I need help already... it's gonna be great!
February 13, 2008 7:06 PM   Subscribe

What tips do you have for someone about to embark on their first year of postgraduate study?

I just finished a four year Arts/Science degree in English and Geology. I've now just started an honours year in Geology. This will involve about two months of course work (separate components including field trips around the place) and then spending the rest of the year on my project. The project is looking at zinc isotopes in tree leaves, hoping to find a relation to ore bodies under cover.

So, for the first time ever I'll be working on a huge project that takes many months, covers many different aspects, and will result in a nice juicy thesis. What did you do/wish you did that helped when you were in a similar situation?
posted by twirlypen to Education (8 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Slit your wrists. It's cheaper and easier.

But, seriously, start the research for the written aspect of your project early, maintain constant contact with your adviser, and develop a support network of friends who care about your academic success - even if they don't understand what your success will mean.
posted by parmanparman at 8:16 PM on February 13, 2008

I'm coming at this from the perspective of a PhD student in the thick of my thesis, and all the cruft surrounding it, but hopefully some of this will help.

I have to second what parmanparman said (the second part anyway; I wouldn't recommend the wrist slitting... at least at first. :-) I kinda scoffed at the idea that I'd need a support group for writing a glorified paper, but it really helps to have like-minded people around. Working on my thesis is one of the harder things I've ever done; I underestimated just how draining (and sometimes depressing, both in the figurative and literal senses) it could be. You'll get through it, though.

The other thing you may have trouble with (I did, and do) is that this stuff can be pretty self-scheduled. You might end up with a situation where the only deadline is the final "due date" (if there even is one). With all that vast unscheduled time stretching out in front of you, it's pretty easy to put things off, waste a ton of time, and find yourself dealing with an unmanageable amount of work to deal with at the end. This is a Bad Thing. So, if you're not an organized person, you're going to have to become one. Get a calendar, schedule your life and your time. Set deadlines for yourself - small, frequent ones - and stick to them.

You'll have days where you don't feel like you're accomplishing much; on those days, make yourself finish something - just ONE thing, even a small one - and then tell yourself it'll be better tomorrow. Usually, it will.

When you're writing, just get stuff down on paper. Accept that your first draft will be terrible, get your thoughts down, even if they're only semi-coherent, and then edit later. Editing a bad piece of writing is much easier than staring at a blank page with overly inflated expectations.

Also echoing parmanparman, your advisor will be a great resource for you. Stay in constant contact; set up weekly meetings if you can. It'll help keep you on track and force you to keep working so you don't embarrass yourself by having nothing to show for it.

Good luck, and have fun! You'll end up with something you're incredibly proud of, even if nobody else cares or even understands it (and honestly, most of them won't). It's totally worth it though. I'll add more if I think of it.
posted by theslarty at 8:57 PM on February 13, 2008

1. Buy a portable usb harddrive. I use Western Digitial Passport (it doesn't require a power cord)

2. Keep everything (I mean EVERYTHING) on there.

3. Back it up nightly to an OFFSITE (preferable online) backup location. I use JungleDisk.


Some words of warning:

1. You will lose your data.
2. You will lose your data.
3. You will lose your data.

So backup regularly offsite and you don't have to worry about it.
posted by chrisalbon at 8:59 PM on February 13, 2008

I'm not sure if you're moving from being surrounded by undergraduates to being surrounded by graduates. If you are, one of the most striking differences I noticed going to graduate school directly out of college was how much more knowledgeable my peers are. Many graduate students will be coming from spending years in industry, or at the very least, having studied for anywhere from 1-6+ more years than you.

I had a bit of a shock when I started and felt like everyone around me was smarter than me. It took me a little while to realize that that was silly and that they'd simply had a lot more experience.
posted by christonabike at 9:29 PM on February 13, 2008

You might want to get a head start on publishing papers in peer-reviewed academic journals and going to conferences in your field (and presenting posters or talks). These smaller chunks could help give you feedback on the bigger project of your thesis. I waited until after my Ph.D. to be active in the field (publishing, attending conferences), but I didn't have to.
posted by Schmucko at 10:51 PM on February 13, 2008

Don't wait for people to offer you resources (advice, books, training, access to equipment, whatever). Ask for what you need.

The big difference between a research project and a homework problem is that on the homework problem, someone's made sure to hand you whatever you'll need right and the beginning. In a research project, nobody knows yet what you'll wind up needing. So ask.
posted by nebulawindphone at 6:57 AM on February 14, 2008

Your career starts now. Not when you graduate. Act professionally. Graduate school is your entry level job.

