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Random Advice Before I Start



Hello All,

I haven't blogged for bunch here, but I thought I would just make a list of advice I thought of as I've been in graduate school a while and am starting at a new school. This advice isn't necessarily unique, but hopefully it will help people anyway.

It doesn't make sense to apply to a few top graduate schools, it makes much more sense to apply to many top graduate schools. This rational should make sense; if your ultimate goal is to go to a top program, apply to all of the top programs for your best chance. Too many times I see people who target midteir schools and throw in their random MIT/Harvard ect. You might get lucky, but chances are if you are only applying to 1 or 2 top 20 schools, you wont get into a top 20 school. Another way to phrase this is apply to the schools you most want to go to.

If there is severe weakness on your application, such as bad GPA or GRE, you should be embarrassed about it and act like it. Being embarrassed about it gives off the idea that you are used to being excellent at everything, and this is just a setback that you wish you didn't have. The wrong attitude is "Grades don't matter" or "I just don't test well". Perhaps this is true, but you are trying to sell your self to graduate schools.

Be honest about how general your research interests are, being super specific does more damage good for the most part! A PhD is a research degree designed to teach you how to solve open problems. The things that matter most are department and advisor, but the research project can be enjoyable as long as it fits in some general research interest. I'm not telling you to research Russian Lit if you are only interested in American Lit, but perhaps the period of American Lit you study can be more flexible. In graduate school you are exposed to tons of new ideas, the development of your research should be affected by them. Apply to work with strong advisors in strong departments and worry about the last 10-20% of research fit later, you will probably find that it doesn't matter anyway!

During interviews and visiting weekends, be yourself. Because the serious "I need to get into graduate school" version of yourself is probably a lot less likable than your normal self. And people want to accept people they like. Think of it like a first date.

Write early and often, because eventually you will hate your thesis/dissertation. Everyone I have talked to (including myself, yes, I talk to myself) goes through a period where they hate their research. This period usually comes when you are in the final stages of writing your thesis/dissertation. For me, it came after I finished my MSc Thesis but needed to do revisions after the defense. My committee handing it back to me with corrections and annotations made me want to throw up. I think this stemmed from the fact that I wrote ~50% of it in a 4 week period, when most of it could have been finished a lot earlier!

Help other graduate students who are struggling in the classes of your specialty. If you are taking a class with your advisor or in your subfield, and people are taking that class for breadth requirement, help them when they need it! This will make it much more likely that they will help you when you are fulfilling your breadth requirement in their subfield !

Make friends outside your department. Because department politics get old.

Be 100% honest with your advisor. It makes it much harder for them to give you good advice if you aren't honest. If they say, hey can you write that program for me and have it to me by Friday, but you are swamped, its ok to say "well I have a lot to do this week, perhaps I can get it to you on monday or tuesday next week ?"

Don't be afraid of Bs. If you are getting all Bs, there is probably a problem. If you are getting all As, there is probably a problem.

Don't skip happy hour because you have a lot of work. This is pretty self explanatory. You can always go for an hour then head back to the lab. Just stick to your limits, but always try to do something social every day, even if it is just chatting over a single beer for 30 minutes to an hour with someone.

Learn how to fail gracefully. Because most of the time you will fail, until you graduate, when you succeed. Learning from these failures is the most important thing when trying to get through a graduate degree.

Anyway... thats all I can think of.


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If there is severe weakness on your application, such as bad GPA or GRE, you should be embarrassed about it and act like it.Being embarrassed about it gives off the idea that you are used to being excellent at everything, and this is just a setback that you wish you didn't have. The wrong attitude is "Grades don't matter" or "I just don't test well". Perhaps this is true, but you are trying to sell your self to graduate schools. 


Don't skip happy hour because you have a lot of work. This is pretty self explanatory. You can always go for an hour then head back to the lab. Just stick to your limits, but always try to do something social every day, even if it is just chatting over a single beer for 30 minutes to an hour with someone. 


