The End is Near(ish)
As my final year as a PhD student continues its unnerving hurtle forward, I thought it would be nice to reflect on my grad school experience. Below are a collection of ideas, warnings, regrets, and assorted lessons I’ve accrued over my time so far at MIT.
Some of this advice I follow. Some I only wish I followed. All of it, I hope, is more or less true.
Thought #1: Research Trumps All
This is the master thought that most of the other thoughts support. The job of a graduate student is to learn how to do professional-quality research. At the end of your grad school experience you will be judged by the quality and quantity of the research. And that’s basically it. Remind yourself of this truth often. If you’re not making progress on your research, then radically rethink your scheduling priorities.
Thought #1.5: Don’t Let Courses and Quals Distract You From Thought #1
Don’t get too caught up in your courses or qualification exams. Study smart. Do good work. But remember, this isn’t college, and doing well academically is merely a prerequisite for being a successful graduate student — it’s far from the ultimate goal. Keep coming back to your research as priority #1.
Thought #2: Don’t Be a Firefighter
A simple truth: you’ll have more urgent things on your plate than you’ll have time to complete. If you spend your days only putting out one fire after the next as they arrive in your inbox — paper review requests, articles to read, extra experiments to conduct for your advisor — you’ll get very little original research done. This violates thought #1.
This syndrome, fortunately, is easy to avoid. Spend the first 2 -3 hours of the morning doing original work. Only then should you check your e-mail for the first time that day (and let the firefighting begin).
Thought #3: Stick to a Fixed Work Day
The nature of graduate student work is paradoxical. You’ll always feel like you should be working more hours. However, if you add these extra hours, your work output doesn’t increase much. With this in mind, you might as well fix a regular work day (I do 9 to 5:30) and refuse to work beyond these hours (with the obvious exceptions: the night before deadlines, etc.)
Do this, and four things will happen: First, you’ll focus more and get work done faster. Two, you’ll start work earlier which increases its quality. Three, you’ll start turning down time-consuming requests that add little to your career (and be pleased to discover that you’re allowed to say “no”). And four, your stress and guilt will plummet.
Thought #4: Three Projects is Optimal…
Working on one research project at a time is not enough. If you get stuck you can go many weeks beating your head against the wall and getting nothing done. This sucks. More than three projects are too many; quality will suffer and you’ll feel overwhelmed. This also sucks. Juggling three at time seems to be just about right.
Thought #5: …But Don’t Work on More than One Per Day
Within the context of a single day, focus your attention on a single project.
Thought #6: Listen to the Married Graduate Students and Ignore the Unmarried Students Who Live in the Dorms
Students with families have perspective on life and friends outside of the university. They tend to be happy and productive and think sleeping on the futon in your office is childish. They also bathe every day. Which is a nice bonus. The students who are unmarried and living in the dorm have probably escaped, thus far, exposure to the real world in any meaningful form, and because of this they are likely to have a warped sense of personal worth and work habits, and suffer from weird guilt issues. Ignore them.
Thought #7: Promise People Deadlines Then Follow Through
The easiest way to avoid being hassled is to respond to requests with the specific day on which you will complete the work, and then actually follow through. Do this, and people will leave you alone to accomplish things on your own schedule.
Thought #8: Challenge Yourself Once a Month
It’s so damn easy for your research to fall into a rut grooved by short-term decisions based on the question: “What’s the shortest path between here and a new publication?”. Many a graduate student, faced with crafting a job talk after 5 years of work, realizes, with horror, that his “research direction” is weak, jumbled, and uninspiring.
Once a month take yourself out for breakfast and ask: “What is my research mission as a graduate student? And how do I get back there from here?” I imagine this is how lasting careers are founded. (I wish I did this more.)
Thought #9: Don’t Mistake Experience for Smarts
Undergraduates think their graduate student TA’s are smarter than them. Junior graduate students think the senior graduate students are smarter than them. Senior graduate students think their advisors are smarter than them. Sense a pattern? It all comes down to experience. The more time you spend working in a field, the better you get at it, and the smarter you seem to those with less experience. Therefore, when you’re young, don’t get freaked out, and when you’re older, don’t get too impressed with yourself.
Thought #10: Take Days Off
The wonderful thing about being a graduate student is that you don’t have a real job. Your responsibilities are long-term (produce good research) not short-term (answer the phones from 9 to 5). Embrace this fact. Take days off to reward work well done and to unwind. See a movie in the afternoon at least once a month. No one is secretly punching a time clock for you.
For my graduate student readers, what thoughts do you have about your academic experience?
(photo by Lupton Library)