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12 Tips for Surviving Graduate School

Updated on July 22, 2013

If you decide to do enter the graduate school as a PhD student, you will find that the learning system is different compared to those in undergraduate. Graduate school involves mainly research work with some coursework designed to equip the students for some research topics. It is more like on-the-job training to prepare students to enter research institute or universities. Here are the tips that I find useful for survival in the graduate school:

1. Choose the right advisor or supervisor

This may be the single most important factor in your PhD life. Your professor will play a big role in guiding you to do research. Here are the guidelines for choosing your professor:

  • Choose the research topic of your interest and find who are the professors doing the related research topic.
  • Assess the performance and reputation of your potential advisors. This can be seen from their publication and the number of PhD graduates (available on the website).
  • Make an appointment with him or her regarding your application and consider whether you are willing to be guided under him or her.
  • Socialize with the people in his or her lab, and you can get a rough idea about your potential workplace.

If it is possible, you can try to talk to different professors. Don't make hasty decision since you are going to commit yourself for few years. You may want to find out whether your potential advisor is a good mentor for his or her students. Good record of publications alone does not mean that he or she is a good mentor and a good manager of the lab. In addition, you may also consider the academic rank of your advisor:

  • Assistant professor: this is a position held by new faculty members who are trying to get tenure after 4-8 years in the university. Naturally they will be hardworking and probably participate directly in experiments for research. The reasons is because of the honeymoon period after becoming a faculty member, as well as the pressure to get a good record of publication so they can get tenured. In some university, they need to have some PhD graduates from their lab before they can get promoted to associate professor. Hence, doing your PhD study under an assistant professor means you'll have more interactions with him or her, despite his or her lack of experience in managing the lab.
  • Associate professor: assistant professor will be promoted to become associate professor, normally they will get tenured. After the promotion, normally he or she will be more relaxed in his or her work. Getting an associate professor as your advisor will give you a benefit of the few years of experience that he or she has accumulated, although sometimes the relaxed working condition may affect your enthusiasm. An associate professor will also have more responsibilities in the university and hence less time is spent with students.
  • Full Professor: full professor is a senior tenured position in the university. A full professor will have many more responsibilities in management and administration, e.g. head of division, head of research development, committee member, etc. Accordingly, he meets with his student about 1 or 2 times only each month depending on his schedule, which can be bad for the PhD students. The advantage of doing PhD under the guidance of full professor is the experience and wisdom that he or she can contribute to your academic study. In addition to this, full professor normally has good networks to other professors and universities, which will be quite useful when you need to find a job after graduation. However, not all PhD students can work independently without frequent consultation with the advisors.

In addition to providing guidance, your professor will also play an influential role in determining the continuation of your PhD candidature as well as graduation. It will be prudent for PhD students to think twice before choosing their advisor.

2. Consult often with your advisor or supervisor

PhD study is based on apprenticeship; hence you need to seek consultation to your advisor. He or she is more experienced in conducting research on a particular topic and can give you great insights in research methodology, scientific thinking, analytical skills, and current knowledge in the field. If you face any problem during your research, don't hesitate to make an appointment with your advisor. He or she can give you good advice and also guide you on the future direction of your research study.

3. Do prior and thorough research on your topic

You'll never want to do something that has been done and published by other people, except for training purpose. Therefore, doing prior research is necessary to ensure that you are researching and producing additional knowledge in the field. Without knowing the current understanding in the field, you can't be an expert at the forefront of research. Doing thorough research will also provide you with more ideas on how to better approach the problem that you are researching on.

4. Learn to formulate the right question

This is not an easy task that can be learnt instantly; asking question is an art. Formulating the right question means that you do thorough research on the current understanding and propose an idea or model to further the current knowledge. Professors generally have many questions that they have formulated, and he or she will assign these works to junior PhD students. However, as you become more senior in your PhD study, you are expected to develop your own independent research thinking and be able to formulate the right question. This is what makes someone a good researcher, i.e. to constantly generate scientific ideas and formulating the right question.

