“When Does Your Program End?” (or, Grad School Confuses Normal People)

I love my friends, but sometimes they have no idea what I do. Fielding questions like “What classes do you have to take?”, “How many exams do you have?”, and “When does your program end?” are a weekly event. That’s the trouble with calling a graduate degree in the sciences ‘grad school’. It implies that there is a defined structure similar to that of medical school or law school, when really it’s a lot more like organized chaos. 

I read once that a graduate degree in science is an apprenticeship to academia. I agree wholeheartedly with this description – we don’t have a licensing exam, final projects or practicums – our entire degree is practical research experience. Unlike other post-graduate programs, we aren’t learning through a lecture-based classroom model anymore. Our education is taking place during experiments at the lab bench, or problem solving in the field. I can only speak for myself, but I’ve learned more this way than I did during all four years of my undergraduate combined. 

Sometimes people are shocked/confused/concerned when I mention that my MSc only includes two mandatory classes. They wonder how anyone is allowed to be a MASTER OF SCIENCE after only two classes and a little project. What they don’t see is the massive amount and incredible diversity of work that goes into our research. For example – I’ve transcribed my to-do lists for one week in August below (whether I actually completed these tasks is for you to wonder and me to know):


  • Take rental field truck back to Enterprise Rent-a-car
  • Submit rental truck paperwork
  • Deal with rental truck parking ticket at Campus Security
  • Pack field truck safety kits and re-stock first aid kits
  • Dispose of winkler titration waste
  • Purchase pH buffer solutions for calibrating field multi-meter
  • Teach summer student to calibrate multi-meter for testing water conductivity, pH, and dissolved oxygen
  • Review sediment sorting protocols in the literature, and re-write for my sediment samples
  • Make list of required supplies for sediment sorting


  • Register for fall section of “MSc Thesis” online
  • Review program for AFS 2014 Conference in Quebec City
  • Confirm hotel in Quebec City
  • Research travel options to Quebec City
  • Procure supplies for sediment sorting from chemistry stores, other biology labs, Canadian Tire, and Home Depot
  • Move sediment shaker into fume hood and bolt down
  • Clean motor in sediment shaker (so everything doesn’t explode)
  • Learn to use sediment shaker
  • Teach summer students to use sediment shaker according to my sediment sorting protocol


  • Meet with Lab Safety Officer about chemical inventory
  • Learn to use chemical inventory system and barcode scanner
  • Teach summer student to use chemical inventory system and barcode scanner
  • Perform monthly Lab Safety Inspection
  • Review Animal Care protocols and re-write for up-coming field season
  • Get official stamp and signature for summer student’s paperwork
  • Confirm methods for assessing embryonic development with embryologist grad student
  • Figure out how to scale photos on the dissecting microscope


  • Accompany assistant prof to field camp (show her where all the amenities are, how to turn on the generator, how to drive the ATV, etc) 
  • Take test water measurements at prospective research sites
  • Introduce assistant prof to hatchery staff


  • Outline presentation for conference 
  • Make a “statistics to-do” list
  • Procure statistics resource books from the library
  • Research what statistical methods others used in similar situations
  • Write R code for performing ANOVAs on egg survival data
  • Attend PhD defence (and get inspired to work harder/feel guilty for not working hard enough)

This also doesn’t include the time I helped build a deck for our research camp, or mapped out the ice at my sites in GIS, or snorkelled through rivers looking for female adult salmon. It also doesn’t include learning how to ride a snowmobile, or how to replace the plug for the tail-lights on a trailer, or how to remove a deer tick from a dog. Other things last week’s to-do lists did not include: replacing the chain on a chainsaw, writing a journal article, schmoozing the interesting seminar speaker, making posters advertising summer job opportunities, filing paperwork for DFO harvest permits, attempting to learn HTML and CSS to help re-vamp the lab website, peer-reviewing manuscripts, and deriving an equation to estimate spawning densities. 

Now, I don’t mean to harp on about how much work I’m doing – I don’t think I’m doing any more than anyone else who is actively pursuing their career. I mean to make the point that a graduate degree in science shouldn’t be conceptualized as “school”, despite the fact that it is a true education. I can whinge and complain all day about my degree, but in the end I don’t think I’d give up the experience for anything. It’s quite the adventure. 


This is me and my “classmate” at “school”. There is a chainsaw in the background. 


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