First-year Fears (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

The transition to graduate school is an exciting time in the life of a first-year graduate student, but it can also be a terrifying experience.  As a first-year graduate student, I will admit that the first couple of weeks of my graduate career were extremely overwhelming.  I found myself in an unfamiliar city surrounded by students who seemed to be more comfortable in this environment than I would ever be.  Many students already held advanced degrees, while I was making the transition straight from undergraduate.  Doubts arose and I asked myself the most daunting question that a graduate student can pose: “Do I really belong here?” Amidst the panic and feelings of discouragement, I hadn’t noticed that I had fallen victim to a prevalent phenomenon known as the “Impostor Syndrome.” Continue reading “First-year Fears (Throwback Thursday)”

The Hidden Virtues of Wasting Time (Throwback Thursday)

Series note:  The following post is part of the Rutgers Graduate Student Blog Throwback Thursday blog series, in which we will repost one of our most popular blog posts from years past.

For the benefit of the incoming graduate students, my department in college used to take surveys of everyone about what they would do if they were starting graduate school over again.  (They called this “Starting Over,” and it was such a fantastic idea that I shamelessly ripped off the idea when I came here.  Here are our results.)  As interesting as all the comments were, I was always most fascinated by the clear difference between the current student responses and the faculty responses.  The current students tended to dispense wisdom about academics, research, and the minutiae of navigating a Ph.D.  A lot of “study hard for your quals” and “start writing your dissertation early.”  The faculty, though, rarely mentioned such details.  Rather, they focused on…..well, how to stay human.  They tended to submit entreaties to go outside and exercise, to make time for family and friends, to stay healthy, and so on.  Not exactly what we’d expect from a profession that is notorious for its workaholism (which also seems to have led to a serious case of caffeine addiction). Continue reading “The Hidden Virtues of Wasting Time (Throwback Thursday)”

Dr. Jekyll v Ms. Hyde – The truth about picking an adviser

The truth is picking your adviser is one of the most important decisions you will make in your graduate career and also one of the least informed.  While you may spend hours deliberating topics and personalities, it is unlikely you will make your decision with a full picture of who that person is or what your research with them will be like.  It’s a gamble.  Your assessment of that person and their lab may be entirely accurate or incomplete when you choose to work with him/her.

If you are entering a program that doesn’t automatically pair you with your advisor (like many at Rutgers, including Nutritional Sciences), you are tasked speed-meeting the potential mentors.  You may narrow down your choices and spend a little time in 2 or 3 different labs.  Then you have the monumental task of choosing the person who will be your mentor for the next 4-7 years.  So how do you choose?  What should you consider?

Brandon wrote a post  in the fall about his choice of adviser and provided great advice on picking “someone you are comfortable becoming yourself.”  I can personally relate to this comment, seeing now how I have learned habits and behaviors from my own adviser.  In addition to picking a mentor who you admire, here are a few other reasons you may select an adviser:

  • The lab is Amazing! – Possibly the lab has all of the equipment that you have dreamed of.  Or the people who work in the lab are your soon-to-be best friends.  Consider that you will spend a lot of time in the physical lab and working with the people.  Pick a place you feel comfortable.
  • The schedule is Amazing! – Maybe you are trying to figure out the 4-hour graduate work week.  If so, you probably don’t want an adviser who expects you at your desk or in the lab 8am – 5pm every day.  If you hate trying to communicate via email and want to see your adviser everyday, picking one who travels a lot may not be the best option.  Pick someone whose work style aligns with your own.
  • The research project is Amazing! – You may have your heart set on studying earthworms.  If so, definitely find the adviser who will nurture your passion and combine it with his/her own.  Remember, research projects always go in unexpected directions.  So if the initial project isn’t exactly what you want, you may later be able to incorporate the things that interest you.
  • The funding is Amazing! – It’s a tough market for graduate students.  If your primary objective is a study support stream, go towards the gold.  Even if this adviser doesn’t have his/her own funding, he/she may be your biggest ally in securing funding through fellowship, grant or teaching assistanceship.  Make sure they are invested in supporting you.
  • My CV will be Amazing! – This adviser may not be your cheerleader, may not be around much, may not be super interested in your project.  However, he/she knows how to get you publications, books, presentations, fellowships, etc.  He/she will drive you to your full potential as a graduate student.

