Geovon graduated with an MS in Technology specializing in Innovation. After a couple of great years with Mongo DB, he is starting a new position at a large company whose name may or may not begin with G. Here is his advice:
Find the right advisor
Grad school is a journey, and you’ll need someone to guide you through it. So quickly and carefully seek out an academic advisor who has the following:
- a stellar reputation among current and former undergraduate and graduate students
- a personality and work ethic that aligns with yours—or what you hope to become
- a schedule that’s focused on student interaction
Treat grad school like it’s a training ground for your dream job
Be self-motivated, work hard at everything you do, and aim to succeed—to be the top of your class, field of research, etc. If you don’t do this in grad school, you likely won’t in your post-grad professional career.
Join clubs, attend socials, and take electives in different departments or schools. Use your free time as an opportunity to meet your peers, grow your professional network, and increase your chances of landing a job.
I’ve asked some of my very successful students who graduated recently to sum up some advice for succeeding in graduate school. The first guest post comes from Zhihua “Emma” Dong. Here is her advice:
I am flattered to be invited to write this blog post. Before you go ahead to read whatever advice I give, probably it is better for you to know who I am and the scope of this post so you can decide how much you buy in.:)
I spent 2011 to 2014 in two graduate programs here at Purdue: Industrial Engineering and Computer Graphics Technology. After graduation, I got a job with Microsoft as a program manager (similar to product manager in other companies). When I thought about “advice” I should give, I included both those made my graduate life smooth and relatively successful, and things I could have done better to be more successful. In addition, I decided to list only 5 most important ones from my point of view, to not look like a grandma. So here you go:
1. Make wiser choices
I say “wiser” because I assume you are here because you made wise decisions.:) This is something I didn’t intentionally train myself doing in graduate school, but just realized its importance recently. It applies to both career and graduate life. I hope you come to graduate school with a relatively clear goal to achieve, whether it is finding a job in certain area, or prepare yourself for PhD study. Let your goal(s) serve as a filter when you make decisions. For example, what course should you take? Check out those dream jobs, find the skill gaps you need to fill, find corresponding courses, and talk to course instructors to verify if it is something you need. Another example, who to hangout with? Find someone who shares similar visions and has a plan. I am not suggesting that your party friends are not important, but redistribute your time to connect with those who are in the same camp, and can inspire and motivate you. Never make random decisions because master study is very short, and you don’t have unlimited bandwidth to try out everything.
2. Don’t procrastinate
After you make decisions, execute well – don’t wait until deadlines hit you. This is much easier said than done, as procrastination is very much like gravity, which is difficult if not impossible to escape from. However, still make honest efforts to overcome it as much as possible. I too, suffer from procrastination sometimes, which really hurts. It hurts your performance, your emotional status, and eventually your physical health. Discipline yourself, do your work with friends in the library, find a time-management technique that works for you (e.g., GTD, and Pomodoro), and prepare to be happy and successful.
3. Talk to your advisor
It’s not difficult to reach out to families and peers if you are in trouble, but your advisor might not in the list while he/she should. Your advisor might be hands-on or hands-off type, but you should always be proactive in communicating with him/her. There are several major things you should be constantly communicating with your advisor:
(1) What are the expectations for each other. It’s crucial to clarify and understand each other’s expectations rather than guessing them. Ask you advisor how he/she defines a good student and constantly check if you are progressing towards it. At the same time, let your advisor know if you need from him/her: wether it is more of his/her time, or his/her coach on certain aspect. Make sure your ask for things you need as it is the most efficient way.
(2) Address his/her feedbacks timely. I found this super important because the mentor/mentee relationship can be prosper only if the mentee takes feedback seriously and react on it.
(3) Discuss any confusions or difficulties you have. Your advisor has much more experience since he/she oversaw many graduate students and himself/herself was one before. Don’t be afraid to expose personal vulnerability because school and advisor might be the last resort…
Whatever topic you have in mind, take the action to schedule regular one-on-one meeting with your advisor – even though they are very busy, if you ask, there is always time for you. Be responsible for your own graduate life and career.
