Tips on GradSchool
This document begins its life as the result of an impromptu presentation at the DiRT meeting on Sept. 29, 2000. It is just a collection of wisdom, potential pitfalls, and mentalities to develop about grad school. It should be added to as appropriate.
- Document everything so others can read it (you will be "others" in 6 months). This applies in many ways:
- Lab knowledge - when you learn how to do something new in the lab (installing an odd device, setting up the network in a new configuration, using a new tool) write a quick document. It will benefit others and it will benefit you when you go back to do the same thing in a year.
- Data - as experimental scientists we generate tons of data. Work out a reasonable organization and naming convention for your data. When you review the results of an experiment, document the parameters and metrics and what you glean from the results. Don't just document the results. Also document the conclusion you draw from that result and why - you don't want to have to do the analysis again in 6 months when you pull this into your dissertation. Also, be sure to record details of net configuration, etc. 6 months from now you won't be sure if you changed the configuration before you ran this experiment, or afterwards.
- Conclusions - writing a one page summary whenever you present results to your advisor is helpful for gathering your thoughts and a good document for you to have when you need to review the results later.
- Always consider shortcuts. Researchers don't build full-featured systems. They add the facilities they need to get their work done. Building tools with some (well-documented) limitations is ok if they don't compromise the intended functions.
- Keep old copies of your dissertation - eventually the first one will be the final one. Revising documents is a funny thing. You often decide you like it better the way it was the first time.
- Knowledge is much more useful if it is shared. Develop the mindset that your job is to write papers and give talks sharing your work with others. Using papers to give yourself a deadline to complete a set of experiments is also a good motivational trick.
- Spin isn't just for politics. It's for writing papers, especially in our field. Initially your advisor should be responsible for dealing with this but you will need this skill when you enter academia or industry. Stay aware of other developments and hot topics in the field so that you can present your work in a way that makes it interesting to others. (And it's also useful for talking to your advisor).
- Where you end up is never where you think you will. Don't fixate on solving the problem you spelled out in your proposal. Almost everyone finds an interesting problem or subtlety part way into their proposed topic that becomes their topic. Don't be afraid to explore interesting new results and don't feel locked into finishing your original proposal.
- No, you haven't been scooped - it just means others find the problem interesting too. Every student I know has had that terrible day when they find a web page or a paper that seems to indicate someone else is working on the same problem they are working on. And the other person usually is working on the problem or a very similar one. However, it's very rare that they are taking exactly the same approach. You should investigate the situation but most likely you have simply confirmed that your problem is interesting enough to appeal to others.
- The dissertation is the beginning not the end. (Dissertations aren't completed, they're abandoned.) A dissertation is rarely the complete exploration and solution to problem. It is simply a starting point for future research. A good dissertation usually discovers many new avenues of research that need to be explored. These can be your research topics for your academic career or dissertation topics for future students (yours or others.)
- Senior students know how to deal with the process, talk to them. Sometimes knowing how to deal with the process of grad school is important. Others have blazed a path and know what things your advisor will insist be done "my way" and which things are flexible (and how to approach it to get your way - spin). Talk with them.
- The most important thing you learn in grad school is confidence. Your Ph.D shows you are smart, energetic, persistent, etc. When you interview folks will want to see if you are confident in presenting and discussing your work.
- Welcome feedback - paper reviews, questions after talks, discussions at conferences - develop a thick skin. Take advantages of opportunities to discuss your work. That applies whether it's with colleagues in your research group, others in your department, or colleagues at conferences, etc. It also applies whether it is a formal presentation, an off the cuff talk, dinner conversation, or kicking around ideas over beers. Talking with others about your work is how you get feedback on your work and that's one way to strengthen your work and discover new avenues to explore. Realize folks are usually going to be direct when discussing your work and the questions and comments may seem like challenges to the quality of your work (though they are usually not intended that way.) Develop a thick skin and take these as helpful feedback - things for you to consider. "That's a good question and something we want to look at but we haven't looked at it yet" is often a reasonable answer.
- You're not producing a complete solution to a problem, you're exploring a possible solution(s). Grad students typically fall in the trap of "but I'm not through yet". You only have to do enough to convince 5 people to sign a piece of paper, not prove P=NP. In experimental systems there are very few correct answers anyway. There's a large solution space and many dissertations simply find one possible solution and present the strengths and weaknesses of that particular approach.
- Be honest - present your results in a realistic way - be sure to point out limitations. See above.