November 28, 2006

Grad-student Woes, Post #0

Posted in Uncategorized at 6:21 pm by a11en

Hi everyone,

Time is short here, work gets tighter and more pressing, so I have to make this one short. Grammar and organization may suffer it.

I decided that a “zeroth” post is beneficial to this mini-series. In this, I will add some assumptions/disclaimers. πŸ˜‰ First- none of this is going to fix your Graduate-Student woes. It might give you some ideas about how to go about solving them, or it may be a source of commiseration… but fix them- most likely will not. Second- my experiences are in scientific research at a large and well known university in the U.S. The differences between my degree and degrees like art-history/philosophy/polysci, etc., are numerous, and couldn’t be summarized here. So, if you’re in the British system or studying Bernstein, these posts likely will miss the mark for you. But- some of it might be helpful.

There was a call for discussion on how to choose an advisor. So, I think I’ll jump in on this topic- as that’s the first thing that happens in Grad-School anyways… Nothing will be definitive here, of course, but it might give you some things to think about.

Advisors

Your advisor will play an enormously important role in the advancement of your academic career. The first good thing about advisors, is that they’ve been where you are now. They’ve done the long-hours in the lab, the long days of reading text books and current journal-articles… or asking a friend to translate a little known article on interfacial polymerization from the 60’s… They’ve been there, done that. Ultimately, they’ve paid their dues. In a university like mine, they’ve done a smash-up job of paying their dues as well. So, they all garner our respect for their accomplishments. That goes without question here.

Now, that said- Each of these advisors will have a snag. Multiple snags. If we’re honest with ourselves, we also have snags… the difference is these advisors have faced all their snags, and have worked through them, and have found their way to success in their work. This is your goal, as a Grad-student. Find your faults- face them full-on, and experience the humbling power of them… and somehow push through those faults to find yourself with your degree in hand beyond all belief.

You’ll likely go and visit numerous professors and hear their “talk”. This is good. Do so to everyone that you are possibly interested in working for. And then, talk to a number more- even slightly out of your field/interest area. You might be surprised and hit on someone excellent. This is not as easy as it sounds, however. The reason? Well, it’s the same reason that the first 3 months of dating is excellent. No one shows their true face to you in the first year, sometimes even the first 4 years. Merely listening to a talk about how grand someone’s work is will not give you any clues as to how well you two will work together. You’ll know that about 1.5 years away from your PhD degree- when you find out that writing a paper with him is like pulling teeth… after the 128th revision. πŸ™‚ Who’s to blame? Neither of you… perhaps both at the same time. It’s no use crying over it… the paper must get out. So, you try your best to work through it. One thing is true, though… you have no laurels to rest upon. He is the Prof. you are the graduate-student. So, work harder, longer, pull favors with friends to read your work, comment on it- you get the idea. This is just one more solution you have to find on your way to your degree.

So, don’t believe you are going to find out everything in that 30 minute meeting with your possible new advisor. That will all come later. Instead look to his graduate-students. Do they smile? Or, do they put their head down and groan when you walk in the room all bushy-tailed and super-interested in doing “Science!!” Grad students and their plight are the best gauge as to how you are likely to fair in the same situation. I used to tell the young students coming in that what they really needed to do, was to find out who was almost about to leave the group… and take them out to lunch… even get alcohol into them (they’ll be less likely to be tight-lipped this way)… but then, I became the senior member of the group, and well, I can’t very well tell them to do that now, eh? πŸ˜‰ But that time-crunched slightly insane grad-student is your best look into the difficulties of what might be on the path ahead.

Now, this is of course not always the case. We each have different rough-spots/difficulties. It might just be that your difficulties will be extremely compatible with your new Prof. In some cases, this happens, and produces an amazing friendship between advisor and student. I hope this will be the case for you! What is likely to happen is something in between.

What can you do, then? How can you ever hope to tell who to chose? There are a number of things to keep in mind when searching for a Prof. Some good questions to ask are (and re-ask his graduate students incase his view of things is slightly clouded):

“Is this group rich? ‘Cause I like to spend money- do you have money?” πŸ˜‰ ha ha ha. But, seriously- you won’t get any work done if you can’t pay for the work. Is he willing to buy equipment in the $500 range without much of a problem? Does he have money for the length of degree you’re interested in? Will he expect you to fund yourself (TAship- more on that later)?