Your professors have godlike power over you. They may be idiots, weirdos, cool or buddies but bad words from them can kill your career dead before it even starts. Realize this now and act accordingly. They are not bosses. You can't quit and switch advisors like you can bosses. You don't have to like your advisor but they do have to like you.

Your fellow students will mostly be great friends but know that some of them will be evil backstabbing bastards and you won't be able to tell who is in which category until it is too late. Realize this now and act accordingly.

Your fellow students will become some of your most valuable contacts. Share gossip but be sure it is compassionate gossip rather than malicious (particularly since some of your friends are those backstabbing bastards I mentioned). This way you can know the social landscape of your field as you move though it. Knowing who favours who and who hates who helps quite a bit with coursework, collaboration, conferences and paper submissions.

You will feel like you are not worthy. You will doubt yourself. Anticipate it and stop it. You can't know everything and your peers don't either. For everything they know, which they will loudly announce, there is something they don't know which they won't announce. The key to graduating is getting it done. You don't have to be brilliant. In fact being brilliant is probably a disadvantage because you won't have to develop good work habits until it is dangerously late in the game. Just get it done.

Read Getting Things Done and do it. Decide later if it works for you but for now just do it. Read the Now Habit. Use the tricks.

Most important - think strategically.

Spread yourself out amongst the faculty a bit. Don't just work with your adviser. Work with one or two others. This limits the potential damage of a bad relationship, diversifies your training, references and research and best of all makes you look like an ideally collaborative colleague which is huge job market plus.

Work with connected people. There is little point in working with isolated radicals or mavericks. Their reference letters will hold little weight and possibly even hurt.

Ask for advice on strategy. Your professors succeeded at the game. They know the tricks.

Also - before you pick an advisor - look at the phd graduates - where they ended up, how they liked him, etc. If your advisor never graduates anyone they may either be neglectful or too tough. If all their students go into industry then they are not doing good enough research. Look for someone who has graduated students who went on to work at schools you respect.
posted by srboisvert at 9:30 AM on February 14, 2008 [3 favorites]

1. Be a self-starter and keep busy. As an undergrad, your 'job' was to attend classes and get good grades. Your profs usually kept you on task (if they were good). As a grad student, you are much more responsible for your own pace. This varies from lab to lab and project to project, but it's very likely that you will find yourself with lots of time when you don't have to be doing research/experiments/work RIGHT THEN. Resist the temptation to goof off and have 4 hour workdays just because you can. Use that time constructively. Take the opportunity to learn from your labmates ("Hey, are you doing that procedure today? Can I watch? I don't know how to do it and I might need it some day..."), to go to seminars in your field, to make contacts with other professors (asking intelligent, reasonable questions during your grad classes is a great way to make a good impression, especially if the teacher is going to be on your committee), or catch up on the literature.

2. Keep up with your field and keep track of what you read. Do a narrow literature search on your field at least once a month...once a week if you're in a fast-moving field. Do NOT just print out/save the papers and let them accumulate in a pile on your desk/desktop, unread. Try to read a paper or two a week. Keep notes on what you read: questions you have, things you want to remember. Find what article organization strategy works for you (ie, printed articles in folders with written notes, annotated pdfs, or some combination of the two) and stick to it. Organize your read articles in whatever electronic/physical way works best for you, and enter them into whatever reference manager software your lab uses (Endnote, etc.) If you make it easy to find things again (by author, by subject, by keyword, by tag, by whatever), then it's easy to find what you want later. Also, having a reference library already built in your reference manager will save you DAYS of searching for references when it comes time to write things up.

3. Keep up on your lab notebook. Don't let yourself get behind on documentation: you'll forget what you did (if you don't keep good enough notes), and even worse you'll miss out on the extra look-through of your data that just might mean the difference between making sense of that data and shrugging it off as a fluke. Also...it really, really sucks to graduate and realize that you have a solid week of writing in your lab notebook to do before you can leave. Just...just trust me on this.

4. Keep good notes. Not only on what you've done, but also on what things are. There's nothing more frustrating than going into a box looking for the Very Important Sample #4 and finding....five #4's, because you only label your samples with numbers and assume that you'll remember which experiment is which. You won't. Trust me. Easiest thing I've found is to date everything. You can nearly always trace a sample back to a date, so long as you keep good notes.

5. Work hard, but play hard, too. Productivity is usually more important to professors than the hours you put in. Get your work done in a reasonable amount of time (resist the lure of the internet), and you'll have more time to relax. Also, you're no good to anyone if you're overworked and underslept. Get 7-8 hours of sleep, and you'll make fewer mistakes and not feel like you're walking around in a haze.

Good luck.
posted by JustWandering at 2:45 PM on February 14, 2008

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