As I consider my experience and other newer students’ experiences choosing an adviser, I realize that you have to gamble.  Decide what is important to you first so you are collecting relevant information.  Within your program, ask the advanced students more details about your options.  Ask your program directors for advice.  Make the most informed roll of the dice that you can.

What other factors did you consider in picking an adviser?  Was your gamble a good one?  Please share your stories on this subject!

Enjoy Graduate School at Rutgers

Feel excited when you know you’ve been accepted to graduate school? Or feel nervous, stressed or anxious? Just don’t let your emotions get in the way of setting yourself up to succeed once your new program starts.  Here are some small tips that might help you survive and enjoy graduate school at Rutgers.  First of all,

–Expect to be busy

You are a grad student now, the assignments you’re given will be more involved, the exams you take will need more preparation, and most importantly you’ll be spending much more of your time on academic work, whether it’s on research, thesis paper, or keeping on top of your studying. You need to take responsibility especially if you’re working in a group on a large project.

–Select the work you’re really passionate about

I can’t imagine you can devote hours on end working on something you can’t stand. The truth is that you’ll grow tired of it and simply won’t put forth the endless effort that it takes to get through days and nights of studying.  The bottom line is pick something you absolutely live and breathe so that you can keep moving towards your goal.

–Don’t forget you have an advisor

I’m not sure what the situation is in other departments, but in our computer science department, each graduate student will be assigned an academic advisor and later a research advisor. Your advisor is there to help with any questions you may have regarding programs, research, faculty issues, etc. It’s advisable to set up a regular meeting with your advisor to check in and see how things are progressing for you.

–Be tolerant of your mistakes

You are a graduate student, you are learning, and it’s normal to make mistakes. Seriously, don’t be so hard on yourself. What you’re doing is admirable and difficult. The world isn’t going to come to an end because you make a mistake, the earth won’t stop rotating because your research experiments haven’t gotten inspiring results yet as you expected.

–Take time to experience life

Through your courses and busy research work, remember to take time to experience life as well. You’re a grad student and you’re also young, life is versatile, it’s not only study and work, you deserve more.  Rutgers has a fantastic location, I won’t talk more about it here, there are many great posts in this blog, I’m sure you’ll find them and know where to go to have fun in the area. And last but not least,

–Love your school

Yes, love Rutgers, love where you’re living and the school where you’re studying. You know, not everyone is as lucky as you to be accepted in. Maybe it’s not ranked number one in your field, but somehow I believe in destiny, what you get is actually what is most suitable for you. The miracle is, when you realize that, you feel happy every day, you feel proud of Rutgers, you feel lucky to be a grad student at Rutgers, and you’ll be full of confidence to overcome any difficulties that may happen during the journey.

Love your school, and enjoy your graduate life at Rutgers.

First-year Fears

The transition to graduate school is an exciting time in the life of a first-year graduate student, but it can also be a terrifying experience.  As a first-year graduate student, I will admit that the first couple of weeks of my graduate career were extremely overwhelming.  I found myself in an unfamiliar city surrounded by students who seemed to be more comfortable in this environment than I would ever be.  Many students already held advanced degrees, while I was making the transition straight from undergraduate.  Doubts arose and I asked myself the most daunting question that a graduate student can pose: “Do I really belong here?” Amidst the panic and feelings of discouragement, I hadn’t noticed that I had fallen victim to a prevalent phenomenon known as the “Impostor Syndrome.”

The Impostor Syndrome is characterized by feelings of inferiority that may be coupled with the idea that you are a “fake” or that everything you have accomplished thus far can be attributed to luck or any external factors not related to your own abilities.  These feelings can be quite debilitating and may interfere with your school work.  However, as graduate students we need to keep one important idea in mind: These feelings are absolutely unfounded.

So how can we overcome these feelings?  Well, one of the answers is in the question.  It is important to realize that you are not alone.  Other students have undoubtedly been through a similar experience.  Graduate students belong to a unique community, and it’s important to reach out to the other members of the community.  So talk with your fellow peers about their experiences as graduate students.  You may find that they share or have shared the same concerns as you, and they can help you find ways to resolve them. 

 It is also important to realize that none of us are perfect.  Most of us will encounter a moment in which we may start to question our competence.  At this point, it’s important to take a step back and recognize how far you have come.  This will give you a different perspective and will help you to realize how much you already know.  Keep in mind your moments of success and the steps you took to achieve this success.  At the same time, it is beneficial to identify potential areas of improvement.  Categorizing your weaknesses is a key step in working past these barriers in order to grow as a person and as a student.