These two are some interesting advice.  I definitely am the kinda person who "F the GRE. F the GPA" kinda guy and who would prefer to skip all the happy hours just to get my stuff published.


My advice is don't be embarrassed about those stats but rather embrace it and show other advantages that you have and can offer to the program, to the (potential) lab, to the POI / PI of interest. Nobody is perfect. If low GPA and GRE do matter to a program, then you are mostly likely be screened out my the system anyway; and if you somehow get an interview, then clearly the program looks past those numbers, which means that those stats, at this stage, do not mean much anymore. (Unless you are interviewed by the program directory and s/he grilled you about it.)


I prefer to social with others during lunch or dinner. Everyone needs to eat something, but not everyone drinks beer, or chooses drinking over writing (manuscripts or fellowship application or whatever research-related)/doing experiments.

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I'd interpret "happy hour" pretty liberally. It doesn't have to be drinks (even thought the example was for beer). My department's weekly happy hour has non alcoholic drinks as well. Some people sometimes even bake yummy stuff to share too. 


I think the spirit of GeoDUDE!'s advice is to remember to take time to socialize with others instead of getting lost in the mindset of "ahh so much work". You will always have "a lot of work" and being the grad student that never wants to socialize is not a great reputation to have. Personally, I try to have lunch with my colleagues every day, spend some time having coffee/going for a walk, and go to the weekly social hour as much as I can. 


But that said, I don't think "general rules" apply to all specific cases. For example, social hour makes me happy but there are some weeks where I just want to go home. Or, during the few weeks leading up to my quals, I felt my free time was limited enough and I'd prefer to spend the few hours I had doing something else instead! So, in these cases, I felt that actually going to the happy hour was making less happy than not going, so I didn't!


i.e. there is already enough pressure in grad school--don't feel bad about going to happy hour if it would make you feel better, but it would defeat the purpose if you felt that it was yet another pressure/demand you must meet!

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Just out of curiosity, what is the problem if you are getting all As? That you are probably overstressed and lacking in social outlets to blow off steam? Is it really impossible to get good grades in grad school without remaining happy and healthy?

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It might depend on program, but in general, grad students who get all As in their courses are probably spending more than 10 hours per week on each course. We take approx. 3 courses per quarter, so trying hard enough to ensure all As would likely mean about 40 hours per week on coursework. This doesn't leave very much time for research (unless you are going to work 60+ hour weeks, which doesn't leave much time for other balance stuff). 


On our first week, our own professors told us the same thing GeoDUDE! did--all As is bad, all Bs is bad--aim for something in between!


However, like everything on GeoDUDE's list, they are generalizations. I'm sure there exist grad students that can spend less than 10 hours per week on a course and still get all As and I'm sure there are some grad students that don't get all As yet still have issues achieving the work-life balance they are looking for. But in general, I think GeoDUDE's list is sound advice.

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You are right that it likely varies by program, TakeruK.  In my program, a single B is grounds for probation and after multiple Bs, you risk getting your funding cut (I think this is per semester, not your entire academic tenure).  A grade of B+ is on the edge.  But I will say that (so far *knocks on wood*), the courses don't seem designed to be difficult, so if you are getting multiple Bs it's likely something is going on with you.

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For "normative" progress in my program, a student is expected to get an A- or better in at least 4 of the 6 reading seminars taken in the first year. 

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I'd really be shocked if there was a program that expected A-'s in all classes for the first two years AND some sort of researched based qualifying exam. I suppose if the department gave all those students RAs its possible.


Either way, these are generalizations like TakeruK said, but also colored by my perspective (Earth Science).

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Disclaimer: I am also in an Earth Science division. My field (Planetary Science) is one of six fields administered by my division and the other five are much more heavily Earth Science focused than mine (Four of the other five begin with "geo-").


