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Getting off to a good start

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Hey everyone,

 

I will be starting my first year of graduate school this fall and I wanted to ask current graduate students in any graduate program/field for advice on making a successful transition from undergrad to graduate school.

 

I am often critical of my academic potential as a student and I wanted to ask current students for advice on studying for classes (if this is done differently from undergrad), making connections with faculty and forming a good relationship with my assigned advisor, utilizing resources, school-life balance, finding a research topic and preparing my academic and professional profile for applying to doctoral programs. I also wanted to know if there are habits, attitudes or behaviors (aside from the obvious ones) that first year graduate students should avoid?

 

Thanks!

Edited by NeurosciMRI

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What I've noticed that tends to give a bad impression in past first year students in our program. Some of these, hopefully most of these, should be really obvious. 

 

Don't focus too much on classes, and not enough on everything else. Courses should be a minor part of what defines you as a graduate student/researcher. When your life revolves around courses, and you spend hours not in the lab because you're "studying" for courses we all know don't need that much study time, it makes you seem like you don't really get what grad school is about. 

 

While it's obvious, act like an adult. Be professional in your interactions with people, own mistakes you've made and move on without too many excuses. Don't be the guy that can't get over the fact that he now knows people who are married/have kids/are in their 30s. 

 

That said, treat your work like a job. You're getting paid to take school seriously and do research. If you show up at 10, go to a class, hit the gym for 2 hours and leave at 3, you likely won't make good impressions. That said, you don't need to make school and your work the entirety of your life. 

 

Along with that, lean how to be at least a little bit social. You don't want to be the new department party animal (well, you might, but that's on you), but you also don't want to be that first year who never does anything social with the department, and leaves all the department functions early/doesn't come. 

 

Don't be too cocky. Sure, you'll hear some of the 4/th/5th/6th year students talk critically about a seminar speaker in their area, or a faculty member deconstruct a colleagues research. That doesn't mean you should always do the same. Don't be the first year who talks about how some of the faculty are deadweight/have bad research/aren't as smart as they are. 

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Eigen has good pointers. I want to add that things will be much harder in grad school, especially during your first year. Be prepared! Your wellbeing is the top priority. You can't work 24/7! That said, schedule in down times to unwind. Seek supports from your cohort and be friends with them, or find a hobby that you can do when you are not studying/doing research. This will make your transition a lot smoother and prevent burnouts.

 

It is especially important to stay optimistic. Being pessimistic will really erode your motivation slowly, to a point of causing you to drop out. This is most prevalent when you are in the middle of your PhD. I have bouts of existential crisis and doubts of my own ability from time to time, the advice I got is "never fear, push forward!". Take baby steps when it seems too much. 

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Based on personal experience (which I'm sure you'll find in other threads here), I offer advice similar to the above posters: Keep in tune with your emotional well-being.  You will be very motivated going directly into graduate school and you might feel compelled to jump into your studies full force, wanting to, perhaps, stay ahead, to understand the topics early on.  Be careful with this method.  As the above poster said: take baby steps, pace yourself.  Keep any budding obsession with classes and grades in check.  You want to do well in classes, but they are absolutely secondary in graduate school.  Meet colleagues, get to know them, find ways you can help them with their own studies.  You'll help yourself through helping them.  Also, they will find you to be a helpful person and will exchange their own time and assistance if they're decent people.

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Guest criminologist

I am going to devote all my resources to getting A's in my coureses and doing well in my assistantship duties, sure I'll interact with the other students at times but I think everything else will be less priority. People say grades are not important but you need to have high grades to maintain your funding

 

Also I am glad I have no other responsibilities e.g. Pets, relationship, children, etc. if you have those they will just be a big distraction to your studies. I'm also giving up all the pleasures I used to do like video games during my doctoral studies, I'm just treating it like a professional job now which it is.

Edited by criminologist

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Also I am glad I have no other responsibilities e.g. Pets, relationship, children, etc. if you have those they will just be a big distraction to your studies. I'm also giving up all the pleasures I used to do like video games during my doctoral studies, I'm just treating it like a professional job now which it is.

 

A professional job does NOT entail you should give up on having any relationships, pets, children, friends, hobbies, or time off to just relax. You are thinking about this all wrong. Thinking about this as a professional job means you devote a certain part of the day (=the working hours) to your studies, and the rest of the time can be devoted to whatever else is happening in you life, including all those other things. It's really important to have something else in your life beside school, whatever that is. Otherwise, you'll burn out very quickly.  

