Bring Up Grad School—What Is the Reality Behind Higher Education

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Being a curious individual, I always want to learn. I frankly can’t imagine a time when I’ll have to stop seeking clues about the inner workings of the world. The best way I found to satisfy my deep desire to learn was going to school. Luckily for me, going to school was mandatory for anyone under the age of 18. Yet, as soon as I entered high school, the only thing I could focus on was the impending end of time in school. There was only one solution. … I had to attend university. But first, I needed to get a Cegep degree. For those unfamiliar with the term Cegep, it is an academic institution that offers both general training and technical training. Both kinds of training lead to the obtention of a degree after 2 or 3 years, respectively. The general training aims to be pre-university training, whereas the technical training should lead you directly to the job market. 

Honestly, I particularly disliked Cegep. From my perspective, the teachers were unpassionate about their courses, and they were also exhaustingly hard to reach in between classes. I must mention that some teachers defied those expectations and were excellent teachers. However, I found that those were the minority. My observations were, however, not shared amongst most of my acquaintances that went to Cegep. Possibly, this difference could be credited to my degree being different, or it could be that they got their degree from another Cegep altogether. Alternatively, It could also have resulted from my mental state at the moment. Indeed, my head was not in the game then. I was living a distressing time at home and was incredibly worried about my perceived worth. Unconsciously, I didn’t mind failing my courses. It would just have been another proof of my worthlessness. 

Somehow after four years of on and off school, I decided to apply to university despite my lack of a Cegep degree. Why did I wait so long to apply to university if this whole thing was unnecessary? Well, I sincerely didn’t know that it was even possible. Everyone in the academic system has led me to believe in this one-size-fits-all path, either by ignorance or for simplicity’s sake. They teach you that the one path for university is first high school, then Cegep and finally, University. We, thus, remain oblivious that it is actually possible to skip Cegep altogether. It turns out that you only need to be 18 years old and possess a high school degree to be admissible for most university applications. They call these applicants mature students. There are also programs offered, like the one at Université de Montréal (Accès aux Études Universitaires), that grants you access to most if not all their undergraduate programs and also they offer you the opportunity to apply to other schools.

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That was a path that was better suited for my needs. I did the program at Université de Montréal, and then I applied to Bishop’s University. You may realize that one is a French-taught university and the second, an English-taught university. Given that French is my native language going to Bishop’s University has proven itself pretty challenging. Although, I must admit that I loved stepping up to the challenge and prove myself capable. After completing my bachelor’s degree in Neuroscience, I had come to realize that university studies suited me. I didn’t fail any classes; I even performed very well in most. My life made sense again, and I was satisfied, both from the work I’d accomplished and the learning I’d made. At that moment, I really wanted to teach, specifically at the university level. I needed to obtain a doctorate degree. So, I went to pursue a Master of Science at Université de Sherbrooke. I chose to do a research-based degree, and at first, I must admit that I absolutely loved it. 

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My research project was, at first, brand new to me, and I needed to learn a bunch before getting to design my own experiments. I adored that part, the learning part. Unfortunately, this is not a good resume of my whole experience in the lab. The lab atmosphere was terrible. From the start, my labmates attempted to convince each other that I did not deserve my place in this lab. Then, when my supervisor was made aware of their attitude, he addressed it. However, them trying to ridicule me was not their only ammunition at hand. They were also enjoying making the lab assistant’s life miserable. However, I liked the lab assistant very much. Contrary to the others in the lab, she was sweet, and she was always ready and willing to give me a hand. Little did I know that just tagging along with this marvellous person would get me shunned from the labmates. 

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Eventually, all I have ever done in the lab was being scrutinized and then mocked. My attitude in the lab started being somewhat unstable, and I began to develop a tendency towards overreaction. After two years of being part of this lab, this last change in my behaviour was the last straw to motivate my supervisors to ban me from the lab at the request of the majority of my labmates. Fortunately, I was able to complete my degree after all, despite my unfinished project. Instead of writing my thesis at the lab, I was able to write it remotely. I was happy to be away from the drama that accompanied my presence in the lab, but I was distraught by the unfamiliarity of writing a Master’s thesis. I had no assistance from my supervisor, nor did I get much help from the department. I had to figure it out all on my own. Sometimes the immensity of the task was proving itself too scary, and I often preferred avoiding completing it altogether. With the kind help and motivation from my fiancé, I finally accepted that doing my best, although it would eventually need redefining, was all I could do. And as such, so I did; after three reviews, the review board approved my thesis for submission, and I obtained my diploma. 

I heard that my recent experience was not a typical one. However, it is not an isolated case. My multiple discussions with other Master’s students and Doctorate students revealed something interesting. I began realizing that the quality of our experience directly correlates to how the supervisor manages the lab. If he keeps repeating that he is overwhelmingly busy and thus he expects his students to be ultra self-sufficient, it’s a potential red flag. It could mean that he is not available to guide the students, nor can he be there to address any possible cases of abuse. If the supervisor willingly claims that the lab has some recurring conflicts and that he had problems with students in the past, it’s a red flag. It could mean that he can’t adequately manage his lab and his students and that he may tolerate misbehaviours. At last, if the supervisor only talks about himself and his lab, red flag. Possibly, the supervisor doesn’t care about your personal preferences nor your mental state. It is a poor attribute for your supervisor to have given that these elements may potentially damage the quality of your work. Also, if the supervisor is indifferent to you, he is probably with everyone else as well. In sum, make sure to vet your potential supervisor carefully. It may be tempting to accept any supervisor that supports your candidacy first, but it may not be to your own benefit. Take your time and ask yourself if that supervisor is a good fit for you. 

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Two years after completing my Master’s degree, I have finally grasped that my negative experience in that lab was not entirely because of me. A lot had to do with being in the wrong lab, at the wrong time, and with the wrong people. Some day, I may find my way back to studying or working in a lab, but not now, nor anytime soon. Right now, I am fully satisfied writing from the comfort of my home, or in this case, a charming pub in North Hatley, QC, CA. Although my future is uncertain, I now understand that I am in charge of my destiny and happiness. Maybe this future will bring me to complete another undergraduate degree, or perhaps it won’t. The one thing I am sure of is that wherever life carries me, I will make damn sure that I’m happy, no more compromises. 

College or university degrees should not be sought with the only motivation to enter the job market but to further knowledge and understanding. University studies are challenging, and deliberate decisions to gain wisdom about a particular field are needed to succeed. Unfortunately, too many people enter university programs with the only hope and desire to get a specific job. Way too often, those people don’t get the desired position, either because they only crammed the knowledge without properly absorbing anything, or they may find out that they don’t want that job in the end. As for me, I decided to forge my own path. Science communication is one of the most integral parts of my life. I often do it without even realizing it. So, even though my training typically leads to an academic career, I decided to break away from the mould and become a self-employed entrepreneur. 

I thank you infinitely for reading this post and if you would like to know more about the mysteries that surround us, please join my subscription list to keep up with my newest content. If you have any questions, please add them to the comment section and I’ll make sure to answer them as soon as humanly possible.

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