How to be a good graduate student
April 17, 2008 8:43 PM   Subscribe

Help me be a better graduate student.

I'm a first year computational biology PhD student at Cornell. I came here directly after my undergrad and I'm having a hard time transitioning between my undergrad and graduate school. I think I'm a good undergrad student. I go to classes and participate enthusiatically, I do homework regularly, take exams seriously etc. I have a 4.0 GPA here. I find, however, that there's a whole other skill set that graduate school demands -- steady, persistent work with no immediate payoff. I'm easily distracted and am always leaping from one shiny idea to another. It also doesn't help that my undergraduate school was in India and allowed me far less freedom in terms of what courses I could take and choices I could make. While I have spent my first year taking courses that have direct application to my research I can't help but be tempted by courses on, for example, Women and Science or Science Writing for the Mass Media, especially since I really didn't have an opportunity to take courses unrelated to my major in undergraduate school. Would it be completely irresponsible to take a "fun" course once in a while? Cornell seems to encourage students taking courses unrelated to their work. So far I've been lucky in that all the professors I've done a lab rotation with have expressed interest in my joining their lab (it helps that I come with a generous fellowship). But I find myself awkward and unsure of myself around them. Everyone else seems to slip into this casually deferential relationship with their advisor so easily. Finally, I find it amazing how graduate students here seem to maintain this mental directory of the people involved in their area of expertise: who knows whom, who worked with whom on what, who is whose student. It's all so confusing and impenetrable to me. How does one begin to do that? So, in sum, give me your advice for being a better graduate student -- especially regarding work habits, classes, making connections with faculty and figuring out who's connected to whom.
posted by peacheater to Education (18 answers total) 49 users marked this as a favorite
Best answer: You should read the book Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student's Guide to Earning an M.A. or a Ph.D. by Robert Peters. It is a great guide to surviving every single step of graduate school, and gives you a lot of great tips so you can successfully graduate. You should be able to find it at the library at Cornell; it's a staple in every library where graduate students are suffering.
posted by Nematoda at 8:50 PM on April 17, 2008 [10 favorites]

I felt the same as you do (though I'm in a v. different discipline) last year. I think it just passes. The work stuff gets beaten into you, you figure out the course thing, and you get onto a rhythm with the faculty. So my advice is to relax and not worry so much about these things.
posted by paultopia at 8:54 PM on April 17, 2008

Best answer: maintain this mental directory

Don't worry, you'll pick up on it. Personally, I have problems remembering names but being more social will help in the long run. Open up your academic social sphere.

I can't help but be tempted by courses on

See if you can audit them - ie., take them but not for credit. That way, if there's stuff you need to do and would miss a class, no worries.

But I find myself awkward and unsure of myself around them.

I don't know Cornell, but most PIs want to have a peer relationship (or have their grad students become as capable as peers) with their grad students.

I came here directly after my undergrad

Yes, that's a 'problem.' Have you made friends with 3rd or 4th year PhD students? They can be a great resource, if they haven't burnt out and turned bitter. If you're enthusiastic (but not overly enthusiastic - lets say, "realistic") and a generally ok person, other students can be your greatest resource. Avoid gossiping, but keep your ears open.

transitioning between my undergrad and graduate school

My take on this, having not gone directly from undergrad to grad and getting to know a lot undergrad-to-grad students... in undergrad, you're doing stuff to satisfy other people. Now that you're in grad school, you'll want to satisfy yourself.

If that means showing up for just a few hours a day for a few days a week, so be it. If it means working for 3 months straight without a break, so be it too. What do you want out of grad school?

Work hard, work smart, but do take time off. Help other people when they need it, and you have the experience to help them. Don't be that slack-ass who doesn't pull their weight around communal stuff. Don't brag that your boyfriend took you to the Bahamas for a week, while your supervisor was away. Don't talk about yourself all the time - otherwise they'll do that for you when you're not around.

Everyone is different, you'll have to find your own balance. Once you settle on a lab after your rotations and getting a feel for the effort-level of your fellow grad students in that lab, then you might be able to decide for yourself.

You're just starting out, it's normal to feel lost or confused, or clueless. Take it easy, follow your ambitions, and after you get some more experience, decide for yourself what you need/want/will do.

Best of luck!
posted by porpoise at 8:59 PM on April 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

Would it be completely irresponsible to take a "fun" course once in a while?

This depends, as does nearly everything else, on your advisor. In general, I wouldn't recommend specifically asking permission to take such a class from your advisor, but you should be able to get a sense of whether such a thing is frowned upon from other students in the group and from your own relationship with your advisor.

But I find myself awkward and unsure of myself around them. Everyone else seems to slip into this casually deferential relationship with their advisor so easily.