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Guest criminologist

I guess I meant to say professional job with homework, yeah maybe some people would burn out if they don't have certain leisure activities but I just see anything not related to school as a distraction, honestly for me I cannot imagine successfully doing a PhD program and have other major responsibilities that is too many things to do and think about.

Edited by criminologist

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I am a first year grad student, and have voiced some of my concerns here already. So as one student to another. Be prepared to do WAY more work! And in much more detail. And for me personally, undergrad. school was pretty easy, but in grad. school I did have to result to outside help, such as tutors etc..so be ready for that. Also if your program is MA/PHD, you will most likely have classes with PhD students who probably know WAY more than you. Just accept this fact and learn from it. Finally as I was advised, if you do not get perfect scores, talk to the professors because you wanna know what you are doing wrong. I don't know how it will be for your major, but for mine our grade is pretty much just based on a final paper, so everything depends on that.

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I am going to devote all my resources to getting A's in my coureses and doing well in my assistantship duties, sure I'll interact with the other students at times but I think everything else will be less priority. People say grades are not important but you need to have high grades to maintain your funding

 

Also I am glad I have no other responsibilities e.g. Pets, relationship, children, etc. if you have those they will just be a big distraction to your studies. I'm also giving up all the pleasures I used to do like video games during my doctoral studies, I'm just treating it like a professional job now which it is.

 

I guess I meant to say professional job with homework, yeah maybe some people would burn out if they don't have certain leisure activities but I just see anything not related to school as a distraction, honestly for me I cannot imagine successfully doing a PhD program and have other major responsibilities that is too many things to do and think about.

 

I know that you are stating these opinions for yourself, and not necessarily judging other people, but you should know that when you make statements like this, you are implying that graduate students who do have other commitments (relationships, children, taking care of sick parents etc.) are not putting as much effort into grad school as you think they should. 

 

You're definitely free to impose whatever restrictions you want on yourself, but if you want to get off to a good start, it would be a good idea to not alienate yourself from your classmates by making these kind of statements. I know you might not even mean it in the judgmental way, but it will come off that way when you say it to other people. 

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I agree with TakeruK and I also want to recommend keeping an open mind for grad school. There is no reason to go in with the attitude that all leisure activities are leaving and no relationship welcome etc. I would try to go in more with the attitude of "I have no idea how much time grad school will take or should take so I will give it as much time as I need to and then enjoy myself when I can." It is easy to think that you will never get burnt out but the truth is that you will if you dont take breaks. I often times do work from the time I wake until I go to bed but I still do have a date night with my finance once a week which is wonderful and relaxing. I also make time to workout, even if that means that I can only get a 15 youtube video workout in.

 

You dont need to completely give up video games if that is a good relaxation tool. I would instead focus on making rules for yourself like that you won't play them until all of work is done + reading a journal article or something along those lines. Sometimes you might get lucky and be able to play for an hour before bed. Other nights, you may have to skip it or keep it down to 15 mins. At this point, you have no idea what your schedule will be like so giving up activities that you enjoy is silly.

 

I also recommend finding a couple friends to study with so you dont get lonely. When you study nonstop and dont interact, its easy to get loney. Im lucky that my SO is working on his MBA so we often spend evenings studying together. It is really great to have someone sitting there studying with you, even if there isnt time to socialize with them. You say pets are a distraction but I actually think they help keep me on track. They allow me to spend 12 hours straight studying without feeling as lonely. Try to keep an open mind about these things. You might see a relationship as a distraction but I see it as a buddy to study with in the evenings and same with my dogs. I actually recommend finding a few close friends to sit in the library with a few nights a week or a dog or something. You need to be able to combine study and socialization since its hard to do adequate amounts of both seperately.

Edited by bsharpe269

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See, personally, I feel that working on one task (school) for more than a certain amount per week (usually around 50 hours or so, depending) has severely diminishing returns. 

 

Keeping other interests in life, relationships and leisure activities gives your brain time to work on different tasks, or have downtime, and you usually end up better for it- your research and studies as well, in my opinion. 

 

That's not to say that there aren't crunch times where you have to work more, but my anecdotal experience is that people working more than 50 or 60 hours a week are usually less efficient than those working less, and tend to spend more time on tasks that could be finished in less. Most European researchers, I've found, are very dedicated at working a short, highly productive week. They get in, take the job seriously, work 8 hours, and then clock out and do something else. It makes their working time more productive, and limits burnout. 

 

You may think that you're the kind of person that avoids burnout, but I have not yet met someone who isn't susceptible to it in some way- you may just be less productive, you may miss connections that you'd otherwise see in your work, or you may just not have as good of a perspective of how your work fits in the broader scheme of things. 

