The purpose of this post is to give some advice to incoming graduate students in the physical sciences. I am writing this with the perspective of graduate student in physics but I think that this advice is valid across the sciences and maybe beyond. I am going to assume that you have already decided to go to graduate school. If you are on the fence about it you don’t need this post. Rather, I highly recommend “The Ph.D. Trap (Revisited)” by Wilfred Cude. Over the years, I have leant this to a number of people who were considering graduate studies – in some cases it convinced them to go and, in other cases, talked them out of it, but it has resulted in a decision.
This list is by no means complete and I am sure that a number of readers could add to it. If this is the case, I encourage you to leave comments, especially if they are specific to other fields of study. Essentially, this is what I wish I knew going into my degree.
1. Don’t wait until the end to write up your results.
When I was completing my masters thesis I found that I gained a tremendous amount of insight once I started the writing process. Another student in my research group echoed this sentiment when he reached this point. Writing up your results forces you to think about them in a holistic context. You will make connections with other areas and your discussion will ultimately help you understand the motivation for the work, how you might extend it and how to articulate it better.
Along the way you will also get a chance to publish and although this helps, I still think it still pays take the time to write up your own notes. Publications are the final presentation in its simplest form while a write up of your notes will contain ideas that may be expanded upon or avenues to be explored further at a later time. I find that it helps to have that added insight.
2. Complete your course work early.
Research fields are becoming increasingly more specialized. As a result, the learning curve for the tools you will need to make a significant contribution to the field is probably pretty step. This means that you will only have a firm grasp of them near the back end of your degree and this is where your best research will likely be done. You want to leave as much time as possible near the end to do good research which means clearing the course requirements early. You’ve entered a postgraduate degree so you are obviously more than adept in the classroom and can handle a bit of a work load. You shouldn’t have a tough time knocking off the classes while learning the tools of your trade. You might even find that your courses in conjunction with your independent reading will speed up the learning process. Also, if your department has a qualifying exam early in the program, your course work will help you prepare for it and should lessen the amount of studying required.
3. Make an effort to learn the lexicon early.
For many students I know, learning the lexicon of a field was the largest stumbling block they encountered. This was certainly the case with me. Even if you have an undergraduate training in a field, once you hit the research level, you are going to encounter a lot of jargon. You will find yourself rereading papers, thinking that you didn’t understand a thing when in reality its primarily the language that has acted as the stumbling block. Unfortunately, this is going to make you feel like you are behind or that you should have learned more at the undergraduate level. I have spoken to many grad students and I can assure you that this is normal. Personally, I found it helpful to take the first pass at a paper assuming that I would not understand it. I read it at a higher level, skipping the fine details, and highlighting terminology I didn’t understand. After learning the unknown terminology, I would then go back and try to understand the details of the paper and its calculations. I also did this with more than one textbook chapter.
4. Go to the department seminars.
For one reason this helps you with the lexicon. It exposes you to terms and discussion you wouldn’t normally encounter in your day-to-day research. For the first while its going to feel like a pointless exercise because you will probably get very little out of them. In my department, seminars are aimed at the professors who have far more experience in the field and often the graduate student is left behind. I suggest treating the seminars like papers at first. Try to get a feel for the broader context and write down the terms you don’t know for later. And be patient. Eventually you will start to get things out of the seminars and they will give you a far richer understanding of your field as a whole.
5. Discuss things with your peers.
If your department has a journal club, get involved in it. If not, make an effort to meet with other students in your program and discuss what you are doing. I found that by having to explain things to people in physics, who were not familiar with my particular specialty, I learned a lot about how to effectively communicate my ideas. I also found it extremely useful to bounce ideas off people who were not as intimidating as my supervisor.
So that is what I have. Again, please feel free to add your comments if you have things to add to this list. I will leave this off with some useful links. Good luck in your studies.
One Page Guides:
A graduate school survival guide:
Piled Higher and Deeper: