by Mary Morrissey (Third-Year Student)
What is it like to be a typical student in our department? Fortunately for our department, there really is no such thing as a typical Harvard Biostatistics student, so that is a hard question to answer. I do think, however, that most of us pass through certain stages...
The first semester was filled with apprehension. Why did I get accepted? Will I be able to do the work? These and similar questions filled up any spare time that I had. I went to school for classes, but went home to work. I lived alone, so it was quiet and there were few distractions.
The summer was a welcome hiatus. I had the opportunity to work with real data sets and get to apply things that I had learned during the first year. I felt a great sense of accomplishment, not only from realizing that I had learned quite a bit in the previous nine months, but also in working and completing projects that would have some impact in the real world.
Thinking back, the third semester seems quite a blur to me, as well as to many students. As I recall, we adapted to working in groups, and we managed to learn quite a bit from each other. We studied for the written qualifying exam, and each study group became more like a support group. We hoped there would be at least one person to reassure us that we had a chance to pass the exam when it seemed an overwhelming task. For the most part we were lucky in that respect, sensing that we were in this together. Stress did run pretty rampant, though, and innocent bystanders later admitted that they could handle us one-at-a-time, but when two qual-bound people were in the same room, the level of tension was more than they could handle.
The fourth semester is also pretty blurry in my recollec- tion. Our brains were fried from the qualifying exam and we hadn't had a break since September, so the personal lives that had been put on hold for six months or so were starting to buckle under the strain of school. Most of us thought that once the qualifying exam was over, we earned a respite of sorts, but we quickly realized that there would be no rest for the weary. While classes continued on at full speed or faster, we had to worry about finding thesis topics and advisors and checking to see if funding was available. Somehow we managed to struggle through and finish the term.
After the second year, most of the coursework has been completed, though there are scores of seminars and colloquia to attend. At one point I may have dreaded classes, but now I wanted to frequent these seminars. Aside from that a whole new set of obstacles arose. The thesis proposal. The oral exam. The thesis defense. Not to mention the trials of writing the thesis papers themselves. These challenges are all very individualized for each student. I am currently in the midst of these; I have yet to complete these hurdles.
What I'd like to stress is not that this program has hardships or that the workload is heavy. What makes this program special to me are the opportunities and the people. Between consulting projects, working groups, and lecture series, there's so much to absorb. The people here are unique. You can normally find a smile around every corner. The faculty and staff are always available to help. Without my fellow classmates, I might have made it, but I'll never know for sure. The students here are just as eager to teach as they are to learn. Those are what I think make this program one of the best around.
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