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Advice for a first year PhD student


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Greetings! After a long and stressful application season, I was fortunate to be accepted to all schools but two. I will start this Fall as a 21 year old. I suspect I'll be one of the youngest in my cohort and program. Is there any advice that you'd wished someone told you during your first year? Any advice would be appreciated whether it was age related, adviser related, studying, extracurricular activity, friends, etc. ALSO how much time do you really devote to grad studies, I have a dog and I'm wondering if I should give her away. Is grad school like 9-5 and then you work at home all night (spend time w/dog too) or is it more like a constant coming and going and not at all fair to my dog? Thanks!

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I'm in a MSc program, but in Canada, everyone starts grad school as a MSc student, graduates, and then applies for PhD programs (which can be at the same or a different institution). I'm finishing up my second and final year now.

First -- your question about time: It really depends on your program / department / research group / supervisor as well as your own goals in academia. For me, almost all of my research work can be done remotely (although I prefer to work in the office) so I really only need to go to school to attend class, TA, talk to my friends, attend seminars, and meet my supervisor. None of these things happen outside of 9-5 so I tend to stick to a 9-5 ish schedule and do extra work from home if necessary. I usually try to not do any "work" outside of 9-5 and not take my "work" home. However, I don't count course-work as "work" and I try to do that at home so it doesn't cut into research time too much. But if you work in, say, a chemistry lab, you might have stricter requirements as to when you need to be in the lab.

Many of my friends in school have dogs. Some of them take a break in the middle of the day to go home and walk their dogs or see them, if they live close. I try to treat grad school as a "job" -- unless there are deadlines approaching, I don't feel bad leaving at ~5pm even if there is stuff left to be done since it will still be there tomorrow! I know this means I'm not working to my fullest potential, and I'm okay with that. I'm not aiming to be the best in my field, and I choose to have other priorities.

Which comes to the second thing I want to say -- grad school is as much work as you want it to be. To use a cliche -- you will get out of it what you put in. So it's important to think about what you want to get out of your PhD program and then schedule your life accordingly! I think it's really important to budget your time and energy so that you don't neglect your priorities (whether it's courses, research, teaching, family, dogs, whatever). I think graduate school is hard enough even when you have a positive/healthy mindset, so maintaining whatever makes you happy is important.

I got some advice from my mentors (previous supervisors) that I thought was really valuable. They said to pick your supervisor and project in a way that will help you get a post-doc job (if that is the goal after PhD). If so, your PhD project will be the strongest argument you have for yourself when you apply for jobs. Pick something that will be interesting to people ~5 years from now, don't work on a super specific field that only you or your supervisor cares about (instead, do these as side projects). You don't have to love your thesis topic, just don't hate it! Next, make sure your project contributes to the field in a meaningful way, so that ideally people will start to connect the concepts you are working on with your name.

As for picking supervisors, my mentors told me that I should find someone who is a good mentor, not just a good researcher. We will need to trained in other skills such as how to write papers really well, how to apply for grants, how to give compelling presentations, how to get ourselves known. Many good researchers have these abilities but not everyone is good at teaching these abilities too. Also, if possible, find someone who will care about their students' success and will give us opportunities like attending conferences and so on. If you have an external scholarship and thus your supervisor may not pay you at all (or very little), it's common in the physical sciences to actually negotiate non-salary things like having a budget for travel or equipment, and so on. (Last piece of advice -- apply for external fellowships whenever possible, even if you are already funded by internal means. You probably won't get any more money, but you will get a lot more freedom and independence).

Those were some of the important (in my opinion) things I've learned in the last 2 years as a graduate student and from many conversations with my mentors while applying for PhD programs for this fall! Hope that gives you some things to consider :)

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I was 21 when I started my master's degree, so I can relate to being the youngest person in a batch. I don't know how much use my advice may be, as a master's, rather than Ph.D. student, but I'll try anyway. First of all, congratulations on your acceptances. In my opinion, your age won't make a difference. It obviously didn't to the admissions commitees. Also, based on my experience, I don't think your social interactions with your peers would be altered at all due to your age. I imagine most people start their Ph.D. from 22-25 years of age, and it's not like you're 16 or something.

I see there have already been very thorough posts made in reply to your questions, so a lot of what I am about to say may be repetitive, but here goes.

Selecting a research topic: One suggestion is to try and choose a research topic which has reasonably wide appeal in the field that you intend to pursue your career in. You don't have to pursue a career in whatever you do your dissertation research on, but obviously it would be great when you apply for jobs if your dissertation fits with what your potential employers do. You have time to think about what you want to do after your Ph.D., whether you want to pursue academia or industry, etc., but try to give it a bit of thought.You don't want to pigeonhole yourself by working on an obscure topic which would be appreciated by only a few specialists in the field, and thus limit your job prospects. Picking a research project which would be of significant interest or importance to the field will also help in the short-term, as you'll have a wider pool of professors to choose from to comprise your dissertation committee. Don't be like me, doing a basic molecular biology thesis project despite being an engineering student, and having to scramble to find committee members from my department who have at least passing interest in what I do. Another very important thing is to select a doable project. It's easy to pick the most challenging project, thinking you have so much time to work on it, only to get inconclusive results and find yourself scrambling at the end. Even the best planned project may look great on paper, but when you actually go around to doing it, you can get all sorts of setbacks you had never foreseen. For example, stuff which had been working before can inexplicably stop working, such as genomic DNA purification kits, molecular cloning, and sequencing reactions (drawing from my own experience). You can find yourself spending a lot of time on troubleshooting simple problems for even the best thought-out projects, so don't stress yourself out by being too ambitious in your project choice. Obviously you don't want to do pedestrian, barely original research, but strike a balance. A possible approach would be to pick a high-risk, high-reward topic, but have a less glamorous, "safety net" project as backup. This is what developmental biologist Leonard Zon of Harvard advises his graduate students and post-doctoral researchers. I'm not saying don't pick an interesting project or be afraid of challenges, but be realistic as to what you can accomplish in the timeframe that you have, and have a Plan B if possible. And of course, the main thing is to choose a research topic which you have a passion for; you will likely be spending the next 4-6 years of your life working on this. If you will be doing lab work, laboratory rotations will be extremely important in this process. Three to four weeks of working in a lab will give you a sense of what life would be like working in a particular field or subfield.

Selecting an advisor: It goes without saying, but pick an advisor whom you can get along well with. Make sure it is a person you feel like you can communicate candidly with, and who will be candid with you. Again, you'll find out about the personalities and expectations of potential advisors during laboratory rotations. Some advisors expect you to be in the lab at certain times, some advisors could care less when you show up, as long as you get the work done. Some advisors are very hand-on, will provide a lot of advice and suggestions, others are more laissez-faire, and will give you a lot of autonomy. Think about whether you want a lot of flexibility in doing your project, or whether you want to be in a more structured environment. In general, established professors, who often have large labs, tend to let students sink or swim on their own; newer professors, who often have smaller labs, are probably more invested in your success or failure. On the other hand, well-established professors tend to have more resources and funding, and their recommendation will carry a bit more weight when you apply for post-doctoral positions. Also, one thing I would like to say is, don't be afraid to let your opinion be heard. Don't just agree with everything your advisor says. He or she may be the most eminent person in the field, but if you have a disagreement over how an experiment should be done, for example, make sure you voice your concerns.

Selecting a dissertation committee: I've only had experience in selecting a master's thesis committee, but I imagine it would translate to a selecting dissertation committee as well. It's important to select committee members who work well together. As in any workplace, there are people who get along well, and those that don't, so discuss your intended committee composition with your advisor before reaching out to potential committee members. I've personally not had to deal with any personality clashes with my committee members, but I would still say it's something to keep in mind. Also, try to include professors who are prominent in your field of interest. Don't think that a professor is too famous or too important to serve on your dissertation committee. I've heard that one physics Ph.D. student was hesitant to ask the eminent Richard Feynman to serve on his committee, but when he did ask, Feynman readily agreed. Apparently this was the first time someone had ever asked Feynman, because all the students were afraid to thus far. Imagine getting a job recommendation from the Feynman of your field! Having said that, make sure that your committee members are there for a valid reason; select committee members primarily based on the skills and expertise that they bring to the table. If you are doing an epigenetics study, it's far better that you pick the lesser-known expert in chromatin remodeling rather than the world-renowned leader in gold nanoparticles, to use an extreme example.

Interacting with faculty: Obviously, it is important that you should try and build strong relationships with the professors in your department. I'm sure you must have been good at that as an undergraduate, since you would have gotten strong recommendations for graduate school, so what I say may be superfluous to your requirements. I think it's more important, but at the same time easier, to interact with your professors in graduate school. In undergraduate, your main avenue for interaction is through office hours, and your grade in their class is mainly what shapes the professor's impression of you. In graduate school, you'll get to go through laboratory rotations with different professors, and the classes will be much more of the seminar variety, where you interact directly, discussing primary literature with the instructor and your classmates. In one of my graduate seminar courses,(headed by the DGS for the program), I, along with some other people, actively contributed to the class discussion throughout the semester. Others were mostly silent throughout, basically just showing up just for attendance. It didn't affect their grade, but the DGS expressed his disappointment that some people did not seem to show interest in the field that they had ostensibly chosen to pursue for their career. That's obviously not the best way to kick things off in a program you are planning to spend the next few years in. If you have strong relationships with your professors, when the time comes to pick your dissertation committee, get job recommendations, etc. it will be much easier.

Graduate work and studies: DO NOT feel that you have to give your dog away. I know plenty of Ph.D. students with dogs, and they do manage to find the time to spend with their pets. However, based on my experience, you'll have to be a bit flexible at times when it comes to your research, being prepared to work on nights or weekends if necessary. This is especially true if you'll be working in a lab. There will be periods where you need to get a lot of stuff done in a short period of time, but there will also be relative lulls, so be prepared to adjust your schedule accordingly. But you don't have to be in the lab 24/7. The most important factor is your time management. If you are organized and plan ahead, there's no reason why you can't do your research mostly in a 9-5 timespan. Some people do that, others, like me, are haphazard, and come at random times in the night to get work done. So definitely, as long as you manage time well, your life won't be swallowed up by research, and you can devote the time that you need to your dog. As far as coursework, I don't think you need to worry about it occupying an inordinate amount of time. The courses will be more advanced, but since you have been accepted into multiple Ph.D. programs, you are obviously smart enough and talented enough to handle it. The courses will be much more of the seminar-type, involving discussions of primary literature, and your exams will be testing your critical thinking more than requiring you to cough up book knowledge. You will have to do a ton of reading of journal articles for both your research and many of your courses, which of course can be done at home. It might take a bit of getting used to at first, especially since many articles are not exactly lucidly written. Unless you do absolutely atrociously in a course, you'll get A's and B's in your courses, so don't stress about grades too much. You're obviously intelligent, so as long as you put in an honest effort, you'll get your just reward; you don't have to put in superhuman time and effort to get good grades in your coursework.

Non-academic life: The following advice is not stuff which I follow myself (wish I did), but I think it is valid nonetheless. Do not let your graduate work consume your life. Yes, you will have to spend a lot of time and effort on your research and courses, but set a limit. Do not let it prevent you from having a social life, spending time with your dog, etc. If you are someone who wants to have the weekend off, manage your time wisely, as I said before. But if you do find yourself having to spend inordinate amounts of time, just stop, take a step back, and make sure you get your time off. Ph.D. is a marathon, not a sprint, so it's much more important to stay mentally fresh, both for your own sake, and the quality of work that you do. I don't have much of a social life, but that's not because I can't find the time; I'm just simply an insular person. I know Ph.D. students, and they do manage to have time to do stuff, like play intramural sports, spend time with friends, etc. Unlike in undergraduate, where you are focused on coursework, and your schedule is much more rigid, in graduate school, your time is much more flexible; you can make decisions on how to use your time, so you can structure it such that you can have a social life. Just be careful not to procrastinate, because that can come back to bite you. When it comes to friends, I suspect you will make good friends in your cohort, because it is a small group, and they will be going through many of the same experiences that you will be. You can also meet graduate students in other departments, often through mixers and events hosted by your graduate student organization. If you are into sports, you can also make new friends by meeting other people if you play your basketball, tennis, etc. at your school recreation center. And again, your age will definitely not be a problem when making friends, having a social life, etc.

This is about all I have for now, and if I think of anything else I feel is important, I'll post again. Best of luck with graduate school this fall!

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Is there a way posts like jullietmercredi's can be featured as an article, or indexed prominently for later reference, in these fora? I agree, that was one of the most useful posts I've read in my 1+ year on Grad Cafe! Kudos for taking the time to write it!

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Do what you can to minimize the temptation to reinvent the wheel.

Do your level best to learn from those who have gone before you and have asked similar questions.

Consider the utility of incorporating your questions into ongoing discussions.

When assessing the guidance you've received, consider the background, the expertise and the experience of the person who offered it.

If I sound snarky it is because this BB is going through a phase in which newer members are repeating questions that have been addressed many, many times. While this trend provides opportunities to get great guidance from experienced graduate students such as jullietmercredi, it also provides opportunities to miss equally sound guidance from experienced graduate students such as jullietmercredi.

IMO, this trend represents a "lost opportunity" for many of you to start the transition from being undergraduates to being graduate students. As graduate students, you will often encounter an implicit expectation that you are doing the leg work to find the answers to your own questions, and from there generating additional questions and answers. (In some quarters, this leg work is called "research".)

Additionally, some of you who are in your twenties may be walking into a buzzsaw as new graduate students. Your cohort is developing a reputation for having attitudes of entitlement and self-absorption. (Consider how members of the generation of 1965 talk about the OWS and Tea Party movements) Regardless of the accuracy of this perception (Christopher Lasch had the same complaints back in 1978), perception is reality.

While it is your choice as to what questions you want to ask and how you want to ask them, do not be surprised if those who are most capable of helping you decide to tune you out. If you think this can't happen to you, ask yourself why you're asking strangers on the internet for guidance rather than going into a professor's office and getting mentored?

My $0.02.

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Sigaba, it's rather funny that you chose to post that in a thread that has generated some really great replies.

Rather than assuming that the OP didn't read any past posts and then hijacking their thread, maybe you should create your own post where this topic can be discussed.

Also, thanks to juilletmercredi and Cookie Monster and TakeruK, those were really helpful posts!

Edited by jeffster
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My conclusion is based upon using the search function for less than a minute and finding several threads that answer the questions asked in the OP. That is, in less time than it took the OP to type up the questions, the member could have found previously offered guidance.

I understand that many newer members of this BB would like to think that the challenges they face are new, that their questions are unique, and that their insights are novel. This attitude undermines the effectiveness of the BB because it encourages newer members to start new threads rather than to build upon existing ones.

In regards to your characterization of my "hijacking" the thread, you have again demonstrated an inability to read carefully. The OP specifically asked for "age related' advice which my reply offered.

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I think that every generation/cohort thinks that the previous generation are doing something wrong, that things were better in the old days. And every generation thinks that the older generation is irrelevant and stuck in the old ways! This semester, a bunch of us who were TAing were mentioning how much undergrads these days want their TAs to just tell them the answer, and they get mad when we ask them questions in response to their questions. But if we're complaining about our undergrads now, I wonder what our TAs said about us ~4-5 years ago!

Easier said than done, but it seems ideal for the new generation to do as Sigaba says, and remember that the older generation gained a ton of experience getting to where they are now. At the same time, the new generation could be bringing in fresh ideas and it might not be a good idea to dismiss these thoughts simply because we don't have the experience. I am thinking more of the generation gap between current students and junior faculty members, but it could also apply to the gap between PhDs-about-to-graduate/postdocs and incoming grad students.

