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Advice for Prospective Grad Students

In 1993 (wow, has it been 16 years?), I was working at a startup called Synthetica Technologies just outside Berkeley. It was a fun job, but it wasn’t going to be my career — I wanted to get a Ph.D (I wasn’t entirely sure why, it just seemed like the next step). Looking back, I have no regrets, but what I got out of grad school was certainly different than what I expected.

Getting in to Grad School

Before you can experience grad school, you have to get in. Whether you get in or not is result of several factors: your GPA, the school you went to, your GRE scores, your essay, and your letters of recommendation. If all of these are stellar, you’ll most likely get an offer. If any of these things is a bit off, you’re on shakier ground and might not. But there’s something you can do to help tip the scales…

The one thing that, in my experience, can outweigh any of the factors above (and maybe all of them combined) is convincing a professor with funding to express an interest in you. When my wife and I were applying to grad school we sketched out a plan to visit a number of schools across the country. We started in Boston (since I was there for a business trip for Synthetica) and went down the East Coast and then across the country. On Amtrak. In winter. During the Blizzard of ’93. In our California wardrobe. I’ve never been so cold in my life. It turns out, the timing of our trip was opportune. When someone from California has taken Amtrak across country and is hoofing it across town in a windbreaker in a blizzard just to see you, you tend to remember them. The professors were welcoming and I had some good conversations. In the end, we got offers from every school we applied to.

Making the Cut

As soon as you accept the offer to become a doctoral student, you begin a competition for spots on a roster. I wasn’t aware of this. I thought that once you were accepted, it was kind of like college: you don’t screw up too badly, you graduate. Not so.

The first two years of a doctoral program involve the same coursework you’d do for a Masters degree. The department professors will teach a range of courses in your field. You will demonstrate your mastery of the subject matter, but you will also be observed in other ways. How well do you interact with others? What is your style? How insightful are you? What do you bring to the conversation? Would you make a good peer?

At the end of the two years, you take a Qualifying Exam, an all-day test spanning the breadth of your field. It’s the Mother of all Finals. This, combined with your coursework and what professors have observed about you, determines whether you stay or hit the job market with a Master’s.

The Next 3 Years

If you make it through the Qualifying Exam, you’ll typically need another 2 to 3 years to get your doctorate (although there’s no specified time). This is when you’ll do your research, when you’ll go deeper into a subject than anyone has gone before. After you figure out what topic you intend to research, you propose this to your dissertation committee. Because you’ll eventually become the expert in this area, your committee won’t really know what will come of your work. Their goal is to make sure you’ve done due diligence in selecting your topic, that you’ve done enough preliminary research to justify more extensive work. After you successfully defend your proposal, you’ll do more research. Write more papers. Present at conferences. Publish in journals. And, in the meantime, write your dissertation.

An interesting thing happens during this time. Doctoral candidates self-select into two groups. One group figures out (or is told) the rules of the game. The other group never figures out the rules (or is told but ignores them).

The Game

I’d always been idealistic, and so the biggest revelation to me about grad school (and academia in general) was that there were politics involved. I’d imagined academia as a pure pursuit — people working together to better understand the world. It’s not like that, or at least not entirely. The ivory tower is guarded. Every discipline has a political terrain.. The game is figuring out how to navigate it. This isn’t about understanding ideas; it’s about understanding people and their motivations. You need to do more than study articles, you have to study the authors as well. You have to meet the right people and figure out how to collaborate with them to carry out research, write articles, and present at conferences. This requires an entirely different skillset than what you’ve developed to this point. You probably don’t have time to learn this and write your dissertation at the same time. That’s where your advisor comes in.

Your advisor knows how to play the game. Your advisor may give you general advice like “try to get two papers published this year” or more specific advice like “go to the conference in Utah this summer and meet Professor X” (not the Professor X, of course, though how cool would that be? 🙂 ). Your advisor may even flat out tell you what to do: “Look, if you want a teaching job, you need to co-write a paper with these three guys because a position is opening up at University X and the chair of the search committee will ask at least one of them for their opinions on candidates”. Your advisor is the person who’ll have the biggest impact on your academic career (other than yourself, of course). Heed their advice and if they don’t offer it, ask..or ask elsewhere.

More Advice

If you do find yourself in grad school, take advantage of it. This is a special time. Although you’re working hard, you get to set your schedule and how you work (it’s like bootstrapping a company). If you want to read articles at Longwood Gardens, go right ahead. If you want to tour the East Coast in between conferences, no problem. I’ve often observed that it’s kind of like living some of your retirement years when you’re still young — you get discounts everywhere, the only catch is your fixed income (stipend).

The one thing you should absolutely do in grad school is this: network. Attend events for grad students. There’s great food (at Penn, some of the best food in the country). There are well-connected people. And your peers will eventually go on to do great things. I should have done this more. It would have been more valuable than studying fluid mechanics or reactor design (especially given that I’m writing web apps now). If you have the choice between coursework or attending a networking event, please network — it’s a great way to learn the game, get a good meal, and meet people you’ll one day read about. The doctoral students that want to play the game and learn to play it well move on to teaching positions. The ones that choose not to play the game or who don’t play it well enough will have to find jobs. Or start companies :-).


Note that everything in this post is based on my particular perspective and experience. If any of this sounds wrong to you, please feel free to comment…

Oh, and thanks, Lyle — you were a great advisor!