What I found at UNL that met my expectations:
First, classes were similar to what I was used to in Costa Rica (lectures, homework assignments, exams). One thing that’s a bit different in grad school is that students have different educational backgrounds, so a class has some students who know a lot about the topic and others who are new to the topic.

Second, the qualifying exam was hard for me. I’m not really good at exams and this one required a lot of preparation. I’ve never studied so much for a test! But I passed it and my expectation was met: It will be tough, but determined students pass it.
Third, my relationship with my advisor was similar to what I anticipated. I had a very similar experience while working on my thesis in Costa Rica: My advisor is a very approachable professor and he makes time to meet with me. I value his advice a lot.

What I found at UNL that was different from my expectations:
First, I was not aware of the importance of funding in graduate school. I expected two years of TA and then being an RA, but things don’t necessarily go that way. A lot depends on how much money your advisor has for research. Find out all you can about professors’ current funding and previously funded projects. In computer science, for example, you can go to the NSF website and search for prior and existing awards. Your advisor’s funding is closely related to your TA and RA positions—if your advisor has funding, you're more likely to receive an RA. An RA gave me more time to work on my research, compared to a TA position that meant spending hours per week on teaching-related tasks.

Second, I did not expect time management to be so challenging. I expected to take classes for a while and then focus on research. Instead, I started coursework and research on Day One of my program. One of my major struggles during the first two years was balancing three major roles at the same time: research, teaching, and coursework. To me, the most difficult part of switching from undergrad to grad school was that my priorities changed and it wasn't just about classes anymore.

Some experiences exceeded my expectations:
First is cultural exchange. UNL opened my mind to the world! I’ve tried food from so many countries; I’ve had endless discussions with friends about what’s common or appropriate in their culture and what isn’t. I’ve realized that prejudices we have about people from other countries are usually false.

Adrian with a friend at New Graduate Student Welcome
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Second, I really like how UNL takes care of my health. Although it hurts a bit when I pay student fees every term, I’ve been to the UNL Health Center several times and never had to pay for anything out-of-pocket other than medicine. I visit the dentist for a cleaning every six months and it’s all covered by insurance. And the people in that building have a knack for being nice. Every time I go, I feel lucky to be met by a smiling receptionist, a kind nurse, and an understanding doctor.

Finally, I like how UNL is open about several topics considered taboo in my home country. UNL has the LGBTQA Resource Center, and gender programs, including the Women’s Center and Men’s programs. I struggle to phrase this properly, but what I’m trying to say is that UNL’s a welcoming place for everyone.

I expected grad school to be tough, and it has been. I also expected I’d be able to succeed, and I think I will. But I discovered a lot more at UNL than what I can write about in this blog article. I’ve mentioned just a few things, such as cultural exchange, great health insurance, and openness on campus. To see how you’ll fit in, you’ll have to write your own story at UNL!