5. Attend seminars in your university

In some universities, there will be weekly seminars by professors, research fellows, or even students. In addition, universities will have some visiting professors who will give seminars. Attending seminars will broaden your knowledge in other research areas and hone your thinking. If you have the chance, you may want to volunteer yourself to give the presentation. You can train your presentation skills and at the same time the audience can give useful feedback on your research.

6. Take relevant coursework

Taking a relevant coursework for your PhD study is good to broaden your knowledge in the field. You will be "forced" to learn something new and this can be beneficial to the research work. You will never know when you need to invoke the knowledge you have learnt in the coursework for your research project.

7. Go for local or overseas conferences

The purpose of scientific conference is for people to present their results in advance of the publication to a broad audience. If you are presenting your results either by oral presentation or posters, you'll get to know people's opinion about your work. It is also a good chance to broaden your horizon by interacting with people from different lab and different nations. Professors normally network with professors from other universities and students interact with each other. If you are going to graduate soon, be sure to market yourself to other professors to secure a job. Going for conferences is also a good chance to relax and go for vacation, especially if the conferences take place overseas.

8. Learn to do presentation and write journal papers

Academic writing is an art that every academician should learn, which will prove itself useful if you want to apply for research grant or write journal papers in the future. Writing journal papers requires not only writing skills, but it also requires scientific brainstorming that will add novel understanding to the paper. Writing skills will also be useful for any form of writing in general. In addition to writing, learning how to present your research findings in a professional way is also essential. A researcher who is excelling in research will not succeed without proficient skills in delivering the message to a broad audience, normally through writing and presentation.

9. Interact with your colleagues

Your colleagues can be other PhD students, research fellows, research assistants, etc. Sharing of knowledge and techniques is encouraged in the scientific community. You'll be surprised at how enlightening it will be by having scientific discourse with them. You can suggest ideas to other people and vice versa, both of which give mutual benefits. By mentoring junior PhD students, you'll develop mentoring, teaching, and communication skills, as well as sharpening your ideas. On the other hand, research fellows can provide useful suggestions and mentor you on your career path after graduation. Moreover, doing research without interacting with others will make your PhD life boring.

10. Be proactive

Research involves keeping your mind alert and think of new ways to approach the problem. If you are facing obstacles, take the initiative to troubleshoot the problem promptly and do whatever it takes to solve the problem. For example, if you find that you are lacking a necessary chemical for your experiment, you can ask around to other laboratories instead of slacking until the new chemicals arrive. If you are stuck in your research, try to think it through one more time before visiting your advisor's office. If he's not available, don't slack until he or she comes back. Instead, try to ask your colleagues to gather more ideas to solve the problem. Don't just sit in front of the computer the whole day! Be proactive!

11. Develop independent thinking

PhDs are trained to do independent thinking on their research topic, so that later on they are prepared to become a faculty member. Hence, PhDs are advised by professors, who are generally called advisor or supervisor. However, in some research labs, the professors will ask the PhD students to do a project under his or her full control. The students just need to execute the research plan laid out by the professors. Hence, the relation is more like employer and employee instead of advisor and student. This may lead to good publications in the short term, but it will be deleterious in the long run. This method does not train and prepare the PhD students to enter the academics after graduation. Instead of mindlessly doing what your professor asked you to do, develop your independent thinking in approaching the research problems. This is a good training even if you are not going to stay in academics after graduation.

12. Have life outside the laboratory

Finally, don't spend your entire life in the laboratory like you are being imprisoned. Keep up to date with your family and friends or else they may think that you get kidnapped and file for police report. Get out of your cave and explore other aspects of life apart from research. Relief your routines and stresses in the laboratory. When you come back to the laboratory, you'll come up with refreshed and sharper mind to handle your research project. Enjoy your life!


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