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An Engineer's Guide to Surviving Grad School

The US education system teaches you to be self-reliant in a way you cannot imagine back home. From your courses to your evening meal, everything is up to you. This is a complete education -- a life education!

I was sitting in an apartment with three other FOBs (Fresh off the Boat immigrants). The room belonged to the ISA (International Student Association) representative who had volunteered to pick me up from Toledo airport along with the other three. I had just spent 23 long hours on a plane, and was hungry and tired and jet lagged. On inspection, the refrigerator revealed a big bottle of coke and a stale half loaf of bread. It hit me: To eat, I would have to walk to the grocery store, shop, wash the utensils, cook, and clean up. The good part -- the others in the room realized it too, and we divided up the work. This was my brutal initiation to the University of Toledo, in Ohio, in America’s tall-grass, prairie country where I had landed for an MS in Industrial Engineering. It was quite a dramatic change, from the hostel life in IIT where the messes served hot meals.

There will be so much on your mind within the first month. Open a bank account. Get a social security number. Choose your courses. Find a job on campus. And, most important, understand the system

There will be so much on your mind. Find an apartment off-campus. (Campus housing, though convenient, is much more expensive and restrictive). Find someone to share it with, someone who you will not want to kill within the first month. Open a bank account. Get a social security number. Choose your courses. Find a job on campus. Sign up for a credit card. Buy the prescribed books. And, most important, understand the system. GPA, Credits, mandatory and elective courses. Avoiding taking classes early mornings and keeping Fridays free, if possible, is a big achievement.

Furnishings from the Sidewalks

At some point you will go through the time honored ritual of scrounging the neighborhood for furniture. In this manner, you will acquire a bed, a mattress, a couch and a TV for free which is all that is needed to start life in this blessed country. Departing residents will leave this stuff outside on the sidewalks. If you are lucky, you might even get a choice of colors on the couch. The friends you made at registration (the ones with the cars) will be very helpful here. I was extremely lucky to have a flat mate who had done his undergrad from the US, and had a car. It was such a boon: Walking back from the grocery store in negative 25 Celsius with heavy bags of food is not fun at all.

If you are not one of the lucky few to get an assistantship, you will be doing minimum wage jobs on campus.

It took me almost a year to get out of the habit of converting every price from USD to INR. As a graduate student, you are always poor. If you are not one of the lucky few to get an assistantship (you work as a teaching assistant or a research assistant), you will be doing minimum wage jobs on campus. I baked pizzas, made sandwiches, refereed intramural sports, and served as a bartender. Mostly loved it, and made some great friends.

University of Toledo, in Ohio, USA, is a tall-grass, prairie country

There are two ways to exist in grad school. You can focus on your academics, your thesis and your assignments, come home late from school, watch TV and drink a beer in the evening with your roommates. Or, you can go out and take advantage of the myriad facilities that the university offers. Toledo has one of the best recreation centers in the US. Indoor running track, state of the art workout equipment, sauna, Jacuzzi, and world class swimming pool. I regularly spent about two hours a day at this wonderful place. Especially in winters, when it was freezing outside, this was a haven of warmth and activity. My fitness mania was a boon to my roommates, who used to enjoy all the extra pizza I brought home every day from work, and did not touch at all.

Breaking the Ice with Sport

Football is something you will find hard to ignore. Friday evenings, September to December, are dedicated to football - the oval-shaped, pigskin variety. In the smaller schools, tickets are free, or really cheap. But sports fan or not, and even if you have to pay for it, this is a spectacle you have to partake in. It is one of the cornerstones of American culture, and when you start working, you will be amazed at how this one sport can break the tension in awkward first time meetings.

Self Reliance

Football is one of the cornerstones of American culture after Baseball, and when you start working, you will be amazed at how this one sport can break the tension in awkward, first time meetings.”

It is very tempting after a long day to sit back, and start consuming a TV dinner and coke. It is also the easiest way to become extremely unhealthy. "Supersize Me" is not a joke. I shared cooking duties with my three flat mates. We tended to cook big meals, for four people, and for at least two days. That is what the big refrigerator was for: it is much easier to defrost and microwave!

The US education system teaches you to be self-reliant in a way you cannot imagine back home. From your courses to your evening meal, everything is up to you. This is a complete education -- a life education!

 

Manu Rana did his MS in Industrial Engineering at the University of Toledo, in Ohio after a four year stint at the Indian Institute of Technology, (IIT) in New Delhi. He worked for ten years as an enterprise software salesman, and is now a photographer (http://www.manurana.com).

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