As we approach the end of the year, it is an excellent time for reflecting. In this post, PVL MSc Student Elisabeth Smith considers the change in moving into her graduate studies.
By Elisabeth Smith
One year ago, I was sitting at my desk in the bedroom of my upper-year student apartment, with various textbooks, notes, past exams, and cans of Red Bull scattered about. I was preparing for the final exams of my undergraduate engineering degree. It was also right around this time that I suddenly woke up one day and thought, “gee, I think I’d like to go to grad school!” and began researching some interesting graduate programs. I suppose that I thought that I was really enjoying the whole education thing, and wanted to continue learning. I soon learned about the Earth & Space Science program at York University in my old hometown of Toronto. Looking more into it, I found that several of the professors were doing some very interesting research, and decided to send an application. At this point, it was too soon to be certain that I would be accepted into any graduate programs I applied to, so I also sent out several applications to companies for entry level engineering positions.
After my semester (and thus my undergraduate schooling) had concluded, I began to prepare for the multitude of job interviews that I knew were coming. I spent hours looking up interview advice, brushing up on my engineering knowledge, and practicing smiling while I answered questions until my face hurt. That was a trick – you don’t want to be smiling too much, because you’ll look like a fool, or maybe just a little creepy, but you also need to make sure you don’t smile too little, or you risk appearing uninterested in the job.
Several interviews came to pass. I went into each eagerly with a smile on my face and a response to every question I could think of in my head. The interviews went well, I thought – even some of the recruiters I spoke with informed me that this was remarked in some of my post-interview notes. But alas, no job offers would come, and I pressed on with the grueling job hunting process.
My disappointment was not great, however. While I prepared for each interview with the hope that it could be soon be my job, I also hoped to hear soon from York University, and if my application was compelling enough to be considered for the graduate program. Apparently, it was! Soon, I would be interviewing with two professors from York. The first professor I had reached out to myself; his research project had recently popped up in the news, and I found it quite fascinating. The second professor reached out to me; he had come across my application and with a brief explanation of his work, inquired if I would be interested it. We set up an interview and he told me more about the project – I would be helping to develop a camera for detecting ice on the moon, if I chose to accept a position as a research student with him. This was perfect – ever since the discovery of large amounts of ice water on the moon with the LCROSS impact in 2009, I have been fascinated with lunar science and exploration. One of my (completely outrageous) life goals is to build a hotel on the moon (or, I suppose, just a small lunar base), and this area of research aligned with my personal interests quite well. Shortly after the interview, I was made an offer, which I happily accepted.
Finally, May was upon me, and I began my graduate education. I was given the opportunity to start in the summer term, rather than in Autumn, so I didn’t have to worry about trying to occupy my time while I waited to begin. My first experience with the lab was the weekly lab meeting (which at the time, consisted of everyone in PVL, as the group was much smaller. The group grew much larger over the summer so we eventually divided up our meetings into the Mars and Moon sections). However, I officially started the following Monday with a brief but thorough tour of the lab (it’s not a terribly large laboratory). My advisor, John Moores, introduced me to the piece of laboratory equipment that would be essential to our research: the vacuum chamber. It would be used to help simulate the lunar environment for our experiments. Professor Moores spent time explaining how each component operated, the purpose it served, how to change the flanges, and how he had dismissed students for sticking their arms inside (I immediately stopped rolling up my sleeve). I was soon beginning my research, reading articles related to my new field, and contacting companies for quotes on new equipment we would need.
The other students in the group were very friendly and made sure to make me and the other new Master’s students felt welcome. It was a fairly diverse group of students – ranging from undergraduates to Post-Doctoral fellows, in areas ranging from physics to astronomy to atmospheric sciences. Coming from engineering, it was very helpful to be working with a group of students well versed in areas I was not quite as familiar with. They offered advice, knowledge on subjects I was unfamiliar with, and recommendations for the best food on campus. I don’t think I could have asked for better colleagues!
Partway through the summer I took on another project. I was to develop a laser camera system to detect the depth and turbidity of water, with the goal for it to be used in future missions to the methane oceans of Saturn’s moon Titan (currently, this is the project I primarily work on). I also began duties as a teaching assistant – a new experience for me (fellow Master’s student Jasmeer previously wrote an excellent piece on his TA experiences). I took a weeklong short course at the end of the summer (as I discussed in my previous blogpost), and took on more TA responsibilities for the fall term (including teaching/overseeing a laboratory section – definitely a new experience!).
There are huge differences from my undergraduate education to my graduate education. My graduate degree is research based, so I only take a handful of courses while I focus on conducting research. As an undergraduate, my days were filled with lectures, textbook reading, and lengthy, math-driven homework assignments full of equations and free-body diagrams. Now my readings are primarily research papers and my work involves constructing experimental setups, running experiments, and analyzing data in MATLAB. I have always preferred conducting experiments and analyzing those results in my laboratory classes over sitting in a lecture hall, so this transition was certainly welcome.
Overall, the first few months of my Master’s degree has been a great experience. It’s great to work with such a fantastic group in an area I’m highly interested in. If you are an undergraduate considering pursuing graduate research, I would say go for it! You will learn a lot about things you are interested in, meet interesting people, and do lots of interesting things – things that you might not have had as many opportunities for as an undergrad. And in a time when more and more jobs are seeking those with at least a Bachelor’s degree in a particular field, having a post-graduate degree will definitely give you an advantage in those job hunts, if you choose to work in industry. So, to those of you who have decided that your quest for knowledge has not yet concluded, good luck!