 

There are a lot of discussions on the inter webs about work-life balance, and I have yet to see any convincing data that focussing on your work to the exclusion of all else in your life is ever beneficial, and there are lots of suggestions that it's actually detrimental, both to the quality of your life and the quality of your work. 

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I agree with the diminishing returns thing.  There is not a linear relationship between time spent on studies and performance on studies.  In fact, I would say the relationship isn't even monotonic.  After a certain point, you spend so much time on studies, and get so burnt out working on studies, that you end up producing less work at 1.5x hours per week than you would have been able to do at only x hours per week.  The human mind is a fickle beast, highly emotional and able to internalize what's been learned simply by being away from studies for periods of time.

 

When people say "burn out" I view it in a different way, being a car enthusiast.  Imagine a car with 600 horsepower and you want to maximize your speed at the end of a quarter mile.  In most cases, you cannot simply floor the car the whole way and expect good results.  Going "all out" just spins the wheels, makes lots of smoke, goes far slower, and might even crash into a wall.  The tires literally burn out until you can no longer see what is ahead of you due to all the smoke.  If you throw maximum effort at your studies 100% of the time, you will find that your vision is obscured by minutiae.  I've found that I learn quite a lot by simply stepping away from the work for a little bit and doing something else.  I come back a few hours later (or the next day) and the work is suddenly easier.

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Thanks for everyone's input. I will be starting my masters in epidemiology. I have noticed that many of you are doctoral students, but I would assume that the advice given above applies at the masters level as well. I will be applying to doctoral programs or medical school after my first year so although grades will matter, I don't want that to be my sole focus.

 

I will apply to be a volunteer at the hospital since I enjoy community service activities for my down time and also participate in journal clubs, research seminars, grand rounds and interest groups at the school that I will be attending. I will use these opportunities to network with faculty and other students and to figure out what my research interests are going to be. I think its just about balance like what has been stated above. During undergrad, I participated in many extracurriculars and often my grades would suffer as a result ( I completed the premedical curriculum). This time around, I just want to engage in one or two things (volunteering and research), while focusing on my coursework, making new friends and occasionally going to meaningful social events if I have time. 

 

Sounds like graduate school is similar to undergrad, however there seems to be a stronger emphasis on forming strong relationships with faculty and staff and not solely studying to get the best grades. I agree that there is only a certain amount of studying that you can do until it becomes almost pointless. You can't do everything so its important to do things efficiently. 

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Guest criminologist

I am not saying I will be only studying the whole time but I can't have major distractions like some people do, they would take up too much time and to me it is nothing more than an additional burden weighing me down. I just want to approach my studies these four years very seriously, a PhD program is a lot more work and more difficult plus you are being graded, so you cannot expect to have work life balance. Plus it is not like you are not going to have plenty of time to enjoy your pets, hobbies ,relationships,  once you are done so why not them put them aside temporarily so you can be the most productive in your studies and research.

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Honestly? Because a PhD is the time to set yourself up for the rest of your career. 

 

Post-doctoral work and TT positions just get busier, not easier, and the stakes are higher. Learning how to balance your work and life while you're in grad school, and the stakes aren't as high, is how you become a productive academic long term. 

 

I know a PhD program is hard work and difficult, as does Fuzzy- we're both almost done with our programs. 

 

You can, and should, expect to have a work-life balance in graduate school. 

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Plus it is not like you are not going to have plenty of time to enjoy your pets, hobbies ,relationships,  once you are done so why not them put them aside temporarily so you can be the most productive in your studies and research.

 

Oh I do hope you do not intend to pursue an academic career. Life gets significantly more difficult after you graduate. There are fewer jobs than PhD graduates so getting that postdoc won't be easy, not to mention that first TT job. And once you're on the TT, it's publish or perish (and teaching and service) for 7 years until you're up for tenure. Maybe then you could start having a life, assuming you're not particularly rushed to get that Full Professor rank?  Assuming you're one of the truly lucky ones who gets the perfect job straight out of school and can fast-track the TT, we're looking at a minimum of 10 years of everything on hold. If you're one of us mere mortals, you're probably looking at closer to 15 years of school-postdoc-TT job celibacy. I don't know about you, but I value the rest of my life just as much as my career. Being successful but completely alone for over a decade does not sound appealing at all. You need to start learning how to have a full and balanced life now, because it will not get easier later. 

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See, personally, I feel that working on one task (school) for more than a certain amount per week (usually around 50 hours or so, depending) has severely diminishing returns.