Now, to "defend"/"explain" "my" cohort despite what I said above :P

1. I don't agree that Internet BBs are ONLY meant to be repositories of knowledge where someone with a question should try to find every single thread on the topic and read everything. Sure, this is exactly what we do for a literature review for our work, but discussing graduate school, while related to work, isn't work. I think this was the original intention now, but with more and more people growing up in an Internet dominated world, Internet technologies are changing fast. Here's why it makes sense for a new user to post a new question instead of digging up old ones:

a ) Internet rule of not reviving dead posts. On most BBs, it's poor etiquette to post in a thread that has been inactive for some period of time

b ) The user wants to interact with current, active members, not just passively read something -- maybe they already read some of the stuff and now want interaction

c ) Related to ( a ) and ( b ), posting in an old (dead) thread is not effective at getting the attention of current active members. If there is an existing thread 5 pages long, most people will not read the previous 5 pages and write responses taking into account all of the past posts in mind. Most people will either see that it's 5 pages long and not bother, or just write a response based on the new post and not consider the previous posts. In the former case, the OP doesn't get the interaction. In the latter case, there was no advantage to continuing a year-old thread since few people make use of the past -- it's more organized to start a new thread.

d ) It's more satisfying to ask your own question, in your own thread, where you can define the parameters of your question instead of a thread where a mood/tone might have already been developed. This point is more "frivolous" but still plays a factor I think.

My solution? I'm a new member of this community but I've been on other BBs for many years and see the same stuff get asked all the time. It might be more useful to link to a specific post that we think is helpful or just copy and paste something we've written before for the OP, if we think we are repeating ourself.

I think nowadays, a BB is more of a place for a person to announce something (e.g. I have a problem!) and then whoever is around and interested can gather and have a discussion. Although it has the capability to function like a library of knowledge, and there are many who do use it that way, I would say that the majority are drawn to BBs because of the ability to talk to active members, not read through past posts. But it's a good thing that BBs can function in both ways and allows users to choose how to use the BB.

2. Regarding the "sense of entitlement" of "our" cohort. I think this is partially due to the fact that the people entering graduate studies today are VERY different than the people running graduate studies (i.e. profs). It's clear that nowadays, more and more people are going to University and getting degrees -- it's the norm to go to college and I think this is spreading into grad school too. So, the demographics are different. I'm not sure if it's true but it sure feels like many programs expect graduate students to devote themselves to academia. I'm not saying this is the case for any particular person, but I feel that someone from a family who has had people in grad school before (so they understand us) and/or aren't from a "working poor" class would have a much easier time adjusting to graduate student life and doing well than others. Someone who wants to start a family, or needs to send money home to their parents, or wants to do other things than just academia will face more challenges in grad school. One can argue that grad school isn't for those in the above categories and aren't able to / willing to face the challenges, though -- but I don't think this is the right way to do things.

I don't know for sure what the job prospects were for our profs though. Maybe it was just as bad for them but they just toughed it out. I don't think it's a bad idea for our cohort to come with certain expectations and fight/push for changes for things that we want. We should have the ability to voice our opinions and shape the way our graduate program is run. Maybe when all of the new people entering college in the past decade reach faculty positions, graduate programs will be drastically different. Or maybe it won't, if the system ends up doing a good job of self-selecting like-minded people. But fighting for better working conditions or improving student life shouldn't be considered a sense of "entitlement". That is, graduate school shouldn't be a place of "conform or perish" -- the norms of the department should be set by all of its members, including students. If the issues are important enough, the students' voice could be strong enough to cause change.

I guess when it comes down to it, I feel this way because I believe that educational programs (at all levels, i.e. BSc, MSc, PhD) exist to serve the students and it should meet our needs. The faculty members with experience would know what kind of skills are important for academic success so they would build the degree program on this. But it's easy for people to think that "I suffered through this to get to where I am so the students have to as well". And the needs of students back in the day may not be the same as the needs now. So it's important for department to seek feedback from students and incorporate what we would like to get out of our degrees into our degree programs. Maybe this is the "sense of entitlement" that Sigaba is referring to, but I don't think it's unreasonable to want to have some say in our degree programs if we are going to spend 5-6 years of our life and potentially opportunity costs during our PhDs.

Edited by TakeruK
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My conclusion is based upon using the search function for less than a minute and finding several threads that answer the questions asked in the OP. That is, in less time than it took the OP to type up the questions, the member could have found previously offered guidance.

I understand that many newer members of this BB would like to think that the challenges they face are new, that their questions are unique, and that their insights are novel. This attitude undermines the effectiveness of the BB because it encourages newer members to start new threads rather than to build upon existing ones.

In regards to your characterization of my "hijacking" the thread, you have again demonstrated an inability to read carefully. The OP specifically asked for "age related' advice which my reply offered.

Sigaba, I'm afraid I can't tell if you're just trolling, or if you're really this unfamiliar with how internet forums work. The effectiveness of a forum is undermined when no one posts; it is not undermined by people posting similar questions. I'm pretty new here, but I don't think most of us view this as a information repository so much as we view it as a discussion community. There are a lot of reasons that users should post new threads, which TakeruK outlined quite thoroughly above. In fact, a perfectly valid reply from you would have said "Hey, you can also check out these past threads on this topic. Good luck!" That would have been something a helpful member of a forum community would do. Unfortunately you chose to share some links then couple it with a rant equating poor (in your mind) internet forum behavior to grad school research habits.