This can be a real challenge. It's can be even trickier for foreign students, and women seem to find it more difficult in general. Ultimately, though, it's just like any other human relationship. Your advisor is just a person. It might help to remember that (with some rare pathological exceptions), a professor wants her graduate students to succeed. You share a goal.

Finally, I find it amazing how graduate students here seem to maintain this mental directory of the people involved in their area of expertise: who knows whom, who worked with whom on what, who is whose student. It's all so confusing and impenetrable to me. How does one begin to do that?

Start by reading the literature; you'll really catch on once you start going to conferences, though.
posted by mr_roboto at 9:07 PM on April 17, 2008

Best answer: (I am in a very different discipline from yours, so some of what I say may not fit your situation perfectly; you should also talk about these questions with your DGS, or a different humane and supportive person in your program.)

Everything you've described is very common to the experience of many first-year grad students and none of it is reason to worry about your future success. Remember that graduate school is not just teaching you more about your subject of research; it also gradually functions to acculture you into your discipline. It's good that you've noticed the "mental directories" that people build; this kind of professional network-building, learning to see research as networks of people and institutions as well as accumulated facts and ideas, is part of what DGSs sometimes call the goal of "professionalization." But don't think that it needs to come all at once; just pay a little more attention to who studies what, talk to people about who else works on subjects you're interested in, and (as mr_roboto rightly suggests) go to a few conferences, and you'll build your own mental directory. This will happen over the next few years, not in a flash of insight but by accretion.

Take (or, yes, audit) "fun" courses if they seem likely to help you develop an interest in a secondary research topic, or build your competency in something that will be professionally useful later on even if not directly connected to your research. Don't take on extra courses just as distractions or as recreation. Again, the key word (for selling these courses to your advisor or DGS, for understanding the difference between a grad-school "fun" course and an undergrad "fun" course, and possibly also for your decision about whether to take these courses) is professionalization: will they help you develop into the academic, the scientist, the researcher that you want to be?

In choosing a path through a Ph.D. program – which courses, what research projects, what advisor, what dissertation – you should always be asking what choice will help you develop in the right direction, to become the researcher/teacher that you want to become. This seems obvious, even to the point of being a platitude that I'm almost ashamed to post for fear of seeming condescending, but it can be surprisingly easy to lose sight of this big picture or endgame when mired in the little details and the first year, so maybe a reminder is in order.
posted by RogerB at 9:26 PM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Best answer: I was a Cornell graduate student and I do recommend that you branch out and take "fun" classes when you can. At Cornell, you are a student in the Graduate School, not the Biology school (or whatever) and that means you can take pretty much anything on campus. Cornell has tons of options, so take advantage of it while you can. Definitely not irresponsible.

(Also, make friends with the folks in the Dept. of City and Regional Planning over in Sibley Hall... they'll show you a good time!)
posted by stefnet at 9:26 PM on April 17, 2008

Best answer: I could have written this same post two years ago. I'm a fellow Computational Biology PhD student, and believe me when I say, hang in there, it gets easier.

I find, however, that there's a whole other skill set that graduate school demands -- steady, persistent work with no immediate payoff.

It's good news that you recognize this, because it is absolutely true. I don't have much to offer here except to say, it grows on you.

I'm easily distracted and am always leaping from one shiny idea to another.

Left to my own devices, I'm also a 'jack-of-all-trades' kind of guy, who's interested in everything. It's important to realize, though, that you've just signed up to spend the next 5 years of your life becoming the world's expert in one tiny and obscure field. If you're not willing to do that, you don't belong in graduate school. You certainly have the freedom to choose what that tiny field is, by choosing which lab you join, and negotiating your thesis topic, but then you're set.

I can't help but be tempted by courses on, for example, Women and Science or Science Writing for the Mass Media

Yeah, that's pretty common. I'd love to take art classes, or learn more about economics, but it's a generally a bad idea. You need to treat your PhD research like a job. You come in every day and put in a solid day's work on your project. Classes outside your field are a distraction that you need to pursue on your own time.

That said, those classes you mention sound like they're in your field, especially the science writing class. Clear it with your prospective advisor, (if you'll be in their lab before you start class) but I don't see why that would be a problem. Communication is one of the most valuable skills a scientist can have.

Would it be completely irresponsible to take a "fun" course once in a while?

For fun stuff that's totally outside your field, you might see if there are evening classes available, but I'd suggest auditing them if you can. That way tests won't interfere with your main objectives. Again, treat grad school like a job - you wouldn't let a fun class prevent you from fulfilling your work responsibilities at a business.

I find myself awkward and unsure of myself around them.