Also, the advice our profs gave us recognizes the fact that in our first year here, we must also complete two research propositions (i.e. proof of concept/ability to do research and a hint of results; but not a full paper) and then defend both of them in a 3 hour oral exam after 1 year! Thankfully, that is also our qualifying exam and the only exam we take in the entire degree (there is no candidacy exam). We are not directly/formally examined in coursework (outside of the courses); however, we might get a few questions based on the coursework related to our research and/or a few questions based on the expertise of the examiners (but there aren't enough examiners to cover every course we'd take!).


So, in retrospect, perhaps the heavy research nature of my school has also coloured my perspective! Many of the students and profs here view courses as a necessary nuisance (to ensure some kind of minimum foundation) to get out of the way since the real learning/usefulness of a PhD program comes from doing research.

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I'm in a history program. First year we only take reading seminars, although I have to produce a prospectus for the second year research project by the end of the spring quarter. The second year we only take two reading seminars, because the focus is on the 3 quarter research seminar that culminates in a publishable paper. We also have to fulfill our foreign language requirement by the end of the second year. 

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Yeah, I'm in a history program too (first semester), so I'm only in two reading seminars and a foreign language class right now. Since we are not yet expected to TA until the second year and don't have to write a research paper until the next semester (with no other side research projects), I'm pretty sure that we are expected to get only A and A- grades. Perhaps this will change as we prepare for oral exams in third year, but for now, I'm told, we really should be aiming for all As.

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I think thats really weird, considering GPA has no correlation to what kind of jobs you will be looking at after you graduate: I have never heard of anyone looking to employ someone with a PhD for their official transcripts to check their GPA, only to confirm that they do indeed have a PhD. And often an email from an advisor or school is enough. 

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It is not about jobs, it is about professionalization and progress in the program. The grad classes are supposed to teach you how to read, write, and speak at a professional level, in terms of both quality and quantity of work, especially since undergrad pales in comparison to what a professional historian does. By mandating that you do well in your classes, they are trying to ensure that you develop the work habits along with the reading, writing, and analytical skills necessary to produce a high quality dissertation in a timely fashion. 

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That's interesting to learn about how different programs/fields have different perspectives on a PhD! In the physical sciences, it's all about jobs, which is really all about research. Instead of learning work habits etc. in courses, we learn this through hands-on experience in our research work and mostly through guidance of our supervisors. In our field we don't really worry about "high quality dissertations", instead, we worry about publishing papers. Most dissertations in our field are just a compilation of 3-5 papers that we wrote during grad school. They are usually verbatim copied into the dissertation (with a note saying we did so) and then we might write a couple of chapters that link them together in the month or so leading up to the defense.


The purpose of our courses is to aid our professionalism too. However, they are still research focussed. The reason why I had to take geology courses, for example, is not so I can know enough geology to do my own research on it, though. We take geology courses so 1) we can understand the basic jargon and concepts in our geology colleagues' talks/research and 2) we can know what kind of problems our geology colleagues are working on because we might face a future problem that a colleague has already (partially) solved in their field, or vice-versa.


So, we take introductory courses in a wide breadth of subjects to form our foundation. We don't actually do a lot of learning in our own research topic in courses. In most cases, the students who are working in the topic of the course will already know everything that would be taught. We're expected to do most of our actual learning in our research topic in the process of completing the research!

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History is an interpretative and discursive (in the sense of discourse, not rambling) field. The first thing a professional historian has to learn how to do is "converse" with other works in his area of specialty. They have to learn how to critique and synthesize other historical narratives as well as incorporate them in his own.


In the most of the classes I took at my masters program we would write a longer (12-16 page) historiographical essay that summarizes and critiques the major works(what kind of sources do they use, what kinds of frameworks do they use for interpreting those sources, what does it contribute or how does it move the field forward, and where is it flawed or fallen short) on a particular topic while synthesizing these works to form a different narrative. These skills aren't really learned in undergrad, where the emphasis is usually on allowing students to form their own opinions or interpretations without having to really engage with the existing body of literature on the subject. Whereas undergraduates are taught to focus on content and argument, graduates have to learn how to also focus on method, sources, and discourse (how the historian situates his narrative within the broader literature)


So grad classes train a historian in the art of historiography. They also introduce you to important literature in your fields of study, and possibly some outside ones too,along with exposing you to different methods and styles of interpretation.  Exams provide the breadth of knowledge that will allow the historian to teach a range of classes as well as be conversant in several fields of history. The dissertation, along with demonstrating the students skills in historical analysis, interpretation, research, writing, and historiography, also ensures depth.