4. Find an internship
If you are job-oriented, find an internship. If you are not job-oriented or plan to do a Ph.D., find an internship. You are all familiar with benefits of an internship: resume builder, industry connections, real-world experience, and much more. What I want to add here is: spend your time research different positions, apply those can help you get closer to your dream job. I interned with Siemens UX group one year before my graduation, which is not exactly my dream job but certainly a step towards one. In addition, it serves as a test for your to re-examine your career goal – you might confirm something is exactly what you want to do, or you might find another practice is your true passion. In any case, give it a try before your land a serious full-time job.
When you find the internship, practice 1~3 during your internship.:)
5. Take graduate-level courses seriously
You might think graduate study is more about research rather than taking courses. I would like to remind you that is simply not true. I benefited a lot from graduate-level courses, especially those project-oriented. Courses loaded with projects are essentially resume- or portfolio-builder for you. Keep detailed notes on the process, deliver good results and presentations, and put them up in your personal site – boom, You have a portfolio ready for job hunting! Treat these mini-internship seriously, also apply 1~3 throughout the process.
I hope you find the above helpful in one way or another. Take this journey mindfully, you might be surprised to find your career passion, friends who speak the same language, and life-long mentors coming out of this 2-year study. That happens to me and I am grateful for the experience.
Feel free to reach out if you have any question! My email address: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Lastly, wish you all a happy and successful graduate study.
I’ve written before my advice on how to be a successful graduate student. But to even get to be a graduate student in the first place, you may need a graduate teaching or research assistantship – especially if you’re an international student not eligible for loans in the U.S.
I get it, I understand how important an assistantship is to you (the ticket to graduate education in the U.S.!) and how much you need it. I’ve been an international graduate student myself. Granted, I didn’t have to ask for assistantships – I always got them, maybe because I was lucky, maybe because my file spoke for itself.
But here you are, you got admitted to Purdue (congratulations!) yet you don’t have funding. What do you do??
The first thing NOT to do is to type (or copy from some website) a letter along the lines of the one below and send it to ALL professors in several departments:
I’ve been admitted to Purdue… I’ve read about your research and I’m very interested… I am highly qualified in… (areas usually not related to the professor’s research). My resume is attached… Will you please consider me for a research assistantship?”
You know what happens to these emails? DELETE. Most of us don’t even bother to answer. Hey, you didn’t bother to look up my research interests – or even spell my name in the opening of the email.
Whoever advised you that you get ahead in life by sending template letters to lots of people was WRONG.
If you want to get my attention and have a chance at being considered for funding, here’s how to go about it:
- Write a clear, specific subject line that refers to something I do or I’ve worked on (I=me, the professor, not you). This will get my attention and will tell me the email is relevant to me personally.
- Use my name in the opening of the email. Copy and paste it from my website, to make sure you spell it correctly.
- DO actually read about my research interests, peruse my list of publications, read one or more of them – or at least spend a few minutes reading my blog.
- Convince me you are ACTUALLY interested in the research I do. Be specific about what you’re interested in and why. Show me you’ve done the work to learn about my research. A strong interest in my research is the #1 qualification I look for in students. I can teach you the rest.
- Argue how your skills will actually be applicable to the research I’m doing. Give me some ideas about what you would like to work on.
Yes, this type of letter is more work. You won’t be able to write 500 of them. But the 10 you will be able to write are more likely to get you an assistantship than the other 500.
You should know a few more things about how this process works. If you are admitted as a graduate student in my department, chances are I saw your file. I might have even voted on your admission. If I wanted to offer you an assistantship, I would have done so by now. If you are in another department on campus, I have not seen your file. Although I am more motivated to fund students in my own department, I will consider you if you are a very good fit.
If you’ve applied for admission in my department, don’t send me the form letter above the week before classes start – or ever. If you were REALLY interested in my research, you would have mentioned that on your application to graduate school, and you would have been in touch with me a LONG time ago.
