I had expected, like many of my readers (..funny how I continue to remain optimistic about this aspect) that my first couple of posts from a new land will be about some interesting cultural differences I observe! But going by the hierarchy of needs I choose to talk about a fundamental need for now – one reflective of a concern very integral to graduate student life – culture can wait after all, hunger can’t !
Let me begin by putting this strip from PhD comics which sets the tone for this post
This strip should clarify why our first meeting with department seniors was at a ‘free food’ event and also the most important insight gained was that a lot of free food is usually doing the rounds at various university events. I shall digress a bit into why ‘free food’ is so critical to survival as a grad student.
Most students who come to grad school, and I would venture to guess, even those in online master degree programs have near zero net worth, at least in monetary terms (intellectual worth is subject to debate but zero monetary worth is a proven reality). In fact, some even come with negative wealth ( for instance, if you take a 100K loan for your program). Those who have been in ‘real jobs’ for some years, blow away their savings even before they begin school. Receiving the quintessential admission letter from the dream university is reason enough to quit your job, often months in advance of joining school, and travelling to exotic locations, thus finishing up your money. Even those who come funded are here for PhD programs, which tend to take anything between 5-7 years to complete and sometimes even longer. Hence Grad students don’t have ( a lot of) money. Whatever little stipends they get, after tax deductions, go into housing, buying books, groceries and other practicalities of day to day living. Hence any kind of saving opportunity is welcome.
Housing is a sunk cost once you have signed the lease for a year , nothing much can be done! Now as far as food goes, eating out everyday is not a viable option in the little money that remains after housing. Cooking at home, taking packed lunch etc is the economical path, but one that requires takes time, effort and culinary skills. The last one is something that many graduate students lack, at least to begin with. I wouldn’t be exaggerating if I say that boiling water in an electric kettle may be a first time for many.
That leaves them with only alternative – look for free food on campus! US universities have a sound understanding of the magnetic properties of ‘free food’ and hence serve it at every event that does not count for a grade. So all non popular events like guest lectures, library tours, student club meetings, talks by religious groups etc will come with the added attraction of free food. If a professor shifts his class timings to late evenings, it is customary upon him/her to offer free pizzas. However, people with special dietary needs ( veggies, those who think cows and pigs are holy etc) should make it on time/early as these options are limited and tend to get over very fast. If you are at fancier programs like business, you could even get free beer!
That said, it requires fair bit of effort to have high productivity levels at finding free food. I would say at 5 meals a week, one is quite productive and 3-4 isn’t doing too bad. So while choosing courses it may be a good idea to know which Professors offer free Pizzas post classes and which ones take you out for a happy hour! Sometimes making a google calender where one can regularly key in all free food events helps that one doesn’t miss out on any event. A shared calender which many like minded foodies can update will enhance your productivity even more!
Having given you all enough food for thought, I shall now scavenge my mailbox for the upcoming free food events and update them on my calender!