Not every program works this way. In many European universities, such as Oxford, you just start working on your dissertation right away. When my undergraduate advisor was a grad student at Harvard in the 1950s, he said it was pretty much sink or swim on your own, whereas other programs want to professionally train their students before they start their research. That was the case with one of my letter writers from my master's program, who went to UC Davis in the 1990s. He and his major adviser didn't even talk about research until after he took his exams, which was in the fourth year of the program. 


As for publishing, it is very difficult to publish in the humanities. A historian will usually only publish at most a chapter or two from his dissertation, and maybe present another chapter or two at academic conferences. But it isn't uncommon for the monograph based on the dissertation to be the first thing a historian publishes. 

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That makes a lot of sense :) As I said above, I think it's fun to hear how academics in different fields learn/train differently! So, thanks for sharing/explaining. And I hope the clarifications above provide more context to GeoDUDE!'s advice and when one should or shouldn't follow them!

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GeoDude, I'm curious about your advice on GPA/GRE. I am one of those applicants who bombed the GRE :( and frankly, my attitude has been, that given the strengths of the rest of my application, my strategy in my SOP is to simply focus on the positive- my research interests and my experience. I figure, why address my GRE scores when the fact is that they are evidently poor and an explanation appears to me as A) an excuse, which in my opinion may appear as a put off, and B) only reminds them of how hideous they are. They will either be a decisive enough deterrent to cut me out of the initial round, or I may slip through, and in the later case, my thoughts are to simply reinforce my strengths instead of argue the one indelible smudge on my dossier. Do you think this is a wise move? One thing to note - I do not gloat in my sop- it is very down to earth!! :)

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I wouldn't mention it either: I didn't mention my grades. But they did come up in interviews: "Why were you a B student in undergrad but an A student in grad school" ect.


I think its a shame to have a strong application and a terrible GRE, since, you can easily change it. 

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I wouldn't mention it either: I didn't mention my grades. But they did come up in interviews: "Why were you a B student in undergrad but an A student in grad school" ect.


I think its a shame to have a strong application and a terrible GRE, since, you can easily change it. 

thanks for the advice! It is very frustrating and unfortunately standardized testing has always been a problem for me all the way back to SATs, even with the assistance of study programs and practice. I appreciate the feedback!

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It might be a good idea to mention what happened with your GRE if you are coming straight from undergrad. Of course that is solely up to you, however, and I am only speaking from my own experiences with having been denied to all programs applied to last year (I was wait listed to one, though).  Based on the feedback I received from program directors and my contacts within those programs (potential mentors/advisors/POIs) I will say this:  do not assume anything.  Do not assume that your GRE scores will by overlooked because the rest of your application is stellar.  Sure, if you apply to a program that does not require the GRE, or you know for a fact that the program puts little weight onto the GRE, then go ahead, do not mention it.  Otherwise, based solely on my own experiences, they will want to know what happened.  

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I'm in the exact same boat- what I thought was a stellar PhD application package, 20 years military experience, solid SOP, great LOR's, transcripts are excellent to outstanding from three separate and accredited graduate programs and getting rejected left and right.  I had Univ of MN tell me flat out that GRE scores were the problem.  (157 V/ 154 Q)   I've taken it twice this past summer, used Magoosh and the 5lb Manhattan Test prep and cannot get my scores to elevate.  At this point, I'm guessing that there are five culprits:  1) GRE scores, 2) inability of the schools to translate military experience to academia 3) lack of research fit with the research department (I'm going for Business Strategy) and 4) lack of a university/professorial advocate at the school.     Anyone have any suggestions?  I'm out of options at this point.  

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