Subtle differences between the Undergrad & the Grad School – Ruhee D’Cunha, PhD Student, Virginia Tech

Hi there. I’m Ruhee D’Cunha, and I graduated from IIT Bombay with an Integrated Masters in Chemistry in 2016. I’m currently working on a PhD in Theoretical Chemistry at Virginia Tech.

I’ve had the opportunity to both learn and teach, in India and the US. And it’s a standard observation that things are very different back home and here in the US. I’d like to look at those differences a little bit, from a very biased point of view (mine).

  1. Coursework

Everyone’s experiences with coursework in insti are different, of course. It depends on how much you like the material or the professor teaching, and also how much value you put on academics vs other things, like PoRs, sports, or your social life. I didn’t enjoy a lot of my classes, and I got out what I put into them. The higher the effort, the higher the grade. I did enjoy some classes, including Prof. PPI’s Biomolecules course, and that really put me on the path to doing research, even though I did switch into theoretical chemistry somewhere along the way. 

Once I came to grad school, it was like a switch flipped, though. Grad school classes were harder, but the assignments were regular, which help you keep learning, and all of the grad classes I took were relevant to my field of research. I found myself enjoying the challenge, sitting up till 3 am working on homework. (Not a sentence I ever thought I’d find myself writing while I was in undergrad!)

2. Research

I’ve seen a huge difference in the research environments in India and the US. The main thing everyone in my field talks about is “fit”, and that’s super important. Your working style, and even your lifestyle, has to mesh with that of your lab. In the end, you’re talking 4-5 years of your life, when you’re in your mid-twenties when people around you are settling down into life’s rhythms. If you want to chase that prestigious academic position, go for it, and if you need to slow down, breathe and enjoy the journey of life, that’s also okay; but you need a supportive advisor in either case. From what I’ve seen, there’s also a high emphasis on the project being “yours”, and once again, you get out of it what you put in. There’s also a much higher emphasis on showcasing your work and discussing the latest research with others in the field. 

What work looks for me

Conferences and summer schools are some of my favourite research-related experiences because you meet people who share your passion and they don’t mind you gesticulating vaguely about electrons and orbitals over the dinner table.

The European Summer School in Quantum Chemistry, held in Sicily, Italy

3. Life in general

For me, insti was full of formative, amazing experiences, most of which happened outside of a classroom setting. I’m beginning to realize what a unique opportunity it was to interact with such a broad spectrum of people from all over the country, with different views and life experiences. The current political situation in the US is making me appreciate diversity and the value of an open mind all the more. 

Life definitely is different once you leave insti, and you’re never quite as worry-free again. But being across the world brings its own new experiences and challenges. America is big, its landscape is beautiful, and it has 300 years of its own culture and history to share if you’re willing to spend some time learning. Having a job/learning opportunity that lets me explore both theoretical chemistry (which in my completely biased opinion is a wonderful field of research) and a different country is one of the best parts of doing a PhD.

Work-Life Balance summed up

That’s about it for now folks, feel free to reach out 🙂

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