And here’s the last part. Not all my faculty colleagues will work this way, but it may work with me: If you’re just applying to graduate school and you’re VERY interested in working with me, contact me as early as possible – even before you send in your file. Be prepared to explain what about my research you’re interested in and why.
Research is the most valuable skill you need (and will learn) as a graduate student. Show you have potential for it by DOING YOUR RESEARCH before approaching professors and asking them to invest in you.
[Photo credit: http://academicregaliaforpurchase.com]
I asked my TECH621 students to interview 3 professors each and get tips about graduate school success.
A bit late, here are my tips & expectations about being a successful graduate student. They are derived from my experience in grad. school, both as a student and professor:
You don’t have to be in grad school. Your parents may have forced you to get an undergrad degree, but you are in grad school because you want to learn. So, learn.
A successful graduate student doesn’t only “absorb” information. She actively seeks knowledge.
Professors might mention something in passing, and the grad. student goes out to research that topic in depth and learn about it, because he wants to, because he’s curious – because he’s a born researcher (you know who’s a born researcher? Don Bulmer. He has an innate curiosity and the drive to pursue knowledge. Those are characteristics of the ideal grad. student.)
Actually, several other tips follow from the first one:
- work hard. As a grad student, I put at least 4 hours of reading & other work preparing for each 3 hour class I took.
- be conscientious. Grad students don’t miss assignments, don’t turn them in late. They don’t miss class (there was never an attendance policy in my grad. classes, but I didn’t even dream of missing class unless I was very sick).
- be critical. Try to view different points of view. Question. Explore. Ask:
- “does it have to be so?”
- “what/who are we leaving out?”
- “what’s the downside of that?”
- “what are the long-term effects?”
- create knowledge. Most grad. students learn to be researchers. Assume your researcher role and if there’s no easy answer to a question, go ahead and research it – create new knowledge.
Try to learn the culture of academia & to fit in
You can’t succeed in academia without doing good work. But you can do good work and not succeed in academia, because you don’t understand how to present your work in ways that are valued by academic culture. The values vary by field and even by department, but be on the lookout, try to identify and learn things such as:
- the accepted/valued outlets for presenting research (posters, conference papers, or panels, and at what conferences?)
- the accepted/value format and writing style
- and even… the accepted/valued topics. There are certain “hot topics” at any given time, just as there are certain “passe topics.”
A mentor can help you figure these things out – but it doesn’t have to be your academic adviser. Ask faculty members, we love to give advice. You learn a lot just by hanging out with faculty or senior grad students. Create these opportunities. Organize a seminar or a get-together, or ask if you can go to lunch with someone.
Every class you take is a potential job interview. I’ve had several professors approach me and offer me teaching or research assistantships while I was taking their course, or as soon as the course was over. In fact, many classes ARE job interviews.
Maybe today’s class or assignment is boring, or seems irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. Try to do your best anyway. Keep in mind that 2 or 4 years down the road, you might need to ask that professor for a recommendation letter. The best thing we can write about a student is that she consistently exceeded expectations. Great work is great. Doing great work consistently and repeatedly is even greater.
As always, please add your tips, comments, reactions, comments or… cabbage jokes 😉
I’m not getting into this. But what I picked up was the use of being “too academic” as an explanation – as if being “too academic” were a bad thing. It’s not, not always .
Here’s my list  of the main characteristics of being “academic:”
Has this been said before?
Academics research thoroughly what has been written before on their topic and related concepts, in one or more disciplines. They don’t reinvent the wheel. Lack of familiarity with previous literature reduces one’s credibility and increases the risk of reinventing the wheel. Keyword: library (yes, library!)
I remember of a dear and very much appreciated analyst who was working on a report on communities and was crowd-sourcing the definition of “community.” There are full library shelves on the concept. Read ’em. Cite ’em. Think of the literature review as a different from of crowd-sourcing 🙂
Claim + Supporting evidence
Academics follow this formula very rigorously. For every single claim (every single sentence, sometimes word in a publication), you need evidence.
