Advice For Graduate Students
In truth, discovering the path is part of the process. While you may feel like the process is made intentionally vague to filter out the faint of heart, I believe that the opposite is true. I have found the process to be just vague enough to strengthen the faint of heart. For me there was no greater sense of accomplishment than looking back along the path I had followed and realizing that I had found my own way through the all the obstacles.
With that said there is no reason you can't get a little help along the way. Thus, I have assembled some helful suggestions on the following topics:
- Characteristics to look for in a good advisor, mentor, boss, or committee member
- Finding a thesis topic or formulating a research plan
- Getting the most out of the relationship with your reseach advisor or boss
- Getting the most out of what you read
- Making continual progress on your research
- Avoiding the research blues
In addition to the information proviced above, I strongly recommend the following resources:
- Getting What You Came For by Robert L. Peters
- The Now Habit: A Strategic Program for Overcoming Procrastination and Enjoying Guilt-Free Play by Neil Fiore
- A Beginner's Guide to Scientific Method by Stephen S. Carey
This book is a great collection of advise/strategies for getting through a graduate program (either a Masters or a Ph.D.). I wish I had read this one while I was still a student.
Procrastination is one of the biggest problems faced by students at all levels. (In fact it can be a problem after you get through as well). Even if you don't have a problem with procrastination, the suggestions made in this book can have a significant impact on your productivity.
Even though most students have heard the term "scientific method" few are able to define it let alone apply the procedures toward the organization and execution of their research efforts. In short getting back to the basics of scientific investigation can save you a lot of headaches as you move through the research portion of your education.
- Graduate School Survival Guide - a great resourse that I borrowed from heavily
- In Praise of the Research University - an commencement speech that puts research in perspective
- How to Succeed in Graduate School - a very good paper on the topic
- How To Do Research In the MIT AI Lab - a good source of advice
- Graduate Student Resources on the Web - pointers to lots of other good web pages related to graduate life in general
Characteristics to look for in an advisor, mentor, boss, or committee member
Although we would all like to have one, the perfect thesis advisor probably does not exist. The trick is to choose an advisor that meets most of your needs. To offset your advisors weaknesses, you should choose thesis committee members who are strong in the areas where your advisor is weak. Below is a list of important features that can make or break an advisor/student relationship
- Technical skills are part of what you came for. Make sure that your committee (and preferably your advisor) has good technical skills. Choose people that:
- Can provide constructive criticism of papers you write or talks you give
- Knows if what you are doing is sufficient for a good thesis
- Can help you figure out what you are not doing well
- Can help you improve your skills
- Can suggest related articles to read or people to talk to
- Can tell you or help you discover if what you are doing has already been done
- Can help you set and obtain reasonable goals
- Technical skills are only part of what you need to have a good relationship with your advisor. Good personal and communication skills are an invaluable asset for any advisor, mentor, boss or committee member. Unfortunately, the best technical skills can be rendered useless by poor personal and communications skills. To avoid frustration and maximize the productivity interactions with your advisor and committee, choose people that:
- Are patient and understanding
- You can talk to freely and easily about research ideas
- Can motivate you and help keep you from getting stuck or bogged down.
- Tell you when you are doing something stupid
- Can offer constructive suggestions for moving forward on your work
- Do not feel threatened by your capabilities
- Can shield you from unnecessary departmental politics
- Your advisor should be your ally and advocate throughout your graduate school career. You should be able to trust your advisor to:
- Give you credit for the work you do
- Defend your work when you are not around
- Speak well of you and your capabilities
- Tell you when your work is or is not good enough
- Help you graduate in a reasonable time frame
- Look out for you professionally and personally
- Your advisor should be willing to meet with you regularly. Look for someone who will make the effort to spend quality time with you weekly (or atleast every other week)
- It is always helpful if your advisor (and committee members) are interested in your thesis topic. Although it seems obvious, this suggestion is frequently ignored when a student is frantically trying to find an advisor will provide financial support to both them and their research project.
- The whole idea behind graduate school is to improve your potential for success in your choosen field. At least initially, your potential for success is based on the success of your advisor. Thus, it is benefitial to choose an advisor who is well respected in his/her field.
In the end it is sort of like building a house. Your advisor and committee members provide you with the blueprints and the raw materials. When you have put together a good thesis committee, you will have a strong foundation from which you can build your career. Like the foundation of a house, your advisor and committee will support you throughout the "construction", polishing and marketing of your research skills.
Finally, it is worth noting that the main ideas presented in the above list are also on your advisor's (or potential advisor's) list of what to look for in a good research student.