“Is the work advancing and exciting?” Are these guys doing cutting-edge work that if you are associated with it, you’ll automatically get that “OOoooh” factor? I hate to say it, but often our future is dicated by the “Oh!” factor. Some professors even put as many “Oh!” words into their proposals in order to amp up their shiney-factor. The good news about shiney-factor work, is that it’s shiney… and likely your work will be shiney too. So, I hate to say it, you’re often best off with the shiney-factor guys, even if it is a bit silly. [As if a carbon-nanotube elevator to the moon is even possible…]

Something to ask the Grad-students or others in the department: Who is the best teacher? Who is winning the teaching awards? This guy is likely one you’ll want to get to know. You’re ultimately going to need a teacher-advisor, because you are just starting to understand the work- and he should be knee-deep in it. So, if you have a good advisor, he’ll be able to teach you. And, if you find a great-advisor, he’ll actually suggest this on his own, and even setup mini classes to teach you various things about your work together. [This is somewhat rare.]

You can also look to the Prof. in the department who ends up advising all the incoming undergraduate students. You might just hit upon a fellow who cares deeply for students, and is willing to take his time out of his schedule to advise these young impressionable minds. Likely this same guy will treat you with the same interest as his graduate-student. Altruism is a rare and awesome thing- and guys like this are interested in your well-being.

Does your prospect-Prof. have his tenure already in the department? He might be a young and fantastic guy, and might be doing interesting research- but be a bit careful… are you willing to move to a different state with him? If not, stay away from those who don’t have tenure. [Sucks to be the Asst. Prof. eh? This just goes with the territory, I guess.] But, those young prof.s remember well what it was like to be a grad-student. So, they’ll likely also remember what it’s like to do the work, and how to do the work… so you might actually have more benefits that outweigh the possible near-future move if they aren’t offered (or don’t accept) a tenured prof. position in your department.

A bit about research projects: Shy away from research projects that require “building”… if you have to build a new piece of equipment, you might as well scratch 2 years out of your existence. It takes serious serious time to create a new piece of equipment from scratch, and also proof-test it, so that people believe it works (so that you believe it works). You’re asking for trouble if the prof says something like: We have to design and build a new ultra-high-vacuum system. πŸ˜‰ Sounds like fun! I love working with nuts and bolts. Love learning from expert machinists. Don’t love the questions about where my time has gone 2 years after the device has finally been built, and how we don’t have data yet.

By this same token, then, shy away from a group of research which requires a single piece of equipment that is extremely complex and tricky to get working to accomplish your work. Your first question about such a piece of equipment should be: “Did a graduate-student build this?”… If so- run away. πŸ˜‰ Well, at least assume that since it’s not built by an expert in the field, that likely it’ll half-fall apart on you while you work on it. Or, that it has some insane leak, or tricksy knob you have to hit every half-hour to ensure it still runs.

“How much time do you expect me in the lab/office?” This is a great question for a Prof. (especially one that wants you to TA all the time). If he says: “Enough time to get your work done.” This is good. If he says: “8-8, M-S”, this is bad. This means that his focus is on appearances, not output. Ultimately, your degree will only be gotten when you have your data in hand, and you can explain it. If you can get that data next week, and explain it next month- technically, they should allow you to graduate. (Assuming the other requirements are also met.) Neils Bohr was like this. He graduated within a year of being in his Graduate Program with his PhD. Now, he is also the father of the Complementarity Theorem, and the Bohr Model of the Atom… so let’s not try and compare us lowly beings to this great man; who also happened to smoke a pipe. πŸ˜‰

What you want is a Prof. who is hell-bent on getting you out of your program within 4 years (PhD)… and already has a well-established project, which just happens to spew forth craploads of data every Friday, and has money out of his yin-yang… That’s what you want. Oh, and some shiney “Oh!” words would be nice too. Oh, and did we mention a fellow who is altruistic about the plight of the lowly graduate student?! πŸ™‚ Now, truly this only exists in our dreams. But, at least we can go into this with a level-head, and understand where some of the difficulties may lie, and perhaps how to avoid the big ones.

Now- remember when I said that we all had “rough-spots”? Well, a large portion of this equation, is *you* the grad-student. In fact, Stephen Covey, 7-Habits author explains that in every situation you find yourself, even if you think you have no possible action, no way to stop what is happening, you actually do have one action. Your response. You are always a part of every equation for everything which is happening to you. The question is- how do you respond to that event? You can choose your response. And in that choice, is power. Even when you feel you are powerless. [Also see Viktor Frankl, Man’s Ultimate Search For Meaning- Father of LogoTherapy, and Holocaust Survivor- you think you have it bad…]

So, our future posts will be focused on the part of the equation that we have some control over. Ourselves.

What are the snags of Grad-school? How can we cope with them? How can we attempt to have better success?

Just do the opposite of me… (uh, did I say that aloud?) πŸ˜‰

Next installment, I’ll try and hammer out more on the topics I hope to cover in regards to our internal struggle in Grad-school.

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