The grad school learning curve

I think new student sometimes treat grad school as undergrad + 1, meaning it’s simply a continuation of their education. This is especially common for student coming straight from their undergrad degree, without an intervening work period. This both a false and dangerous assumption, and can academically hurt many new students. I will break this post into three sections: the goal, the expectations, and how to succeed. I’m talking about research graduate students who have research advisors and will write a thesis or dissertation. I’ll discuss course-based M.S. programs at the end.

The Goal of Graduate School
There are many reasons for getting a graduate degree. The most common ones are: interested in more specialized knowledge, getting a promotion or pay raise at work, or hiding out from the job market. The last two are driven by external factors and will affect what effort a student is willing to expend. But irrelevant of the reason, the goal is to get an advanced degree in a specific field or topic, and have that degree help your career. So the goal to keep in mind is to graduate, and graduate well. “Well” is subjective, but in most cases it means good grades, people who will speak well of you, and a tanglible piece of work that demonstrates your skills and capabilites. In tangible terms these would be transcripts, reference letters, and publications and/or a thesis.

The Expectations of Graduate School
Expectations come from three sources, the student, their advisor, and the university/department. The university’s expectation is easy, you need take the necessary courses and maintain the necessary GPA to graduate. The student’s expectation varies and can be hard to guess. They likely expect a good education, opportunities to gain new skills, a useful degree, and perhaps to make connections. The advisor’s expectations can probably be summed up as “do good work.” and contribute to the research. When an advisor decides to take on a new student, it’s a bit like hiring a new employee. The advisor is trusting the student with some usually important project that has deliverables and deadlines. So the expectation is the student will be able to meet the challenge and succeed to produce good work. If the project is funded by some external agency, government or industry, then the advisor has to report the progress to them, and if things go wrong it falls on the advisor’s head. So you can imagine they’d like their students to do good work.

How to Succeed
There are three important strategies to succeed in your graduate school years in order to reach your goals, and meet expectations.

1) Take the work seriously. Graduate school with research is not just taking classes while doing an extended class project. There is usually actual money and stakes on the table. So treat it like you would any job that you are being asked to do and are being evaluated on. Time will move faster than you think and deadlines will come in the blink of an eye. Plan your tasks and put in the effort, even if beyond the 9-5, to get the job done.

2) Known the rules, requirements, and expectations. Every graduate program has their own policies for grades, credit hours, funding, application to graduate, and so forth. Pay attention to what is required and when things are due. The most common thing that catches students is the application to graduate is usually a month or more before the actual end of the semester. So you need to defend your thesis and turn everything in before that date. Also know what your advisor expects of you, in terms of time committment and expect deliverables.

3) Make connections and make yourself known. One of the important things you’ll gain from research is contacts. These are you advisor, your committee members, your fellow lab mates, other researchers that you will meet. Maintain and cultivate these relationships, for in the future they will be your colleagues and will help you in your job and research. The last, other researchers, you will meet by attending conferences mainly. So take every chance you can to go present a paper or poster as a conference. This is build your skills in technical communications, share your work, and place you as a scientist and researcher. Don’t be shy, if there is someone you want to meet, go and talk to them. It usually helps to have a technical question ready to ask them, maybe based on their presentation. It’ll start the conversation less awkwardly than “hi, I’m Bob from place X”.

Course based MS degrees
For students not doing research for their degree, you still want the same things: new skills, contacts, and some thing to show for your time. Since you won’t be doing a thesis, most of your gains will have to be from class. Your contacts will be your classmates and your professors. So make an effort to reach out and speak to them outside of class. Instead of a research thesis, you can do a short term, single semester, special project. Maybe a class project that you work extra hard in. But anything other than just a few letter grades would help.

Well hope that was not too scary to those of you cosidering or currently n a graduate program. The bottom line is take the experience seriously and work hard and you’ll be rewared.


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