Beki Grinter

What is the Most Important Thing to Know about Graduate School?

In academia, computer science, discipline, research on August 17, 2011 at 8:54 am

I’m going to be teaching CS7001 which is the orientation to graduate school class. So, today’s post is not so much of an essay but a question. What do you think the most important thing to know is if you want to succeed and get a Ph.D.? What’s helping you getting along if you are in graduate school? What was the most confusing thing that you had to learn about research and the research process?

  1. Dan Cosley is teaching one of these this semester at Cornell. You could write him and ask what’s he’s covering. His syllabus looked really good to me.

  2. For my first couple years, I had an impression that I needed to look for The Path to Succeed in graduate school. I tried to understand and mimic what more successful students had done, then ask whether I had hit the same milestones as quickly as they did.

    Eventually I realized that this was absolutely the wrong way to go about it. I was paying attention to the syntax of how they succeeded, but ignoring the semantics. Probably the most freeing realization I had in graduate school was that, by and large, the people who I most respected as grad students and as professors did not judge themselves by those metrics. They weren’t trying to optimize some function to be successful. They were just doing research that they found compelling, and most importantly, having fun doing it.

    This realization was critical to me. When you wonder about whether you’ll get a first-authored paper into a conference your first year or win a best paper your second year, you take fewer risks. Instead, when I wonder whether an idea will change how academics think, and whether I can still be excited about the idea when the code breaks or the evaluation comes out poorly, it tends to lead to much better research.

    • Thanks, this is fabulous! I agree. I think its quite hard not to compare yourself with your peers and there are a variety of things that encourage it. For example, ambiguity inherent in promotion makes you look to your colleagues and think do I have what it takes to succeed like them. There’s a lot of ambiguity in graduate school also. I was on a very compressed schedule (for reasons that involve not ending up an unfunded foreign student in the University of California system) so I couldn’t compare myself with others, I needed to go about twice as fast. But, it was still hard not to do it.

      I have always chosen things that I wanted to work on, and it’s not just that I think it has probably made me more successful, but I’ve enjoyed it too. Most important when one is committing to this sort of career. As I moved into faculty advisement so I have also had the truly awesome experience of watching it in others. Wow. Not to be missed!

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