This is pretty normal, and once you join a lab, you'll build a relationship with your advisor. Be sure to take personality into account when choosing a lab, as well. Five years is way too long to be stuck with someone whom you can't stand.

I find it amazing how graduate students here seem to maintain this mental directory of the people involved in their area of expertise: who knows whom, who worked with whom on what, who is whose student.

This will come with time. When you work in a very small field every day for many years, you can't help but know who was up to what. If you get to your fourth year, and still have no idea, then come back and we'll talk. For now, don't stress about it.

In short, what you're going through is completely normal. Enjoy your first year, pick your lab carefully, and listen to older grad students in your program. They are your best source of information about potential advisors, which classes to take, and where the best places to find free food are. (If you don't appreciate that last one yet, you will soon).

Oh yeah, and read your way through all the PhD comics. They're funny because they're true.
posted by chrisamiller at 10:15 PM on April 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I'm a 2nd year grad student at Cornell. You're required to have a minor, and it doesn't necessarily need to be related in any way to your actual area of study. I know people minoring in things like music and vocal performance because they enjoy them, and I also know people minoring in subjects very closely related to their research.

Your special committee will include one field member from your chosen minor, so taking a couple of fun classes before you fill out the special committee form can be a good way to connect with faculty from your eventual minor field.

(I'm not in your program but it's my understanding that these requirements are dictated by the graduate school, and are uniform across departments.)
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 10:38 PM on April 17, 2008

It sounds like cornell may be somewhat different than the norm with this minor thing, but in my experience it's quite rare for grad students to take "fun" courses that aren't related in some way to their field. In my dept., there wouldn't really be any room in the curriculum for it, and I think it would be frowned on by the faculty, as you are supposed to start focusing on your subject. This is why they give you a fellowship, it's effectively a job. However, the courses that you mention don't sound too far out, especially if you were to audit them -- for instance if your undergrad curriculum included no writing courses than you may really want to take one, as you will have to do a tremendous amount of writing in grad school.

One thing you might consider is taking some phys ed courses for fun -- I've taken an aikido course for instance, and my school offers things like fencing, sailing, and even surfing. It looks like cornell has all sorts of interesting outdoor courses.
posted by advil at 10:57 PM on April 17, 2008

Best answer: I'm a fourth year PhD student in engineering and I've got a couple thoughts

Re: Fun Courses
I'm surprised at all the people coming out against classes for fun.

Unless they interfere with your other work or render you less productive than the lab's other graduate students, I say take the classes. I think it would speak well of you to most advisors that you wanted to break out of your discipline to learn something that interests you. I'm finished with my required courses and my advisor has been supportive of my taking one class a term that interests me. Sure graduate school should be treated like a job, but it doesn't have to be a soul-crushing one.

Re: Advisor relationships
In my experience, these tend to develop slowly over time. Some people hit it off right away (One first year grad in my program plays in a band with his advisor) but most relationships start off very official and unstiffen with time. As you make yourself useful to your professor, attend conferences together, and work on papers with both of your names on them, a relationship is built. Science is still on the master/apprentice system, and a young apprentice should be stiff and formal in the presence of the master, until you've built up something of a relationship and proved yourself useful.

As I'm sure you know, choose your advisor carefully! This is the most important choice handed to you in graduate school, I'd say personality, scientific reputation, and area of research, are the things you should consider, and in that order.

Re: General advice
Once you have a research project, collect 60 of the best and most relevant references to your project and reread two of them a day. Keep cycling through them for a few months. This was useful for me in getting really grounded in my project.
posted by pseudonick at 11:04 PM on April 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

In most universities, I think you would appear unserious if you took a course that had little to do with your discipline. You're allowed to have a life of your own, but a class for credit is a big commitment. Maybe it's different at Cornell.

If you do take such a class, you should remember the maxim I was taught as an undergrad: "take the teacher, not the class." Don't take a class on Women and Science unless you've talked to people who have had the instructor before and know that she is incredible. Basically, don't judge a course by its title.
posted by grouse at 1:59 AM on April 18, 2008

I've been told that fun classes are appropriate to take sometime starting in your third year, once you've established your research schedule and finished your usual classes. I think this strongly depends on the advisor, though, so if it's important to you I'd be sure to ask other graduate students in the lab when you're considering signing on.

You also may be able to swing it now if you really feel that you have the time, seeing as you've done so well at your required classes so far (congrats, by the way). Ask your committee members or your DGS, and do consider auditing or taking these classes S/U.