I've read some work on hours and productivity and there is a reason why 40 hours became the norm. When people are worked for more than 40/week they make mistakes and actually reduce overall output. For creative workers diminishing returns come even quicker. I can't say what the ideal number of hours is for graduate school, but if somebody is spending all night and all weekend in a lab I sincerely wonder if they're doing good research. Here's something interesting out of Stanford about programmers and "crunch time". Edited by Vene

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I've read some work on hours and productivity and there is a reason why 40 hours became the norm. When people are worked for more than 40/week they make mistakes and actually reduce overall output. For creative workers diminishing returns come even quicker. I can't say what the ideal number of hours is for graduate school, but if somebody is spending all night and all weekend in a lab I sincerely wonder if they're doing good research.

How many hours per week do you think most masters students spend studying in science/health related disciplines from what you have seen?

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How many hours per week do you think most masters students spend studying in science/health related disciplines from what you have seen?

A lot of my information is second hand from conversing with those who have been as I'm starting this fall. But, I think Eigen's 50 hours between studies and research sounds reasonable enough. I've heard horror stories of people putting in 80 hour weeks and I want absolutely nothing to do with those labs. Ultimately, I think it depends upon the student's disposition as well as the PI's expectations.

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How many hours per week do you think most masters students spend studying in science/health related disciplines from what you have seen?

 

Im working on my bioinformatics MS and I probably do 60. I plan on applying for phd programs though so I am more focussed on research productivity and grades than I might be otherwise.

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Guest criminologist

I am already learning to give up all things I used to enjoy so I can be prepared for what's ahead I know it will be worth it sorry. I get your point work-life balance is important, but who goes into a PhD program and does not expect that they will have to put many things they want on hold, my question is why bother doing it if you are not willing to give your full 100% effort and dedication. I rather spend some alone time for a few years than have to live with knowing the fact that I could have got more done, got higher grades, wrote more papers, etc. when I had the opportunity. 

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A lot of my information is second hand from conversing with those who have been as I'm starting this fall. But, I think Eigen's 50 hours between studies and research sounds reasonable enough. I've heard horror stories of people putting in 80 hour weeks and I want absolutely nothing to do with those labs. Ultimately, I think it depends upon the student's disposition as well as the PI's expectations.

 

Although I have done that before (on some weeks) when I was studying for the MCAT, I think to be putting in 80 hours per week between studying and research is absurd. It seems that the consensus is that graduate school is pretty manageable. 

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Although I have done that before (on some weeks) when I was studying for the MCAT, I think to be putting in 80 hours per week between studying and research is absurd. It seems that the consensus is that graduate school is pretty manageable. 

There will be some weeks when you need to work that much, for example right before a deadline for a grant submission or during finals week. But it shouldn't be the norm, or you'll just burn out. Grad school will be as manageable as you make it -- there is ALWAYS more to do and if you're not careful, it can become all-consuming. You can find lots of threads here full of advice about scheduling time off and having hobbies. It's important in order to keep yourself sane.

 

 

I am already learning to give up all things I used to enjoy so I can be prepared for what's ahead I know it will be worth it sorry. I get your point work-life balance is important, but who goes into a PhD program and does not expect that they will have to put many things they want on hold, my question is why bother doing it if you are not willing to give your full 100% effort and dedication. I rather spend some alone time for a few years than have to live with knowing the fact that I could have got more done, got higher grades, wrote more papers, etc. when I had the opportunity. 

Academia is a marathon, not a sprint. There is ALWAYS more you can do, but you also need to take care of yourself. I imagine you'll still want to sleep and eat once in a while? Maybe occasionally do the laundry and go grocery shopping? If you're planning to keep those things to a minimum on a regular basis, you'll work yourself to the ground on those weeks when there is an extra-special deadline that requires you to work more than usual (and they will come up). Do you really plan to work 100% most days and 150% on others with no break whatsoever? You think you can do that for 4-5 years, never mind your next career move as I mentioned above? Well, what can I say -- good luck to you. 

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Eigen and Fuzzy, what would you recommend for someone transitioning from being a bit of a perfectionist regarding coursework and grades in undergrad? I know it's not going to be sustainable to dedicate as much time to coursework as I did then, and my advisor has warned me to ease up a little in terms of coursework so that I don't miss out on important networking opportunities and such by never leaving the library. But sending out something that I'm not 100% proud of can produce anxiety. And imposter syndrome certainly doesn't help. I'm pretty sure that this is something I'm going to have to be very conscious of and work with. Any advice regarding this?

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