Finally, take care to remember that you do belong.  You were accepted at Rutgers because your professors were impressed by you and believed that you would succeed in your program.  We are all talented and bright intellectuals that have the potential to make an impact in our respective fields.  When you are struggling with negative feelings, do not quit.  Be persistent in your efforts to overcome these feelings.  Have confidence in yourself and believe that you can accomplish great things – a positive attitude will yield a world of possibilities.

Welcome from GSNB Dean Harvey Waterman

And So It Begins…

With its perennial mix of enthusiasm and anxiety, the academic year begins.  For some of you it’s the beginning of graduate school, for others the return of routine or the continuation of ongoing work.  In any case, here we are again.

Unfortunately, graduate study resembles “school” (we even call it “graduate school”), with its suggestion of tasks being set by others and students dutifully completing them (or not).   This is terribly misleading.  For master’s students, the resemblance is particularly close, and disguises the importance of shifting the control of what’s going on toward the student, not the taskmaster—er, professor.  For doctoral students it’s all the more urgent that the student start creating his or her own box in or out of which to think.

Like weddings and bar mitzvahs, graduate study is the beginning of the rest of one’s life.  From the start, the student needs to figure out where she or he wants to go.  Not just how to get to the degree, but what it is for and what needs to happen in pursuing the degree so that the longer-term goal is reached in good shape.  This is not just the choice of which subject matter to emphasize or which courses to take.  It also means thinking about which relationships to cultivate, to whom to reach out beyond the faculty members of the one’s degree program, what skills are needed to complement the standard ones of the field of study.

For doctoral students, it means thinking early on about the kind of research that will best prepare for the career goals chosen.  And, therefore, the mentor(s) best suited to supporting those goals.

The risk is drift.  Take courses, read a lot of stuff, spend time working in the most convenient lab, postpone the real decisions, let fate unroll its verdict.  These are childish things.

Be, as the French say, sérieux.  It’s your life you are beginning.

At the same time, do remember to smell the roses.

Happy Year!

Harvey Waterman

The Hidden Virtues of Wasting Time

For the benefit of the incoming graduate students, my department in college used to take surveys of everyone about what they would do if they were starting graduate school over again.  (They called this “Starting Over,” and it was such a fantastic idea that I shamelessly ripped off the idea when I came here.  Here are our results.)  As interesting as all the comments were, I was always most fascinated by the clear difference between the current student responses and the faculty responses.  The current students tended to dispense wisdom about academics, research, and the minutiae of navigating a Ph.D.  A lot of “study hard for your quals” and “start writing your dissertation early.”  The faculty, though, rarely mentioned such details.  Rather, they focused on…..well, how to stay human.  They tended to submit entreaties to go outside and exercise, to make time for family and friends, to stay healthy, and so on.  Not exactly what we’d expect from a profession that is notorious for its workaholism (which also seems to have led to a serious case of caffeine addiction).

So what’s going on?  These faculty members are presumably the successful ones, so an interpretation of their advice is that they’re (1) expressing regret they didn’t live better when they were younger, or (2) telling us the secret of their success.  The aforementioned study on the working habits of scientists might make us doubt the latter interpretation.  So if you’re looking for yet another reason to feel guilty for not working all the time, well, here you go.  But I think this oversimplifies the situation.  First, one’s optimal work-life balance is not static over time — one’s needs as a graduate student are different from those as a young professional which are different from a mid-career person.  So what might seem workaholic now maybe will be more comfortable in 15 years, or vice versa.  Second, work-life balance has a great deal of person-to-person heterogeneity.  A lifestyle that is balanced for one person may be too overwhelming for another, and too freewheeling for a third.  The effects of this balance on one’s actual productivity are also not as simple as we might think.  I know some folks who seem to work almost all the time, and yet they don’t seem to accomplish a whole lot.  On the other hand, I know someone who has more fun than almost everyone I know, and yet he’s reached a level of professional success most of us can only dream of.  (I’m still talking about scientists, by the way!)

Perhaps the takeaway, then, is not only to take seriously the need for balance, but to consider seriously one’s very individualized needs for it, rather than letting it be determined by cultural or social norms.  The work-life balance you strike should be the result of your deliberate choice, and not the inevitable consequence of external pressures or other choices you make.  If faculty wisdom is to be believed, then it sounds like you won’t regret it.