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Things that no one tells you about grad school

  1. Mar 2, 2010 #1
    So now that I am fairly certain that I will be going on to grad school, Im looking for the info that only current or past graduate students know. What are the best ways to get ahead? Should I take more class early on? As an example of what Im talking about, For undergrad unless you are brilliant, I know now that one should not take two majors as grad schools dont care much. However I was convinced freshman year that I was a good idea. This is for engineering school btw.
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  3. Mar 2, 2010 #2
    Remember that your education is for your entire life and not just for graduate school. There are lots of things that you can do as an undergraduate that may not have any obvious immediate benefits, but will have lots of long term benefits. Just because something isn't important to graduate schools or employers doesn't mean that it isn't important.

    Also keep asking yourself what you really want to do with your life. What does "getting ahead" mean to you?
  4. Mar 2, 2010 #3
    Read the graduate bulletin, 'cause your advisers often don't even know it exists and there's all sorts of really useful stuff (like credit and grad requirements) in it. I had a friend who ended up with psychotic schedules 'cause he didn't know he could count research for credit hours and neither did his advisors. If you're doing a phD, read the dissertation manual. Basically, be familiar with all those policies and bureaucratic quirks that apply to you, 'cause nobody else will take care of it. On that note, be friendly to all the non-faculty staff (secretaries, techs, etc. )and your labmates, as you will need their help.
  5. Mar 2, 2010 #4
    Hmmmm. I guess what its always been is how can I be better than my peers? Perhaps this does not apply anymore? I guess whats most important to me is how do I take actions now to make my life easier when it comes to dissertation defence time. Not saying I think its going to be easy, but perhaps there are smaller task that can be completed in the first years so that they are not left for the later years.

    Where can I find this bulletin? I am going to be getting my phD, and thank you for all the wisdom.
  6. Mar 2, 2010 #5
    It should be on your school's website; otherwise try various department offices, the advisement office, and the registrar.
  7. Mar 2, 2010 #6


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    I'm going to side with twofish on this one. Lifelong learning or introduction to lifelong learning should be viewed as the outcome.

    Also lets just say you end up being the best at what you do? Then what? Chances are if you do you will probably get bored and depressed after you get the recognition. The truth is no-one knows everything and the people that think they do don't really know that much.

    You'll find that a lot of great work and discoveries are made by teams of people. The ones like Tesla, Newton, or Edison are rare.

    If you want to be best and simply want "climb the ladder" so to speak you might end up ostracizing yourself. Learn as much as you can sure, but I advise you not to put yourself in a position where you turn other people away. Also from an employment prospective I think you'll find that the people qualified for a lot of jobs are often not the most technically apt, but they will often be good communicators, have good personality attributes, and have added "life experience" that makes them good candidates for their position.

    I'm trying to put you down, (you should be proud of your achievements), but I don't think you'll ever find the day when you thought you knew enough to know anything in depth: i'd be surprised to find anyone who would make that claim.
  8. Mar 3, 2010 #7
    The easiest way of being better their your peers is to have stupid peers. That may not be a good thing in general. One thing that you'll find in the "real world" is that things are team-graded so that your goal is not to look better than your peers, but rather figure out ways of improving the performance of your peers.

    You could do your job 100% correctly, but because of something bad that someone else did, the world could be plunged into a massive economic mess that causes you to lose your job.
  9. Mar 3, 2010 #8
    Also I think you'll be glad that you did double major. Some of the things that you end up doing will make you life harder, but sometimes making your life harder is good in the end. One thing that I think that will help you a lot in life is if you study more humanities. Read poetry, history. Learn about art. Get a lot of exercise.

    Something you have to realize is that the system does not care about you. Individuals within the system might care about you, but the system as a whole does not. What the system wants from you is to be a nice cog that provides cheap labor, and when you are used up, they replace you with someone else that can work just as cheap. You have to realize that what's good for you may or may not be to do what graduate schools want you to do, which is why it's important to get a very good grounding in the liberal arts.

