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I am just getting ready to enter my PhD program. I met with the director to talk about 1st year courses. He made an interesting comment (that I later found out he made to another student when he was entering the program).

The gist of it was this....

Most students have an "all or nothing" approach to coursework. They don't know how to put in any less than 100% effort. They try to be perfect. Some students can "modulate" their effort. To see what is required and just do the right amount. They are then able to work on more stuff.

It surprised me. It sounded like the first time I was being given advice by a professor to "satisfice" and not maximize (in econ terms). Giving this some serious thought since until now I have been one of those 100%+ers.

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There is more to do in graduate school than can reasonably be done by a mere mortal (read: me. Probably you too). The advice you got is a very good one and you should give it some serious thought. Once you start school, you are going to have many simultaneous demands on your time: reading and writing for several courses; teaching requirements; research requirements; possibly, some service requirements (e.g. small organizational duties within your department). At some point - as soon as possible- you have to learn to prioritize. You can't possibly do all of the required reading for all your courses, for example. It's also sometimes a strategic choice to submit final papers that are "good enough", not "publishable as is". I have friends who don't want their professors to see anything less than perfect work and guess what - they have taken a number of incompletes and are behind on their requirements. I have chosen to submit papers that will earn me my desired grade but nothing more. If it's good/interesting work, I can follow up on it after the deadlines, but there is no need to get myself all worked up to meet some made-up deadline. Same goes for teaching duties. You can invest as much as you possibly can and still be lacking in terms of additional study aids/office hours/advice you could give your students.

You need to learn not to let any one aspect of your work take over all your work time. For that matter, you also need to learn not to let your work take over your life. It's important to learn to schedule time in your calendar for off-work activities(!), or else other duties will just take over that free time. It's also important to take time off to rest - and schedule it too, if you must. Just block off time for reading, writing, teaching, hobbies, rest, anything else you want. You may have noticed that this sounds like a heavy load -- it is. This is where prioritizing and doing less-than-perfect work in some areas becomes crucial. I'm not advocating for doing average work in all aspects and all the time, but rather learning where it's important to show your strong suits and where you can get by with doing less. Courses are often a place where ok-but-not-perfect work is really all you need.

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I also got the same advice, twice! When I started my MSc and when I was visiting PhD schools. I heard it from both profs and current graduate students. In my current MSc experience, it's definitely true and good advice. I also learned that it is MUCH easier to say "I'm going to prioritize" than to actually sacrifice effort. But I think I've learned to do it by now :)

Sometimes the advice comes with further details, like -- grad courses can sometimes be taught by profs that don't give a damn about the course. They just want it over and done with and you're not going to get anything out of it. So just get that minimum pass. Similarly, if you are taking a course that is just to fulfill a requirement but doesn't help your research or career, then just get that minimum pass. Save your course-related efforts for subjects that are interesting to you, or for courses that your adviser is teaching.

In addition, your grad school grades won't count for very much. Most post-doc applications won't really look at them, but some fellowships/scholarships might. In undergrad, the point of school is to take courses, and learn. In graduate school, many people (profs and students) view courses as a formality, something to get out of the way. Like a driving exam, first aid certification, safety training, etc, the goal is to demonstrate that you are proficient. (i.e. courses are still important, but for different reasons than in undergrad).

A related piece of advice is knowing when to ask for help. Sometimes students want to impress their supervisor by trying to solve the problem all on their own and spend weeks doing so. Sometimes the problem is something that the student couldn't have possibly known (or would have taken a long time). Knowing when to balance asking for help to save time vs. still being independent and learning on your own is something I'm still trying to figure out too.

And finally, grad school is really a place where "you get out what you put in". You can easily devote all your time to grad school. You will probably be rewarded too, with high grades, good research etc. But the cost is high! You need to know what you want to get out, and how much time you're willing to spend on school. If you don't draw the line, you will end up spending all your time doing work. A lot of students find it useful to log their hours and note what they were doing (just in general, e..g. research, courses, teaching, etc.) and then review it to see if they are spending time the way they want to. For me, a ~50-60 hour work week is what I've been aiming for.

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It surprised me. It sounded like the first time I was being given advice by a professor to "satisfice" and not maximize (in econ terms). Giving this some serious thought since until now I have been one of those 100%+ers.


You might benefit from spending time thinking about why you were surprised by the professor's guidance and why you're an overachiever.

For example, if you find that the reasons for both center around a desire to do right by others or to please those whom you admire, that insight could be very useful when you run into a professor who simply cannot be pleased or satisfied and/or changes constantly the criteria of evaluation.

Also, you might realize that you have assumptions about the rules that some of the rules are much different. This insight may allow you to handle with increased skill situations in which one finds others appearing to a different game..

Finally, you may find an insight that leads you to realize that you're holding others to the same expectations you hold yourself. Such an insight can be especially useful when working with undergraduates who don't share your interests and/or have other priorities.

To be clear, I am not making assumptions about you. I'm offering suggestions so that you can vet your own assumptions and make changes as you see fit.

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  • 2 weeks later...

To echo the above, put just enough effort into your coursework so you don't look like an idiot. Too much time on coursework means you're not researching enough. Research gets jobs, grades don't. Same advice for TA work.

ETA: Forgot that grades often matter for scholarships. At my university you'd want good grades in the first year or two, until you get a good fellowship. Once you're funded they don't matter and most people take them pass/fail from that point on.

Edited by lewin00
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