There comes a time when an undergraduate student is faced with the decision of whether to continue education at a higher level or bring to a close to the academic chapter in their life. Those who choose to follow the former route know all too well that the decision to study in graduate school bears a burden of responsibility. For someone like me who is counting the days left before entering uncharted territories, anxious thoughts are bound to keep expectations shaky until that fateful day comes knocking on the door.
Since everyone’s experience is different from the next person’s, I will narrow my discussion — call it a semi-rant if you will — to my own impression of the graduate school experience as an aspiring international undergraduate senior who is currently testing the waters of the vast sea that is post-graduate studies before taking the abysmal dive. I believe the decision to get down and dirty with the intricacies of a certain field should be reserved until one does their proper homework. Before I packed my bags and left my home three years ago, my family had adamantly told me that when (or if) I decide to come back, I ought to have at least a PhD under my belt, which I had accepted to be my primary academic quest in life. However, seeing a couple of my seniors go through really rough patches in the past few years has made me question whether graduate study is even worth it.
As an undergraduate, I had fallen into the comfort of my class-to-exam-to-class drill, which I carefully honed with seven semesters of practice. But having had the chance to work for the past six months in a lab with mentors and seniors, I have gotten a taste of how I am expected to conduct myself in such a setting was I to be a part of it. And, I must say, the feeling is bittersweet. Looking forward, the impending workload made me think twice about setting my sights on grad school. Although I found the grunt work and heaps of reading material disorienting at times, the pleasure of finding new things out slowly started to take precedence. So the question I asked myself was how long do I have to do that before I establish a new routine, if that was even possible.
Working under some of the most accomplished people in your field can be an exciting thing but it can also be quite daunting at the same time. KAIST professors have a reputation for being very demanding of their students, understandably so, because their research contracts demand certain results to be met. Although a small dose of “tough love” from the professors can be healthy, sometimes it breaks the students and prevents them from being efficient in the workplace.
Another sort of pickle international students easily find themselves in when working in a graduate school setting of a foreign university is miscommunication with their professor. Just when you thought you’ve had your fair share of misfortunes as an international student, the good old language barrier steps in to make things worse for you. The problem is magnified for foreign students at KAIST even more so, because the sheer pressure of working under a demanding superior is met with the risk of not being on the same page with coworkers and your supervisor. That adds a new dimension to the lack of clarity and transparency in the workplace, which in turn becomes counterproductive.
Moreover, the now-familiar language barrier, which every student wrestles daily, makes it hard for foreigners to freely discuss problems with their colleagues and labmates. It’s sad to say the number of times I’ve heard international graduate students woefully explain how they feel cornered when they wished to seek advice or counsel at a time of need. These and many other stories I’ve heard only served to fuel my growing anxiety as an aspiring international grad student at KAIST. My starkest fear embarking on a journey into this new world is the danger of becoming a social pariah in the den of academics where Korean social exclusivity reigns supreme.