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What to do before grad school in the fall? (And when to start research prep?)


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Okay, I got into the program I wanted, and Lord willin' and the creek don't rise, I'll be starting in the fall.

Now what?

I work full time and have community commitments, so I'm plenty busy, but I still have graduate-school on the brain and want to direct that energy somewhere useful.

My experience with grad school is based on those I interacted with 5 years ago as a physics undergrad. Now I'm going for a PhD in science education, and the world of social science is new to me. From what I understand about the program, it's all classes first year, then classes & TAing second year, then after that research.

But all the big grants one might want to apply for (NSF fellowship is on my radar for the future) expect you to already be involved in research. Should I be trying to set up an "in" in research before the program starts? Would it be appropriate to start contacting professors now, or should I wait until the fall?

My only thought so far is to email the profs I met on the interview day and ask if there's a book they'd recommend I read.

Any thoughts or insights are much appreciated!

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I think starting with research and contacting professors couldn't hurt. Maybe you could, depending on your skills, do some data processing/collection for a POI in exchange for an early co-authorship?

Alternatively you could start reading around your interests / by following references from your POI's publications. No need to ask anything for that, and they will surely be pleasantly surprised.

Finally, if you have any courses coming up you could also ask the reading-lists for those, either from the department or from current students.

Plenty of options there...

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I wouldn't bother doing the reading in advance. You might want to see if you can meet with people about their research BUT expect profs to be busy/unavailable over the summer. I'd take the time to read 10 books you've been wanting to read for fun/pleasure and haven't had the time to read yet, getting your household organized into an easily manageable system, and (if I were really planning ahead) starting to make extras of meals and freezing the leftovers (with labels on them, of course). That would be some awesome preparation because then you wouldn't have to think about meals or cleaning as much once the gauntlet that is graduate school begins.

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I started in late June, and it was really nice to get a jump on research, etc. before the actual school year started- by the time everyone else in my cohort arrived, I knew the city, the department, had already been checked out on all the shared instruments, and had a couple of months to work on readings to get in the groove for grad school.

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My standard advice: read some of the books/articles recently published by professors in the department. This will give you a head start on knowing what your professors think, what areas of research/theory they consider important, etc. I did this the summer before I started my PhD program, and it really helped.

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Ditto on reading the books/articles of professors in the department.

At a few of the schools I applied to, in the course description sections, I found current syllabi as well. I went through the syllabi for common texts between professors and over time and I picked those out to read. This has a double-function because not only do you go in more prepared, it's likely that you will have to buy at least some of those texts anyways so you're saving time and $$$ too!

I intend on spending a good deal of time once I make my final decision researching and doing more reading to get a wider base for my research interests.

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I think it is a really good idea to do some research on your professors. You will get a little ahead of your fellow classmates who are just going to coast until they start. Doing your research will probably help you out in your classes, and it will also be impressive to your professors that you took the time to get a step ahead.

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I find it so interesting that everyone is encouraging people to read the work of professors in their department. Maybe this comes from being in a large and varied discipline but, I definitely don't, haven't, and never will read the work of many of the professors in my department because it will never be relevant to what I do. In fact, I haven't read the work of most of the faculty on my committee and none of them have suggested that I should (or should have!). YMMV, obviously.

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I haven't read work by ALL of the faculty in the department, and think that would certainly be over-doing it. But I have read a few articles or books by my 3-4 POIs. I've found it helpful in connecting with them, and following citations can lead you down a helpful and interesting rabbit hole...

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  • 2 weeks later...

I've also started reading some work by folks in the department. Specifically, I've got the 5-6 most recent articles by my advisor printed out and have been slowly but surely working my way through them. He's got a few different research streams going on and I'd like to be at least somewhat literate with regard to all of them. I also plan to check out the CVs of one or two other professors whose work I find interesting/pertinent to mine. Besides that, I've also started looking at living arrangements and put an ad on Craigslist looking for other folks in a similar situation who might want to get a jump start on housing- so I'm looking for roommates before we even find a place, I guess. In between that fun stuff I'm working as much as possible to get rid of as much current debt as I can, and reading a crap ton of novels and whatnot. :)

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I found it helpful to speak on the phone with a couple of current students, including one who was advised by someone who I think may become my adviser. She said he is a very engaging and helpful adviser IF you're researching something very similar to his work; otherwise he is much less responsive. (This probably isn't the case with all advisers, so it would be helpful for you to figure this out in advance.)

I found this information helpful because I can wisely spend my time reading his work and judging whether my research ideas closely line up with his ideas, and also whether I'm really passionate enough about these topics. Of course, I can only know how well we'd work out after I arrive at the school and get started. But learning about potential mentors in advance helped me know how to build my reading list wisely.

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