Claim: Tomatoes are red.
Evidence: ??? Can be empirical (inductive) – based on observations, surveys, etc. or can be a logical argument. In which case, avoid fallacies.
My dear mentor  would question every single statement in my papers and in the process taught me that you cannot make a claim without solid supporting evidence. And when you only have this much evidence, you make a smaller, more specific, claim.
So, if: “The public has been ignored in public relations” = claim, what is the evidence for that? What kind of evidence would you provide, and are you sure that the evidence is sufficient and valid?
Academic writing is specific & precise
… and that’s what makes it inaccessible. Oh, why do we need the word “stakeholder” when we have “public”? Well, because we define concepts and we need words to refer to the specific concepts. We need to avoid confusion with the general usage of the word. Inaccessibility is the downside.
The upside is that, good academic writing is not vague – it has (almost – see) surgical precision. You need that surgical precision to stand up to scrutiny, to make sure you don’t over-generalize, and that there’s good fit between the evidence and the claim.
I strive to produce both academic AND accessible writing, and maybe so should you. Go ahead. Be academic.
 Academic thinking will teach you to avoid overstatements and over-generalizations; to be specific if possible, inclusive or ambivalent otherwise.
 I can hear my dear mentor’s  voice: Why do you put only these things on the list? How do you know you’ve exhausted all possibilities? What are the criteria for inclusion/exclusion/sorting of the list? Beware the laundry list fallacy.
 Carl Botan
This is why I recommend graduate school. I don’t care if it will make you more money or get you a better job. It will sharpen your mind, enhance your critical thinking and problem-solving skills, and teach you humility – at least you know what you don’t know, and you learn to question everything, your work and yourself included (downside: bye-bye, self-esteem!).
Most research articles you find in academic journal follow a similar recipe. If you understand how the article is structured and what to look for in each section, you can read articles much faster. I can get what I want from a research article in 5 minutes or less. When I started grad. school it took me 45-60 minutes to get through a research article and I still didn’t get much out of it. I wish someone had taught me how to read them.
Here are my lessons, based on my experiences. They work for me. I hope they work for you, too. If they don’t, use this as a starting point to figure out your own reading process.
Understanding the anatomy of a research article will also help you write easier.
Usually long and cryptic. Most titles are poorly written. I don’t pay much attention to the title.
I read it carefully and look for:
- purpose of study/research question
- a hint as to research methods
- key results
I read the introduction looking for the following information:
- explanation of the problem the study addresses
- explanation of the larger context of the problem
- argument about the importance/need/relevance of studying the problem
- purpose of the study
- an overview of how the article is structured, and how the next section is organized
It may be called something else, or the article may not even have headings – but it should be there somewhere. The literature review should accomplish 2 purposes:
- make an argument for the need to conduct this specific study (identify a gap, or a need in previous literature)
- present the previous theories, concepts, etc. that this study uses and builds upon
Usually, each paragraph or small section of the literature review covers a body of literature (the best lit. reviews are organized thematically, IMO). When reading the literature review it is important to identify these major themes. They give you a lay of the land.
Imagine the body of literature is a garden. The article you’re reading attempts to plant a new seed in this garden. Before doing so, the authors explain the layout of the garden (vegetables here, flowers there, weeds over there) and they explain why their plant is needed and where it fits in.
When reading the lit. review, you get a feel for this garden. If you are:
- very familiar with the literature, the lit. review confirms that the authors looked in all the right places and didn’t reinvent the wheel. OK to skim.
- completely unfamiliar with the literature, this section will be terribly confusing. Don’t worry. All you have to get out of it are the major themes (sections of the garden). You can come back later and examine each individual plant. OK to skim.
- are trying to learn the literature – read carefully, and mark on the list of references the sources you want to read.
The literature review ends with the research question(s). Find them and highlight them. They are promises that the article should deliver on.