And just to avoid contributing even further to the hijacking of this thread, I'll add for the OP that I don't think you should give your dog away. There's another thread around here somewhere about pets in grad school - plenty of people manage it!

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Thank you guys so much! I especially appreciate the detailed response (you thought of everything, even things that haven't crossed my mind yet). This is exactly what I was looking for, guidance from the wiser and more experienced. Thanks for sharing, I'm definitely book marking this page. I'm sure I'll be revisiting it : )

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1. There's just no pleasing some people. This includes fellow students as well as faculty. Recognize these people and adjust your expectations accordingly, lest you succumb to the trap of killing yourself while trying to please the unpleasable. Instead, try to surround yourself with people that will cheer you on rather than tear you down, even if it's just your peer group, as realistically, you might not have much say with your assignment for your supervisor.

2. Don't sweat the small stuff and know when to say no. It's hard not to in an environment that is so stressful and will take over your entire existence if you let it. Just remember that it's a marathon, not a sprint, and that you need to pace yourself accordingly.

3. As hard as it is, set boundaries. Before you start graduate school, you need to outline what is truly important to you and what graduate school can't have. This could be your significant other, time for hobbies, money to splurge on something that will keep you sane, etc. Either way, be mindful of what you are willing to give up and what you are not willing to give up, as graduate school will take as much as you give it (which is everything, if you let it).

4. A good advisor is one of the best tools you can have when navigating a PhD program. Make sure that you match well with your advisor in terms of working style (i.e., are they a micromanager, are they more hands-off) and personality over research fit, as even the best research fit with a bad personality will make your life a living hell. It's hard enough; don't make it harder by not having some support from faculty Additionally, sometimes you will find that your advisor just serves as a figurehead and that your true mentor isn't your formal "advisor". However you do it, just make sure you become close and have a good relationship with at least one faculty member. It will make your time in the program much easier.

5. Branch out in your research. I know the cookie cutter advice is to write every single class paper on what will be your thesis or dissertation, but I disagree with this advice. While I think most work should be oriented towards a dissertation, about once a year, I pick a different topic that departs from what I usually research. Not only has this been a welcome break from the monotony of doing the same topic, but it can open up the door for new research interests (or hell, even a new course you'd like to teach), and I find that doing something outside of my comfort zone has really pushed me as a researcher.

6. Try to have a few friends outside of your program. I find that it's helpful to socialize with people who aren't academics.

7. Don't focus on grades. Focus on learning new skills.

8. Be realistic; accept the possibility that if you are trying to land an academic position, it might not happen. If you are aiming for the ivory tower, be cautiously optimistic, but anticipate other career possibilities. To this end, if you have the free time, I would recommend learning skills that can be taken to non-academic jobs. This might mean doing an internship over the summer. This may be field-specific, but in my field, I've found that the networking associated with doing internships for non-academic companies/agencies has come in handy (if you can land a paid internship, bonus!).

9. Always, always, ALWAYS be nice to the administrative staff/secretaries. They are the gateway to many things, such as submitting important paperwork and free food. :D

Edited by xxcheshirecatox
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-You may need to reach outside of your cohort for a social life. None of my close friends are in my doctoral cohort. I've met master's students in my program, master's students in other programs, and I know a few non-graduate students I hang out with, too. Go to graduate student mixers. (If your university doesn't have any, organize some, if you like planning parties.) Join a student group that doesn't take up too much time. I had a doctoral acquaintance who kinda laughed at me because I joined some student groups other than the doctoral student one, and I was usually the only doctoral student in those groups, but I met some close friends (and future job contacts) and had a good time.

I was always wondering about this. I was debating if it would be a good idea or weird to join a student group on campus that is primarily undergraduate/ masters students. It is good to know somebody has already done it and it is not that weird. ;)

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About your dog: I think that depends entirely on you and your program. I am in a social science program where the majority of my analysis and writing can be done from home, and I prefer to work from home or from a library (as opposed to my cube in the windowless cube farm). When I was taking classes I was generally there from 9-6 or so, but now that my coursework is finished I am rarely at the school itself. I go for meetings, seminars, interesting kinds of things and I do most of my work remotely. My time is verrry flexible, and if my building didn't prohibit it I would get a dog in a heartbeat. Another thing to keep in mind: a dog can be a great comfort when you're all stressed out over graduate school.



-Don't feel like you have nothing to offer just because you are younger. I was 22 when I started graduate school. You got accepted to the program for a reason, and chances are you are just as equipped as any older students are to successfully complete the program, just in a different way.

-Your older classmates may be just as terrified as you. Talk to them. You have a lot in common. You are, after all, in the same place.

-You will feel like an imposter, like you don't belong, or like you are constantly behind. Or all three. It's normal. It will pass. (Well, sort of.) People of all ages go through this.

Adviser related:

-If you are lucky enough to get both research interest fit and personality fit perfect, congratulations! But sometimes, personality fit is more important than research interest fit as long as the research isn't too different. A great adviser is interested in your career development, likes you as a person, advocates for you, and wants to hear your ideas. Even if his or her research is quite different from yours, they may give you the autonomy to work on your own projects and just supervise you. A bad personality fit will drive you nuts, even if you love his or her research. Consider that when evaluating your adviser fit. (This will vary by field: research fit may be less important in the humanities, more important in the natural and physical sciences. Social sciences are somewhere in-between.)

