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A grad school retrospective
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A grad school retrospective
Disclaimer: These are an anonymous author's thoughts, which are not endorsed by the graduate school or anyone else other than the author.

Completing a graduate degree at any school, in any subject is a challenge. Make that a science degree at a top university and the difficulty is multiplied. Fortunately, it does not have to be as hard as it tends to be. In the spirit of academia, I would like to pass on the wisdom I gained from completing a graduate degree in Computer Science from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Of course, the experiences on which this essay is built are specific to me and UNC, but most of what I have to say is applicable to anyone attempting to do more than just survive their degree.

My mentor from college describes my first year of graduate school as hazing. This is the same term used to describe what fraternities are doing to men when they keep them awake for a week during initiation. Hazing is illegal in the United States, but you must choose whether you are willing to accept it or not. Many people put up with it because they think they have no choice. If you have the self-respect to want to avoid this degrading practice, read on.

When I was moving from elementary school to junior high, my teachers said, "you need to learn to study, junior high will be hard." It wasn't. When I was moving to high school, my parents told me to expect more difficult times. There was no extra difficulty. Before I went to college, my friends talked about how much harder classes were going to be. They weren't. When I was about to head out to grad school, my mentor told me that I would finally be challenged. That was the understatement of the decade.
 Graduate school is a different animal. Teachers traditionally teach to the weaker students, or in rare cases, the average student. In grad school, professors teach to the best student in the class to help them become the best in the field. Everyone else must attempt to catch up. When only the best come to the top schools in the first place, that type of challenge is steep. Fortunately, you are one of the best as well, or you would not have been accepted.

You were likely one of the very top students in your class. Maybe you were one of the top students to ever graduate from your school. In your undergraduate classes, you probably understood 99% of all material presented in your major. You will never feel the same way in your graduate classes. This is partly due to the fact that you are learning cutting edge material that your professor might be doing research on _right now_. In other words, he doesn't completely understand it either. If you leave your classes understanding 50% of the material, you are in great shape. It is very important to do all you can to absorb as much information as possible.

There are students who, no matter how hard they try, will not succeed. There are also students who will breeze through any obstacle. The majority of us, however, are well prepared, but not perfectly ready. For us, the way we approach our education will make a huge difference in our chance at success or failure, and more importantly, our quality of life while we do it.

Table of contents:

Competition [top]

The most important thing to remember, despite all evidence to the contrary, is that there is no competition in grad school. Trying to compete is an absolute losing proposition. Coming in, you might not realize that the person sitting to the right of you has an M.S. in math, or an M.D., or 10 years of industry experience. If you are straight out of college, you can not successfully compete with these people, and there are more of them than you know. Don't follow their path, it is not for you. You must create your own path, and it can run any way that you like.

Unfortunately, other students will be competing with you. They will brag about accomplishments, real and imaginary. They will hide all of their weaknesses from you. They will avoid helping you too much so that you will not be able to surpass their achievements. You will be looked down upon if you are not working 100 hour weeks (even though you will be secretly envied). Any sign of weakness will be talked about and spread around the department. Try, try, try to ignore this. If you do your own thing in the face of such competition, it shows strength, courage, and intelligence.

The first day of orientation, during lunch, people will talk about the classes they plan to take. The first person to speak up will brag about how they are taking the three hardest classes. That will make sure no one mentions that they need to take two undergrad classes before they can start in on the graduate level. You will never hear it, and you will believe that no one takes lower level classes. They do. You should, if there is any question in your mind. It is better to take prerequisites first, instead of after you struggle through a class and understand almost nothing. (I know!)

Worse yet, unless you are extremely lucky, your advisor and professors will be of no help to you. Remember, not only were they the top students at top universities once, they no longer remember how difficult things were. Beyond that, the field has changed enough that they can't know what it is like to get up to speed on current research through a class. More likely, your advisor wants you to get up to speed as soon as possible so you are more helpful in their research. Their advice is misguided. You will be a better researcher if you learn at your own pace, without getting burned out.

What I'm saying, is that everyone is full of it (me too). There are certain steps you must take to be successful. Some people already have some steps fulfilled. You will pay for any step you skip with longer hours, lower grades, and even more important, a lack of understanding of the material you miss.

Self-esteem [top]
Some faculty think grad school is the army. You may expect a partnership in your education and research, but they will favor the drill sergeant/private relationship. There is a certain amount of pride in survival, but
you could have taken pride in good work without experiencing the pain.