    The reason liberal arts are important is that you will have totally, totally miserable days in grad school. You will have totally, totally miserable days after grad school. If you study art and music and literature and history, you'll be in a better shape to know what to do when you have totally miserable days.
  10. Mar 3, 2010 #9
    Listen to two_fish and the rest and don't try so hard to get ahead of your peers. Seriously, you'll be working with them and you never know when you'll need their help. Since you'll often have overlapping research, they could have read that one paper that discusses your topic brilliantly and well if they're not speaking to you 'cause you're the lab jerk, you won't know about it. In my lab, most of us share code and each of us knows different aspects of the language; good communication skills facilitate all that collaboration. Working in a lab where they don't dislike you makes everything easier. I know a guy who cared so much about getting ahead that his integrity is in shreds; this means that lots of very smart and talented people that know his reputation don't want to risk collaborating with him.

    Also, keep politics in mind. You're gonna have to rope up a committee, so be careful not to annoy potential committee members. If you really can't work with your adviser, switch if at all possible. One of my professors was recounting how he stayed away from the field he'd always wanted to do 'cause the only guy who did it at his grad school was an awful person. Find a professor who fits your style: I like hands on, my friends prefer totally hands off. Don't work for a professor who you can't respect, as that usually doesn't turn out well. In someways think of this as a job (a really low paying one) and act accordingly.
  11. Mar 3, 2010 #10
    Ok, it would seem that we have gone in a different direction than I was originally intending. There are facts and "good strategies" that I know now after 4 years of undergraduate study. A good example of this is something my academic advisor never told me. That is as an undergraduate one should (i think) if one can afford it, take as much summer school as possible. Thus either letting you take fewer classes in the latter years as they become harder, or allowing you to have a broader spectrum of classes. Then one should not take summer school during the summer after the junior year allowing ample time to study for and take the GRE. These are facts i wish I had known as a freshman in college because they would have made my life much easier now. So these are the kind of facts im looking for but this time for grad school. When I say get ahead (I realize I used some poor wording) what I mean is not ahead of everyone else but perhaps ahead of the curve? I just want to take the best strategy towards grad school. This is a vague question but I know there is something that I dont know. Something that will make my 4th year of graduate study better because of my actions in the first 3.
  12. Mar 3, 2010 #11
    Write everything down. Take copious notes of all the articles you're reading, highlight and cite them, and archive everything. This will make the dissertation much easier. Put in your citations as you write your dissertation, 'cause going back to fill in the blanks will be torture. If you're responsible, write (at least notes) for your dissertation as you go along. They don't offer all that many grad courses during the summer, but if you see any grab them. Know which courses/topics get covered on the quals and how they're graded. Know the academic structure (how many levels of phD students, how you move to the different levels.) <-this stuff is in the grad student handbook or the bulletin.
  13. Mar 3, 2010 #12


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    A few key points that will help you to get the most our of graduate school:

    (1) Treat it like a job. It's temping to think of yourself as only a student, especially during the coursework phase, complete assignments, and feel like you're done. I found the people that had the easiest go, and finished faster were the ones who showed up every moring at 08:00 am and stayed until 05:00 pm (at least).

    (2) Get as familiar as you can with your school's rules and regulations - particularly the "thesis handbook" stuff so that you will know what the exact requirements are for you to graduate, how many committee meetings you need to have and when, what financial support you can expect and for how long, etc.

    (3) Keep detailed records of your work. When it comes time to write up your thesis, you don't want to be trying to remember the details of a measurement you made three years ago.

    (4) Take your time in chosing a project and supervisor. Make sure that you will get along personality wise with whomever you chose to work with.

    (5) Make a detailed outline of your project with your supervisor. This will most likely change considerably by the time you're done, but there is value in the exercise of planning things out such as: time spent on course work, appropriate choice of courses, frequency, duration and formality of meetings, how much you will be expected to publish, what journals you should aim to publish in, what is a realistic endpoint for your thesis, etc.

    (6) Take the time as a student to network. Go to conferences and spend time with guest speakers that come into your department. You never know when some connections may come in handy.

    (7) Keep in mind that what field you do your thesis in will not necessarily be the field you end up working in as a career. Make sure that you take the opportunities available to you as a student that will increase your employability down the road. At my alma mater, for example, physics students had the opportunity to do a basic machine shop course free of charge, but it was surprising how few people actually took it.
  14. Mar 3, 2010 #13
    * Get a dissertation adviser you respect. One test is the roommate test. Can you imagine being locked up with your dissertation adviser for an extended period of time without either of you going crazy.