This section explains the research methods and procedures used for the research study. Read them carefully, make sure they are valid. If the research methods are faulty, the data are not to be trusted. If the research methods are absurdly faulty, stop reading here. Go back to the literature review and the list of references and see if they can help you find better articles on the topic.
In this section, the authors present their data, along with their (statistical or interpretive, etc.) analysis. This is as close as you can get to the raw data. This section, in a quantitative article, should be as free as possible of interpretation. Try your best to understand the results for yourself, so you can create your own interpretation of what they mean. But, if the statistics baffle you AND if you trust the authors, skim this section and move on to:
This section explains what the results mean, in the context of the garden (literature review). You should see how the problem from the introduction is solved, how the research questions are answered, and whether the purpose of the study was accomplished. I usually read this section very carefully, because it tells me what the authors think they have accomplished.
Either here or at the end of the conclusion, you will find suggestions for future research. These can be very useful for your own literature review – you can cite the article, if it calls for exactly the research you’re doing. You can use this to support your own argument about the need for your research.
The first part of the conclusion should be a summary of the entire paper. I read it carefully, because the repetition helps me remember what I read. The last part of the conclusion is usually the most difficult part to write, very often fluff, and I don’t feel guilty about skimming or skipping it.
I used to teach this recipe to graduate students and they found it very helpful. I hope you do, too. Please share your own reading and writing tips, and ask me other questions you may have about graduate school.
There are several books that can help you, and the APA style manual has a chapter that explains the structure of APA research papers.
In a recent column in the National Communication Association’s newsletter, NCA president Dr. Arthur Bochner writes about institutional depression – a systemic sadness, loneliness and hopelessness that affects many academics. He blames institutional depression on the lack of communication and community among academics in the humanities, whose work and rewards systems encourage individual performance. Academics don’t feel a sense of belonging to a group or community, and left to their own devices, like many other mammals, flirt with depression.
You’d think that the ivory tower is alive with sparkling, stimulating conversation. You’d hope. Well it is, but mostly in the classroom.
I then read Jane Tompkins’ riveting memoir, A Life in School: What the Teacher Learned. A personal account of her experiences as a student, scholar, and academic. A courageous, naked disclosure of her psychological journey from insecurity, depression, craving for acceptance to what seems like peace. A peace she couldn’t find in academia, so she retired early from a tenured professorship in English at Duke University.
I read the book in one sitting, and I think it should be mandatory reading for all academics and university administrators.
That’s because although we live a privileged life in academia (hey, we’re paid to sit, talk, read, and write), it can also be a miserable life. No one takes care of our souls. Tompkins claims no one takes care of our students’ souls, either. Within the university, we’re not people. We’re minds.
So what can be done to improve quality of life in academia? Tompkins’ solution was to create opportunities for building community. She tried. She failed.
She realized the main reason why community isn’t happening is because we’re too busy. We run all the time. We work all the time. We need to be accomplishing something all the time. There’s no time for leisurely conversation and relationship building. (Want to know more about how that can kill you? Read my favorite non-fiction book, American Mania.)
As some of you know, for personal family reasons but or maybe for no reason at all, I’ve been doing my own flirting with depression lately. The recent SNCR conference has given my spirits a huge boost, because it was alive and a-twittering with sparkling, stimulating conversation.
So I’ve decided to try for myself and others Tompkins’ idea of building community and have proposed starting a summer book club at Clemson. First reading on the list: Jane Tompkins’ A Life in School.
After a 3-day approval process, my call was forwarded to people in Clemson’s College of Architecture, Arts, and Humanities. A few people have responded. If you are in the area, are reading this, and would like to be part of the book club, please contact me.
I hope it will be a safe place for friendly and stimulating conversations, not a battle of egos. The next books on my reading list are:
… but I’m open to suggestions.
If you’re not in the Clemson area, tell me:
How is/was your life in school?
Did school take care of both of your mind and soul? Did you feel treated like a whole person? Should school even do that?