Asking for help is not weakness

Asking for help is not weakness

Asking for help is not weakness

Conquering classes after a year of industry

June 12, 2024 | Sneha K.

Chemical Engineering

I don’t know if I can do this, I thought. Did I make a mistake? I was in just the second week of the chemical engineering PhD program and my eyes, worn by the glare of my laptop, were struggling to stay open against the sea of notes and colored pens scattered across my kitchen table. Once familiar differential equations and integrals stared back at me, no better than distant memories. Doubts raced through my mind. Was I going to pass my program’s first-year classes – the same courses that older students spoke of in infamy?  

Especially loud was the thought: Why did I think working was a good idea? Was taking a year off from school to blame? 

You see, as a college senior, I was unsure of the career path I wanted to pursue post-graduation. Graduate school was on my radar, but I also felt intrigued by industry and wanted to learn more before committing 5+ years to either path. So, I went to work as a process engineer in the pharmaceutical industry. In my role, scaling up the production of tablets, the day-to-day tasks drastically differed from my undergrad coursework. My work consisted of project-based goals with stringent timelines. And while looming deadlines bring their own stresses, unlike classes, there were no more impossible problem sets or high-pressure tests to burden me. Instead, I worked in a team to manage priorities and rapidly prototype ideas. I spent my days analyzing data, troubleshooting equipment, and suggesting optimization strategies. There was a sense that with my abilities, I could rise to the occasion to solve any problem I was presented. Further, at the end of each day, I could stop thinking about work once I got home. 

While my experience was overwhelmingly positive, I quickly realized my heart was in the fundamental research and development aspects of my role. I decided to pursue a graduate degree, and despite my convictions that pursuing a PhD was right for me, I feared that re-entering academia – particularly the grind of coursework and exams — would be rough.

Unfortunately, I was right. 

I was utterly frazzled. The concepts taught in my first-year graduate classes were on an entirely other playing field from my prior experiences in undergrad or industry. Any confidence I had to solve problems disappeared. I helplessly spent hours flipping through my notes and staring at problems with no idea how to begin. My mind drew a blank when I tried to recall the core skills I had in undergrad. For goodness sake, how does one solve an ODE (an ordinary differential equation for those unfamiliar)!? Every day I would open my computer and the panic of possibly failing my classes would wash over me.

Furthermore, the amount of work was overwhelming. Every waking hour I was swimming through the constant stream of lecture videos and practice problems. I was so unaccustomed to opening my computer at night that I felt exhausted just opening the laptop, much less actually doing the work. Making it worse, COVID-19 restrictions made me feel alone in my struggles, as I was trapped in my room. 

Professors had proposed one clear recommendation: groupwork. I was scared though. What if I appeared stupid or needy in asking for help? What if my peers agreed with my imposter syndrome? Alas, my inability to solve my problems sets left no choice. I sent messages, joined our cohort’s discord channels, and went to the park for collaborative work sessions.

In the first several collaborative sessions, self-consciousness filled my soul. Indeed, one time I joined a group to work on a transport phenomena problem set, everyone fervently began scribbling equations as soon as we began. I anxiously flipped through notes, not knowing where to start, once again feeling panicked about my chances of success. Finally, I apologetically requested for guidance, and surprisingly my classmate walked me through the problem patiently and without patronization. I felt encouraged to keep asking for what I needed. As I brushed up on old skills, I even found that there were times where I could help others.

Out of necessity, I continued going to these collaborative group sessions, and as the material became harder, my peers also gradually confessed they were having trouble. I felt relieved I wasn’t alone — that I wasn’t ‘stupid.’ These classes were inherently difficult. Over time we formed a sense of comradery, realizing that while individually we felt stuck, our combined efforts could conquer the difficult courses. One friend would explain math tricks to solve a gruesome PDE. Another would identify key textbook pages that explained transport concepts particularly well. I would offer my MATLAB debugging skills during long coding sessions. Close friendships bloomed from the incessant questions, problem sets, and concept review which took up many of our waking hours. Before long, jokes would fly that the problems that required five pages of math were ‘trivial, of course’. Simultaneously, heartwarming encouragement constantly filled the air. 

Curiously, despite the fact that taking a year off to work in industry made resuming school difficult, as time went on, I realized that there was some learning from industry I could apply to the coursework. Namely, when graduated PhDs applied to jobs in industry, I saw that their thesis-work had clearly more weight than grades (as long as you passed). Hence, I didn’t obsess about getting the highest scores, but instead on developing critical-thinking skills — which were what mattered most as an employee or researcher.  When I took 5 hours on a code that took my classmate 30 minutes, I reminded myself that in the end we both completed the problem set. When I got below average on a midterm, I didn’t dwell, knowing I would pass the class and understood the material. When my friends spent hours solving an impossibly difficult mathematical limit worth five points, I cut my losses. The purpose of our PhD classes was to grasp the main concepts, be intellectually stimulated, and develop problem-solving skills to thrive in research. I felt this perspective from industry helped manage stressful emotions surrounding academics. 

Now looking back on that time, the first semester of my PhD seems like a fever dream. I am in awe at how many difficult concepts I was able to master. After conquering the core classes, I feel like I can attack any problem no matter how difficult — a belief that was especially useful as I transitioned into the research portion of my PhD. To the new first years and especially those transferring back to school from industry, I advise you to challenge the imposter syndrome and ask for help when needed, and remember that courses, however hard they may be, are just a small piece of your exciting graduate school journey.

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