    * Attend seminars and science lunches. One stupid thing that I did as a graduate student was that I thought those were seminars in which you had to register or had some informal prerequisites to attend. It took me two years to realize that these were open invitation, and that no one was going to give me a formal invitation.

    * Attend conferences.

    * Learn to use a citation database like EndNote or Zotero. Every time you read something make sure that you add it to the database. Anytime you learn an interesting, controversial, or unusual fact, make a note of where you read it. You will be asked on to cite a reference.

    * Watch people argue a science point.

    * Bookmark interesting things on the web. If it's really interesting download it and print it out because things on the web tend to get lost, and disappear

    * Read lots of review journals (Physics Reviews and Annual Reviews of Astronomy and Astrophysics)

    * Publish as quickly as you can. Even if it is something you think is stupid, try to get it out the door.

    * Learn administrivia and bureaucracy. Be *REALLY* nice to the department secretary and staff.

    * Load up on free food when it's available.

    * For computer geeks. Use version control software.

    * Make lots and lots of backup copies of important documents including your dissertation. At some point in graduate school, your hard disk will fry. Also if you laptop starts acting weird, that's a sign to make a full disk backup since disks will act strangely before they completely disintegrate.

    * Don't keep the only copy of critical data on your personal machine. Make sure that it's on a machine that has lots of backups. Conversely, don't put any sensitive personal data on the schools machine. Choose good passwords. (i.e. if you are an astronomer, don't use "telescope" for your password)

    * Think very carefully who to copy your e-mail to. Figuring out who goes on the to: and cc: and bcc: lines is something of an art form.
    Last edited: Mar 3, 2010
  15. Mar 3, 2010 #14
    Ahhh. Thank you very much. These are the types of thing I was looking for (the parts about attending semenars and conferences and such). Now I will ask, what is the aim and purpose of attending these events? How does one publish more quickly (I guess this probably varies from school to school)? How much time does one usually have before he/she has to choose a dissertation advisor. Ill be on an assistantship, does that change anything?

    In direct responce to number (7), does that mean in the first two years I should be taking as many different kinds of classes that I can? What If I have to take remedial coursework?

    When you say treat it like a job, does that mean in between classes I should be studying more or less all day? Because I didnt think i'd be doing any research until at least the second year.

    Speaking of research, how can I get a jumpstart on it? I understand that I'll have to have coursework under my belt before I can start but I guess what Im trying to ask is how can I hit less dead ends (other than being careful, etc)?
  16. Mar 3, 2010 #15


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    It's very easy to keep your head down, concentrate on your project, and forget about what's going on around you. By attending seminars and conferences you get nice succinct summaries of the problems that other people in your field are working on, the methods they used, the obstacles that they faced, etc. Attending talks outside your field can expand your interests and give you ideas that can be applied to your own work. Also, this will give you a "bigger picture" of where your project fits into the grand scheme of things and give you a stronger basis for coming up with your own projects down the line.

    Not to mention, when a talk is good, it can be quite fun.

    - familiarize yourself with journal formats
    - start writing early
    - keep abreast of relevant literature so you can know exactly what readers/editors/referees will be looking for in your manuscript (ie specifically what information is novel and of interest to the scientific community) and have a running bibliography
    - seek regular feedback from your superviser
    - keep track of your data
    - try to streamline the graphing process (Many a grad student will have a decent paper, ready to submit, only to have a supervisor say, "Oh, you should increase the font size on all your figures.")
    - remember that you don't have to write a treatice on your project, just focus on the relevant work that you've done

    This varies from school to school. My experience was that you have at least the first semmester or so, while you're concentrating on course work. Also keep in mind that if you choose someone and it's not working, you can switch.

    Depends on if it's a teaching or research assistanceship. Teaching will help you develope some more marketable skills, but it can be a time sink. The RA will leave you with more time to devote to your project.