-Don't be afraid to be straight up blunt with your adviser when it comes to asking about your progress. Ask if you are where you should be both academic program wise and getting-a-job-after-this-mess-wise.

-Be proactive. Advisers love when you draw up an agenda for your one-on-one meetings, come with talking points and progress to share, have concrete questions to ask, and have overall shown that you have been thoughtful and taken control of your own program. Of course, this won't immediately come easily to you, but in time you will work up to it. Every semester I type up my semester goals, and at the beginning of the year I type up annual goals. I show them to my adviser and we talk about whether they are too ambitious, or whether I need to revise them, and how I can meet them.

-Don't expect your adviser to actually know what courses you have to take to graduate. They will know about comprehensive exams and the dissertation, but a lot of professors don't really keep up with the course requirements, especially if their program is in flux. Get you a student handbook, and find out what you need to take. Map it out in a grid, and check off things when you finish them. Show this to your adviser every semester. You may have to explain how such and such class fills a requirement.

-Nobody loves you as much as you, except your mother. Keep this in mind as you take in advice from all sources, including your adviser. Your adviser is there to guide you, but that doesn't mean you have to do everything he says.


-You will have to read more than you ever did before, in less time than you ever have before, and you will be expected to retain more than you ever have before. The way that you studied in undergrad may need some tweaking. Be prepared for this.

-Corollary: you may find that your methods change with age or interests or time. I preferred to study alone in college, but in grad school, I prefer to study in groups. It keeps me on task and the socialization keeps me motivated. You may find that you shift from being a more auditory learner to a visual learner or whatever.

-You will feel behind at first. This is normal.

-At some point you will realize that your professors don't actually expect you to read everything they assign you. This, of course, will vary by program, but there will be at least one class where the reading is actually impossible to do in one week. The point is to read enough that you know the major themes and can talk intelligently about them, and then pick some of the readings to really dig into and think more deeply about.

-For most programs, don't worry so much about grades. If you stay on top of your work and do what you're supposed to, you will probably get an A. How much grades matter varies from program to program. In some programs, a B is a signal that you are not up to par, and more than a few Bs will warrant a discussion with your adviser or the DGS. My program isn't like that - A, B, it's all meaningless. My adviser doesn't even know what my grades are. But at almost all programs, a C means you need to retake the course, and two Cs means you have to convince the DGS not to kick you out.

Extracurricular activity: What's that? No, seriously:

-A lot of your time will be unstructured. You will have coursework, but most grad classes meet once a week for two hours and you may have three classes. You may have meetings with your adviser every so often and some seminars or things to catch (like we have grand rounds and colloquia that are required), but a lot of time will be unstructured. However, since you have so much more work than you had in undergrad, you actually will have less free time than you had in undergrad. This may initially cause you great anxiety. It did for me. Some people love unstructured time, though. (I don't.)

-Because of this, you'll have to be planful about your non-grad school related stuff.

-TAKE TIME OFF. DO it. It's important for your mental health. However you do it doesn't matter. Some people work it like a 9-5 job. Some people take a day off per week (me) and maybe a few hours spread across the week. Some people work half days 7 days a week. However you do it, there needs to be a time when you say "f this, I'm going to the movies."

-Find your happy place, something that keeps you the you you were when you came in. I love working out. It gives me energy and I feel good. I stay healthy. I also love reading fiction, so sometimes I just curl up with a good book, work be damned. You have to give yourself permission to not think about work, at least for a couple of hours a week. You may also discover new hobbies! (I never worked out before I came to graduate school.)

-Your work will creep into all aspects of your life, if you let it. This is why I hate unstructured time. You will feel guilty for not doing something, because in graduate school, there is ALWAYS something you can do. ALWAYS. But since there will always be more work, there's no harm in putting it aside for tomorrow, as long as you don't have a deadline.

-You may need to reach outside of your cohort for a social life. None of my close friends are in my doctoral cohort. I've met master's students in my program, master's students in other programs, and I know a few non-graduate students I hang out with, too. Go to graduate student mixers. (If your university doesn't have any, organize some, if you like planning parties.) Join a student group that doesn't take up too much time. I had a doctoral acquaintance who kinda laughed at me because I joined some student groups other than the doctoral student one, and I was usually the only doctoral student in those groups, but I met some close friends (and future job contacts) and had a good time.

-DO NOT FEEL GUILTY FOR WANTING A LIFE OUTSIDE OF GRADUATE SCHOOL. This is paramount. This is important. You are a well-rounded, complex, multifaceted human being. NEVER feel bad for this. Everybody wants some kind of life outside of work. Yes, you may loooove your field, but that doesn't mean you want to do it all day long. Some other doctoral students, and perhaps professors, may make you feel bad about this. Don't let them. Just smile and nod. Then disappear when you need to.


-This is job preparation. Remember that from Day One. Always be looking for ways to enhance your skills. Read job ads and find out what's hot in your field, what's necessary, what's in demand. For example, in my field statistics and methods are a hot commodity, and they're not a passing fad. I happen to really like statistics and methods, so I have pursued that as a concentration of mine.

