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graduate programs

Got back home for the break and I got to talking to my dear friend Margaret, who is infinitely brilliant, about the differences between pre and post-graduate education. I'm getting an engineering masters and she's going for a PhD in physics so obviously our work is a little different, but there are still similarities in the break that happens when you finish your bachelor's degree.

First, you're suddenly responsible for accuracy. Any time you solve a problem as an undergraduate and your results don't come out quite right, you get credit for explaining away what doesn't make sense. You can blame it on the temperature of the room or curvature of the earth or bad equipment or whatever and don't have to actually calculate anything, you just write and try to use big words to sound very technical and scientific. After graduation, you're suddenly faced with the idea that anomolies can't just be explained away. You have to take everything into account and understand everything that's going on.

The second big difference is that you're supposed to work on new and different problems, you don't do experiments to find out how fast gravity makes things accelerate or how much current flows through a circuit with a 1K resistor and a 5V source. These facts are known. You're expected to present something new and interesting to the world.

All this thinking is, In some ways, a pain in the ass. In others, it's pretty cool. Either way it really makes me wonder why I spent the first 22 years of my life not doing any of this. I sort of did it in senior design. But there's not really any reason that it couldn't have started before then. In high school I got horrible grades on english papers where I tried to form my own conclusions without quoting sources who'd thought of the conclusions before I did. In math classes our word problems were always carefully lined up with the chapter we were studying so it'd be obvious which method we were supposed to use to solve them. We just kill off creativity, we're like trained monkeys trying to guess what teachers want. I guess there are "enrichment" programs in some schools where the special gifted children are encouraged to branch out and think higher, but they're reserved for a small group... I was only gifted for a few years in elementary school, then we moved to a new school district where I was ruled "average", kept out of advanced math, and shown career test results that told me I'd make a great bus driver someday.

So taking that into account, graduate school is yet another one of those things that I look at and think, "I'm glad I didn't screw up and miss out on this. I hope I'm not screwing up and missing out on something else."


( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Dec. 24th, 2005 07:58 pm (UTC)
What a great journal entry. I hope to be a graduate student one of these days. :)
Oh and Merry Christmas!
Dec. 24th, 2005 08:07 pm (UTC)
Wow, I love this entry! I found your LiveJournal because you were on my friend Liz's friends list (the_lady_lilly). I'm in the humanities (PhD in Musicology student), but I can totally identify with what you say. I also agree that it is pretty stupid that I spent 22 years of my life not coming up with original conclusions. I am also astonished when other graduate students try to continue to re-hash the same stuff!! Awesome. I 'friended' you, hope you'll continue the favour. :)
Dec. 24th, 2005 11:00 pm (UTC)
In math classes our word problems were always carefully lined up with the chapter we were studying so it'd be obvious which method we were supposed to use to solve them.

This is exactly why I hated math until my sophomore year of high school. Then, I got a teacher who didn't even issue us a book. For homework, we would have no more than five problems, but they'd take something like fifteen minutes each to do. Quizzes and tests would be the same way. This was the first time I realized math could actually be fun, and as an added bonus I know trigonometry like the back of my hand.
Dec. 27th, 2005 08:11 am (UTC)
The gifted program was not really that great. I had a good teacher in middle school for it, but it was never really all that successful. In high school I only took it for two years. Both were complete wastes of time and each was done at a different school (BVNW and BVHS). Both were exactly the same and functioned as nothing more than a study hall. In theory you were expected to work on a project of some sort, but there was little to no reason to work on any given project on any particular day. The projects themselves were often poorly designed and conceived and all of the work was on you. It was also almost never possible to change a project once you were committed to it so if you found out it was more than you could handle you were stuck with it. The teachers never bothered to help you come up with projects or aid you in any functional way. Part of this is because they were not themselves gifted. They're just generic special ed teachers that probably spent a lot more time learning how to deal with disabled kids rather than gifted ones. It was definitely rare to find one that was not significantly outsmarted by the class on a regular basis.

As a result of the special ed nature every few years you were required to fill out an IEP form which is identical to the ones used for learning diabled students. Basically it went over the "problem areas" that you needed to work on and largely they tried to point out flaws in you, not in how the school system was aimed at the lowest common denominator and unable to provide for anyone of even moderate intelligence.

Among my high school projects one year I did some piece of grand bullshit about time, space, etc. and essentially just spent the entier semester screwing around and playing chess banging out a paper around the first quarter and then banging out another paper at the end of the semester that refuted everything I'd said the first time. The second year (at BVHS) I merely compacted Health since after spending the first day in that class I was singularly unable to comprehend the idea of putting up with that crap. It was incredibly easy and I rarely had to read the book. This also means that as a result of gifted (since it took the place of Health in middle school) I have never actually taken a formal Health/Sex Ed class in school. Nevertheless I tend to know a hell of a lot more about the topics than anyone who did take them.

So yeah, gifted seems like a good idea, but in reality it's just a time-sink. Perhaps with the right teacher and the right program it could work, but I've never seen it used to its full potential.
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )

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