Reflections and Advice after Many Semesters

Last month, fellow blogger Brian Tholl wrote some advice about the graduate experience from his perspective as a first year graduate student. I think his advice is very useful and informative, and I want to reiterate some of it and add some advice from the perspective of a senior graduate student.

Brian is right, that transitioning into graduate studies can be difficult, and although the process is unique to each of us, much of his advice is likely to be useful to graduate students (even senior students like me). However, graduate school is itself a series of transitions, including admission, coursework, one or more qualifying exams, preliminary thesis work, intensive field work, lab work, research work or other studies, and thesis writing – not to mention teaching, personal life, and myriad other responsibilities unrelated the completion of the degree.

Graduate school is about transition — growth and change as a scholar, researcher, and educator is achieved throughout these transitions. It is important for graduate students to map out their graduate experience, which may vary from field to field, advisor to advisor, even student to student. But it is important to have reasonable expectations about what one wishes to accomplish at each stage of the degree program, information one should be seeking from one’s graduate director, advisor, and other faculty. Besides having day-to-day plans about when and where to invest one’s time, graduate students should have a structured and firm grasp of what their long-term goals are and how to accomplish them.

Organizing one’s free time is critical for first year students, and that will not change throughout one’s graduate studies and after. The responsibilities of graduate students (and in their futures as faculty, scholars, educators, or work) are usually task-oriented, rather than time-oriented. Significantly, these tasks are often very large, high-level goals, e.g. “write a thesis”, rather than simple short-term tasks, e.g. read XYZ paper in ABC journal for next week. Besides allocating time appropriately, it’s important to break down large tasks into small, feasible subitems and complete those subitems on a reasonable (not too lofty, not too lazy) schedule. Constructing these goals and setting them in a reasonable fashion allows students to complete seemingly impossible tasks, e.g. “write a thesis”, by working through a series of smaller, more tangible tasks.

Brian also mentions that graduate students should participate in social events, look after one’s health, and try to reduce stress. Learning to manage the demands and stresses of research work is a very important part of graduate school. It is indeed important for us to prioritize appropriately healthcare, healthy eating, stress-relief, and sleep. The time and money we spend on these may seem like a waste, because every waking hour could be spent working on our theses. But to the contrary, if we have a good perspective on our progress towards completing a degree, and taking care of our other obligations, e.g. teaching, we do have enough time.

Taking care of oneself will result in more effective and efficient research or teaching. There is a point of diminishing returns when a graduate student spends too much time working. I’m not saying don’t work hard — hard work is important, and we are all aware that graduate students may work 60+ hours per week, but in the remaining 80 or 100 hours, we should set aside time for eating right, sleeping adequately, and taking some personal time to relax and stay sane.

I will offer some other practical advice briefly, as a list rather than expounding at length:

  • Have conversations. All the time, with everyone, talk about research, talk about teaching, talk about anything. Use your friends and colleagues as sounding boards, discuss your challenges with your advisor, and really listen when people do the same with you.
  • Attend seminars, workshops, conferences. These are informative and fun, and should help you expand your scholarly boundaries. Even if the topics are tangential or unrelated to your research, you will learn much and may find hidden connections or new interests. This is also a useful way to do “networking.”
  • Teach your own classes whenever possible. This requires a huge time investment compared to TA work in recitations, lab sections, grading, etc. but is an incredibly important part of professional development. Even if you only teach one class for one summer, that’s a great opportunity to get teaching experience.
  • Don’t sweat the small stuff, at least, not every time. Graduate students aspire to be scholars, educators, and leaders in their fields of study, which often requires incredible attention to detail. However, it is important to recognize which details are crucial and which are expendable. There is that metaphor about the forest and the trees — don’t get lost!

Marie desJardins has written an excellent, lengthy guide to being a graduate student, and while not all her advice will apply to every single student, it is actually very relevant to most of us and is a very useful and frequently cited tome of advice for graduate students.

Author: Kellen Myers

I am a Mathematics graduate student at Rutgers University. I am a Ph.D. candidate, which means at this point, my work is towards writing my dissertation. My advisor is Doron Zeilberger. My research interests are in combinatorics. A few specific interests are within Ramsey Theory, especially Ramsey Theory on the integers. This means I have an interest in both Ramsey Theory (on the whole), and on the theory of arithmetic structure in the integers. I would characterize my interest in mathematics, in general, as very broad. I enjoy the interdisciplinary nature of certain types of mathematics, and appreciate collaboration between mathematicians with diverse interests. I also take special interest in developing my skills as an educator and as a member of the academic community and workplace. I was the graduate coordinator for the DIMACS REU 2010-2013, and I participate in many other projects and endeavors to develop my skills as a teacher, a mentor, and an administrator.

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