-Don't be afraid to take on volunteer work and part-time gigs that will give you skills that will be useful both inside academia and out, as long as it's not against your contract. Your adviser may be against it, but he doesn't have to know as long as it doesn't interfere with your work.

-If you want to work outside of academia - if you are even *considering* the possibility - please please definitely do the above. Even if you aren't considering it, consider the possibility that you won't get a tenure-track job out the box and that you may need to support yourself doing something else for a while. You will have to prove to employers that you have developed usable, useful skills and this is one of the easiest ways to do it. But don't overdo it - get the degree done.

-For more academic related ones - always look for opportunities to present and publish. Presentations look good on your CV. Publications look better. When you write seminar papers, wonder if you can publish them with some revision. Write your seminar papers on what you maybe think you may want to do your dissertation on. Even if you look at them three years later and think "these suck," you can at least glean some useful references and pieces from them. Discuss publication with your adviser early and often, and if you have the time and desire, seek out publication options with other professors and researchers. But if you commit to a project, COMMIT. You don't want to leave a bad impression.

-If you can afford it, occasionally go to conferences even if you aren't presenting. You can network, and you can hear some interesting talks, and you may think about new directions for your own research. You can also meet people who may tell you about jobs, money, opportunities, etc.

-Always try to get someone else to pay for conference travel before you come out of pocket. Including your adviser. Do not be shy about asking if he or she can pay. If he can't, he'll just say no. Usually the department has a travel fund for students, but often it's only if you are presenting.

-If you are interested in academia, you should get some teaching experience. There are two traditional ways to do this: TAing a course, and teaching as a sole instructor. If you can help it, I wouldn't recommend doing a sole instructor position until you are finished with coursework. Teaching takes a LOT of time to do right. You should definitely TA at least one course, and probably a few different ones. But don't overdo it, if you can help it, because again, it takes a LOT of time. More than you expect at the outset. If you are in the humanities, I think sole instructor positions are very important for nabbing jobs so when you are in the exam/ABD phase, you may want to try at least one. If your own university has none, look at adjuncting for nearby colleges, including community colleges. (I would wager that the majority of natural science/physical science students, and most social science students, have never sole taught a class before they get an assistant professor job. At least, it's not that common n my field, which straddles the social and natural sciences.)

-Always look for money. Money is awesome. If you can fund yourself you can do what you want, within reason. Your university will be thrilled, your adviser will be happy, and you can put it on your CV. It's win-win-win! Don't put yourself out of the running before anyone else has a chance to. Apply even if you think you won't get it or the odds are against you (they always are), as long as you are eligible. Apply often. Apply even if it's only $500. (That's conference travel!) Money begets money. The more awards you get, the more awards you will get. They will get bigger over time. If you are in the sciences and social sciences, you should get practice writing at least one grant. You don't have to write the whole thing, but at least get in on the process so that you can see how it's done. Grant-writing is very valuable both in and outside of graduate school.

-Revise your CV every so often. Then look and decide what you want to add to it. Then go get that thing, so you can add it.

-The career office at big universities is often not just for undergrads. I was surprised to learn that my career center offers help on CV organization and the academic job search, as well as alternative/non-academic career searches for doctoral students. In fact, there are two people whose sole purpose it is to help PhD students find nonacademic careers, and they both have PhDs. This will vary by university - some universities will have very little for grad students. Find out before you write the office off.

-It's never too early to go to seminars/workshops like "the academic job search inside and out", "creating the perfect CV," "getting the job," etc. NEVER. Often the leader will share tips that are more aimed towards early graduate students, or tidbits that are kind of too late for more advanced students to take care of. This will also help you keep a pulse on what's hot in your field. It'll help you know what lines you need to add to your CV. And they're interesting.


-Decide ahead of time what you are NOT willing to sacrifice on the altar of academia. Then stick to it.

I'm serious. If you decide that you do NOT want to sacrifice your relationship, don't. If it's your geographical mobility, don't. I mean, be realistic, and realize that there will always be trade-offs. But you have to think about what's important to you for your quality of life, and realize that there is always more to you than graduate school.

-If you don't want to be a professor, do not feel guilty about this. At all. Zero. However, you will have to do things differently than most doctoral students. Your adviser will probably never have worked outside of the academy (although this may vary depending on the field) so he may or may not be able to help you. But you have a special mission to seek out the kinds of experiences that will help you find a non-academic job. Test the waters with your adviser before you tell him this. My adviser was quite amenable to it, but that's because I told him that my goal was to still do research and policy work in my field just not at a university, AND because it's quite common in my field for doctoral students to do non-academic work. If you're in a field where it's not common (or where your professors refuse to believe it's common, or it's not supposed to be common)…well, you may be a little more on your own.

-Every so often, you will need to reflect on the reasons you came to graduate school. Sometimes, just sit and think quietly. Why are you doing this to yourself? Do you love your field? Do you need this degree to do what you want to do? Usually the answer is yes and yes, and usually you'll keep on trucking. But sometimes when the chips are down you will need to reevaluate why you put yourself through this in the first place.