    You don't want to necessarily bog yourself down with graduate course work. What I was referring to were opportunities that come along for "short" courses or workshops. Examples might be:
    - workshops on parallel computing
    - seminars on specific commercial software
    - primer courses on computer languages
    - technical courses that qualify you to work in your department's machine shop
    - grant application workshops
    - university teaching programs
    - obtaining certification for particular tasks particular to your field, such as shipping radioactive materials

    When you're not doing course work, if you haven't chosen a project you should be reading up on projects you are considering - reading papers, textbooks, primers, talking with potential supervisors, other graduate students, and even outlining the specifics of the project that you want to do. The more you know and the better your plan going in, the easier things will go.
  17. Mar 3, 2010 #16
    You expand your mind with different ideas. The other thing is that you watch science actually happen. The thing about the classroom is that you are just learning material, and you aren't seeing people coming up with new ideas.

    One other thing about attend journal clubs, physics lunches, and seminars is that you get to see ideas that are half formed. The problem with reading textbooks or even journal articles is that by the time those ideas are written, they are usually pretty polished, whereas with seminars, physics lunches, and journal clubs you get to see half formed ideas, people thinking out loud and people coming up with ideas that turn out to be bad.

    Probably by the second or third year, you'll have some interesting idea that you can submit to a journal. The mistake (which I made) was to put off publishing, and try to make it perfect. The reason publishing early is good is that about half of the work of publishing isn't the thinking up of new ideas, but rather just trying to get the damn article written.

    Usually you should have one by the end of the first year.

    Or just go on amazon and buy lots of books.

    Pretty much.

    Hitting dead ends is part of research, and part of the interesting part of graduate school is figuring out how to turn lemons into lemonade. What will happen sometimes is that you just figure out that something won't work, and at that point you need to figure out how say "this just won't work" in a way that makes some progress in the field.
  18. Mar 3, 2010 #17


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    OK I dont want to steer away this thread, but I think it may go along the lines of this thread.

    Would you recommend getting an MS before applying for a PhD? If most of the courses for qualifying exams are in MS curriculum, won't that save you the headache of worrying about exams? Also, is going for an MS with thesis better than courses only option? If you publish masters thesis can you expand on that and make it into a PhD paper, even if you write the PhD dissertation in a different college?
  19. Mar 3, 2010 #18


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    This depends on the student and his or her goals, motivation, and certainty, as well as the school and even the country. A master's degree is essentially a 2-3 year committment. Whereas for the PhD, you're looking at 4, 5 or more, so the master's degree allows you the opportunity to get out with an advanced degree without as much time in.

    Taking graduate courses doesn't get you out of the qualifying exams - at least in my experience. You still have to write them. It's generally best to have some advanced courses under your belt, but (depending on the school) since the qualifying exam is usually uniform across different branches of physics, the questions really only go up to the senior undergraduate level.

    The depends on what your final goal is. With some professional fields for example, the goal is just to get in the advanced course work that is required for career advancement. However, part of the graduate experience, in my opinion, is all about learning how to perform research. I think one gets more out of a thesis-based master's degree in that sense, but again, it depends on what you want to get out of it.

    Basically, yes. The PhD thesis has to have unique work, but lots of people extend the work they did with their master's degree.
  20. Mar 3, 2010 #19
    No, 'cause it's insanely difficult to get funded for an MS.

    It's not that simple and totally depends on the school. Some don't even have quals on course work, some (like mine) give quals on a specific set of classes taught by certain professors (yearly quals based on those lectures), and lots have all sorts of stuff in between. At best an MS will lighten your course load a drop, but it's not worth the added headache.
  21. Mar 3, 2010 #20
    Note that the following applies only to physics degrees in the US. Different countries and different fields have different systems. In some fields (education) it's pretty standard to get a masters before going off for a Ph.D.

    No. They are very different beasts, and in the case of physics the system really isn't set up to let people apply for Ph.D.'s after getting a masters.

    It should be pointed out that some schools have done away with quals, and have a second year project. But getting admited to a Ph.D. program with only a masters in physics is probably a lot tougher than going through qualifying exams.

    I don't see how this is going to work in physics. The problem is that if you switch colleges, you'll have a different set of advisors that don't would be able to deal with your masters thesis.
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