Life as an Undergraduate Student in a Graduate-Level Course
So, you’re an undergraduate student thinking about taking a graduate-level class. It’s an exciting option to consider! I’m here to share with you my experiences in hopes that they will shed some light on the situation! Please remember that the following information is my personal experience in the class, and it in no way represents the experience you, or anybody else, might have in this process.
For some background, I’m a third-year undergraduate student working towards my B.S. in Chemistry with a minor in Mathematics. I’ve been at UNLV for all of my college careers, and I grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada. I do a lot on campus, too! Aside from being a student, I’m an undergraduate researcher in an organic chemistry laboratory, and I’m a student worker with two positions on campus! One of the positions is being a New Student Orientation Leader, which I love. The other is being a Supplemental Instruction Leader, which I also love! In my academics, chemistry is my passion! Specifically, organic chemistry is my passion (and trust me, I know you don’t hear that very often). I’ve had two semesters so far of just chemistry classes, and they’ve been the most challenging and rewarding semesters yet!
This is why, as soon as I heard about the possibility of taking a graduate-level organic chemistry course as an undergraduate student, I jumped at the opportunity! As it turned out, a professor wanted to teach the class because their graduate student wanted to take the class. Luckily, I already had a good relationship with the professor that was going to teach the class because it was the professor that I research with! This meant that two students, myself and the grad student in my lab, were interested in the class. That was a lot more students than in previous years, as the class hadn’t been taught for 6 years!
So the semester rolls around and I’m enrolled in 12 credits -- all of the chemistry -- which consisted of three 400-level lectures, a 400-level lab, and a graduate-level lecture. In my grad-level course, there were three students total! It was the grad student in my lab, the grad student in another lab, and then me. Our lecture was in the chemistry building, so the lecture hall was relatively large. I had been worried about where I was going to sit since there were only three of us. Would we sit next to each other? Would we sit spaced out? Would we sit in the front? Or maybe that’s too close?
I decided to sit in the second row, and my two classmates sat next to me. When the professor came in, it was a bit awkward at first. Do we make conversation? We all know each other, but how do we interact now? Thankfully, once the professor started lecturing, the class felt like any other class and it was easy to become absorbed in the material.
After the first class ended, I understood that this semester might be one of the most challenging of my life. The graduate-level course was already incredible! For organic chemistry specifically, this course went into amazing detail to explain the why of chemistry that I felt like I’d been missing. I had already learned the how, but learning the why made my understanding of the subject much more solid. As I learned more things in the class, I also began to understand previously taught subjects because I could apply my new knowledge to old information. It was such an exciting feeling!
However, taking a graduate-level course did have downsides for me. Graduate students in the chemistry department generally take one class per semester. Otherwise, they might teach or they’ll be doing research in their labs. That means that the out-of-class workload for my graduate-level course was significantly greater than any of my undergraduate-level courses. For the graduate students in my class, this amount of work seemed to be less of a problem. But for me, as the semester picked up steam, I felt very overwhelmed.
I began to understand that I was going to need to rely more on my classmates in this class than I ever had previously. I had to come face-to-face with the fact that I was, by far, not the smartest cookie in this very small jar, and that’s okay! Being in an environment like this also forced me to accept that if I don’t understand something, that doesn’t mean that it’s a bad thing and that I had three other incredibly knowledgeable people who were more than willing to help me. The environment forced my way outside of my comfort zone, and in doing so, made me learn a lot more than just chemistry.
All in all, the graduate-level course was difficult to take alongside other difficult courses, but I truly feel that it helped me learn a lot about myself and about the kind of chemist I want to become. If I had the chance to do it again, I would do it in a heartbeat! The knowledge I gained from that class pushed me toward my dream career, and the skills I gained are going to help me get there!