-To my great dismay, depression is quite common in doctoral students. Graduate work can be isolating and stressful. Luckily your health insurance usually includes counseling sessions. TAKE THEM if you need them. Do not be ashamed. You may be surprised with who else is getting them. (I found out that everyone in my cohort, including me, was getting mental health counseling at a certain point.) Exercise can help, as can taking that mental health day once a week and just chilling. Don't be surprised if you get the blues…

-…but be self-aware and able to recognize when the depression is clouding your ability to function. Doctoral programs have a 50% attrition rate, and this is rarely because that 50% is less intelligent than, less motivated than, less driven than, or less ambitious than the other 50% that stays. Often they realize that they are ridiculously unhappy in the field, or that they don't need the degree anymore, or that they'd rather focus on other things in life, or their interests have changed. All of this is okay!

-You will, at some point, be like "eff this, I'm leaving." I think almost every doctoral student has thought about dropping out and just kicking this all to the curb. You need to listen to yourself, and find out whether it is idle thought (nothing to worry about, very normal) or whether you are truly unhappy to the point that you need to leave. Counseling can help you figure this out.

-Don't be afraid to take a semester or a year off if you need to. That's what leaves of absence are for.

Lastly, and positively…

…graduate school is great! Seriously, when else will you ever have the time to study what you want for hours on end, talk to just as interested others about it, and live in an intellectual community of scholars and intellectuals? And occasionally wake up at 11 am and go to the bank at 2 pm? Sometimes you will want to pull out all of your hair but most of the time, you will feel fulfilled and wonderfully encouraged and edified. So enjoy this time!

Thank you so much, juilletmercredi. Like TakerUK said, awesomest.post.ever.

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Thanks - I just started writing and writing and then everything just poured out, lol. It was totally worth it - I see it as my duty to pass it down, as a bunch of people passed down a lot of the information on that list to me and some of it I learned on my own through hard trial and error. If we can prevent that, we should!

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Thanks - I just started writing and writing and then everything just poured out, lol. It was totally worth it - I see it as my duty to pass it down, as a bunch of people passed down a lot of the information on that list to me and some of it I learned on my own through hard trial and error. If we can prevent that, we should!

I can't wait for my turn to dole out these words of wisdom haha.

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  • 9 months later...

I think I just read the best / most helpful post in this whole forum! I am going to save juilletmercredi's post and read it from time to time, thanks for that!



Now, Sigaba, I did use the search engine, but came up with not very helpful advice. Maybe you are right, maybe what was said here is no different from other threads. But that does not give you the authority to be so harsh and condescending. In some threads I posted a question that had been discussed elsewhere and very kind people  only pointed out those threads. Finally, thank you for posting the URLs of those other threads, I am on them right now! :)


Juliet & the rest: I can't thank you enough. Graduate school here is completely different (you enrol in one university but you don't need to take all the courses there and, very often, your advisor  does not belong to that school). I am anxious, happy, stressed, sad for leaving, all at the same time (and doing what Juliet mentioned: lots of exercise). I'm sorry my post carries no advice, but I can't just sit and read and not be thankful. Really. :D 



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  • 1 month later...

Is there a new thread with some of this general advice?  Other than the last two this post is a year old.


Grad school is grad school--not much has changed about the process since last year. The advice here is as relevant as ever. If there is anything specific that you are left wondering about, you are welcome to ask here or start a new thread.

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  • 2 months later...

One tip I want to add, now that I've completed my first year of PhD work, is that you have to develop a certain level of... I'll call it apathy.  This has been a consistent theme when I speak with others in my program as well.


What do I mean by apathy?  Well, at the start of your first year doing PhD work you'll likely be somewhat frantic.  Everything must be perfect!  You must study all of the hours!  If you don't you will fail!


For me, the realization hit right after my first midterms.  I was just so tired from the pace I was forcing on myself that I couldn't do it anymore.  I started the second half of the term feeling like I wasn't doing enough, but was too tired to change it.  But as things progressed, I realized I was getting basically the same marks on my work.  Then finals came, and... again, basically the same scores. 


I think what I observed was probably due to two things:  First, you trade off a little less work for a lot more relaxation, and it balances out.  Second, I think the key is to identify diminishing returns.  For example, I had a professor who assigned really long problem sets of increasing difficulty, one a week, all semester long.  I found I could put in 25 hours or so and get a 9 out of 10... or I could put in 10 hours and get an 8.25 out of 10.  And combined they were only worth 10% of your grade, anyway.  There were way, way more productive things I could use those extra 15 hours a week for than gaining another tiny fraction on my final grade.  Your situations may vary, of course, but I think most PhD programs will require more of you than there is to give over a sustained period, and it will be up to you to figure out how to manage.


In short, learn to give up the idea of perfection in favor of doing well + keeping your sanity.  It's not worth the pending emotional breakdown if you try to sustain an unsustainable pace the entire time!

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Excellent advice. Do grades really matter that much in PhDs? Obviously we strive for those A's, but does getting a few B's really impose a net-effect on anything?

Well, I can't say for certain but I think this varies from program to program. I'm in a direct-entry PhD program (i.e. there are students who come in straight from their bachelor's degree), and if you fall below a 3.7 GPA you face getting kicked out of the program and not finishing with your PhD.

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@ jeftfster - What you mentioned really rang a bell of my first year in my MSc program. Especially, when I didn't have strong foundations in modern mathematics. I definitely agree that you should identify the diminishing returns. There is no need to get perfect scores on a course. My advice is focus more on research and try to think how the things you learned can be applied to your research.

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