Anyway, you can not expect praise in grad school because it will rarely come. You can not expect respect, because you are rarely respected as a grad student. You can not expect hard work to be rewarded, because it will often go unnoticed. Take pride in your own work. Nearly everyone is struggling just as you are, even though you won't know until much later.

Time [top]
You are likely under the impression that a masters degree takes 2 years and a PhD takes 4-5. Your parents and friends have asked you how long you are going to be in school, so you start planning this yourself. Perhaps your school only provides financial assistance for a maximum of N semesters. It is all a lie. First, there is no time-table for completing a degree accept your own. Outstanding students with a great deal of background and clear goals will finish an MS in one year or a PhD in 3, while others, who are still prepared and intelligent, will take 10 years to their PhD. All of these numbers are completely OK. Planning when you want to graduate is a mistake. Plan how you will complete your degree, and use that information to calculate how long it will take. Don't worry about funding, it will be there for you. These artificial limits are _guaranteed funding_. You can, and will, get funding beyond the time limits if you need it.

This is very important. If you start saying, "I need to finish my MS in two years," you start doing foolish things like ignoring prerequisites. To be successful, you need to do what you need to do without paying attention to _any_ time line. The corollary to that is TAKE THE PREREQUISITES!!! This is a difficult move to make as advisors, professors, and peers will try to convince you it is a waste of time. First, it's not a waste of time. If it turns out you already know the material, you can drop the class. Second, what time are you wasting? You are there to learn. Any time spent learning, even the basic stuff, is well spent.

Rules [top]
On orientation day, you will learn a lot about your department: what research is going on, where to go for what, what graduation requirements are. You might even hear the words, "All of this is flexible". This is the truth, and should become your gospel. You are considered an adult now, even by the school, and you are trusted with your own decisions for perhaps the first time. It is amazing how often I have heard, "I didn't know you could do that." In reality, if you can think it, you can do it.

There are likely people in your class who take only one class. There are people who you don't see who are taking only French and swimming this semester (paid for by the department). There are those doing only research, with no classes. There are people working full time, or part time, while taking classes. And then there is the majority: those overworked souls taking a full load of classes while simultaneously working 20+ hours for their advisors. You don't have to be married with a family to have an excuse to have a life. Some people don't mind 100 hour weeks. I never want that again; you don't ever have to experience that if you choose not to. Decide what you want, and make it happen. If your advisor tells you "no", find a new advisor. Keep looking until you find the answer you want. This is your education, and no one else's.

UNC specific advice [top]
At UNC, we have several requirements to graduate: a certain number of hours, a project requirement, a research type paper, a qualifying exam to get into the PhD program, etc. These requirements are where many of the misperceptions begin. The most important thing to remember here, and this might not be UNC specific, is that the people who started this program don't really run it anymore. The founder's ideas of how things should be done have been replaced by the ideas of younger blood. In many, many cases, the words of the faculty will directly contradict what you read in the documentation.
Hours [top]
You can finish all of the hours needed for an MS in two years. This leads people to believe that they are supposed to finish in two years. Hogwash. Take as long as you want. Five semesters is fine. Four years is fine. For the majority, trying to finish in two years means ignoring prerequisites and risking burn out. If you are planning on a PhD, you can almost take one class a semester and still complete your hours in five years. Why rush?
Project requirement [top]
The documentation tells us that very few projects outside of the project class are approved. I've never heard of one that wasn't.
Research Paper (IP) [top]
This is a great opportunity to work on your own ideas. Take advantage of it. It is very important to choose readers that will work with you. If your reader don't like your ideas, you are in trouble. If they do, this will be a positive experience. However, don't expect anyone to show appreciation for your ideas.
The QUAL [top]
The qual is supposed to test students on their creativity, thought processes, quickness of mind and great stuff like that. You aren't supposed to be able to study for it. I'll tell you now that it is a test of knowledge and if you don't study you will fail.

Beyond that, it is a time for professors with low self esteem to show how much more they know than you do. If you run into one of these, try to shake it off. One bad exam does not fail you, unless you let the experience carry over into your next exam.

And, my personal favorite: "Students may only take this exam twice." Nearly one third of the examinees are taking the exam for the third time each year. You want to take the exam again? Make it happen.

Conclusion [top]
As I reread this over a year later, it brings back many memories. I keep in close contact with several people who are still in the program, and it is still an accurate reflection of how things are   I still feel sad sometimes about how unnecessary the pain was. I wish I could do it over again, but do it right this time.
Author [top]
The author is anonymous, but if you have comments please write to

University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
Computer Science, Sitterson Hall
Chapel Hill, NC 27599-3175 USA
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