I'm also a first-year grad student at Cornell, though, so take my advice lightly; I'm just figuring this out, too!
posted by you're a kitty! at 6:17 AM on April 18, 2008

Best answer: You should absolutely take some courses just for fun, but only not-for-credit and not more than one a year or so. Also, wait until after you've chosen your lab, finished your comps-orals-whatever that makes you a PhD candidate and are into your thesis project. I took a fair amount of dance, which had nothing to do with my thesis but allowed me to use different parts of my brain, and a fair amount of coursework in physics, which was outside of my field and just for fun, but ended up helping me get the job I wanted in the end and has become an important part of what I now work on.

Also (and this will make some people protest), don't worry about your grades. When you're applying for jobs later, academic or not, no-one will care about your GPA. They'll want to know what you've published (or in the famous words of my first rotation boss - 'anything more than a B- and you've spent too much time on it'.) So use this time to really get into what the different labs are doing and make sure you find a nice person to work for (very important) who is doing something you're interested in. Once you're working on your own project in a lab you like being in, a lot of the feeling of fecklessness should go away, as what you're then working on is yours.
posted by overhauser at 6:23 AM on April 18, 2008

Nthing the fun courses, depending on what they are. I was in a very statistics driven Ph.D. program but took quite a few policy-oriented courses on the side. Luckily, I was able to use those courses as my minor area but I probably would have taken the classes regardless.
posted by mcroft at 6:58 AM on April 18, 2008

Response by poster: Thanks for all the great responses, everyone. Regarding the courses, I think I'll tread carefully as to what courses I'm taking but I will probably take at least one not completely related course every year. As many have said, this seems pretty common for grad students at Cornell. I also know how i important it is to take the teacher not the course. The prof who takes the Science Writing course is supposed to be an extremely good teacher.
I am definitely taking personality into account while selecting my advisor. It's really important to me that my advisor be accessible, but also allows me to work at my own pace and doesn't continually monitor me. Also, at a party at his and his wife's house (also a professor) the talk turned to the recent movie Expelled and the Dawkins rap video. He hadn't seen it so a bunch of us trooped into his computer room to watch it. Much hilarity ensued and I thought, wow, I could really see my myself working with this advisor and these people for five years.
The biggest issue for me is something that overhauser said -- letting go of the feeling that I need to get an A in every course. I need to learn to prioritize my research over my grade, since as mentioned, no one really seems to care what grades you got once you get your PhD.
posted by peacheater at 9:01 AM on April 18, 2008

Response by poster: Oh and please, if anyone has anything more to add, please feel free. I could do with all the advice I can get.
posted by peacheater at 9:02 AM on April 18, 2008

Best answer: I'm a 3rd year grad student working in Computational Biology (molecular modeling and simulations, specifically). So I figured I'd chime in on interdisciplinary topics specifically:

-Connect with people in all aspects of your discipline. Make friends with professors and grad students (and even talented undergrads) in both CS and bio, as well as any other related field (chemistry for me). Every field has a different way of looking at problems, and you never know when you'll need help from someone.

-Biologists don't know CS, and computer scientists don't know biology. Well not always, but assuming you can speak about both subjects well, remember your audience. Be able to explain CS and biological concepts from scratch, more or less, because you'll be doing so again and again.

-Get experience working in the wet lab, if you don't already, as most computational biologists will work on the dry side. Experimentalists work differently, and you need to be able to speak the language. You also need to understand what various techniques can and cannot do. It's useful to keep a chart of techniques and their qualities too.

-Scrounge computer time. More important if you're doing anything high-throughput or simulations, but somewhere someone's got a cluster that's sitting idle. Get in their good graces and offer to "stress test".

Non-specific things:

-Take the unrelated course. You don't have to tell anyone, or point it out, and its no one's business.

-Do the grunt work. Beware the useless grunt work.

-Thirding the taking time out for yourself. Don't flaunt it, but you need time to recharge your batteries. There's a point of diminishing returns where spending 12 hours a day in the lab doesn't get you a real 4 hours worth of work over spending 8 hours a day.

-Winter sucks in Ithaca (I was there for undergrad), get outside and exercise regularly. It'll help a lot.

-Don't be afraid to communicate directly with leaders in the field. You can call or email them about just about anything. They'll be surprised that someone is actually interested their tiny slice of the field.
posted by Mercaptan at 9:18 AM on April 18, 2008

About fun courses:
This varies entirely by field. In some fields/departments, your faculty would see it as evidence of unseriousness. In some fields it would be seen as good. It is not the norm, in my experience -- most people have their hands full with the courses for their degree -- but I know a lot of people who have done one or two unrelated courses. Talk to upper years students in your department to see how it is viewed by your dept, to know whether you should keep it quiet or not.
posted by LobsterMitten at 2:04 PM on April 18, 2008

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