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Blog Roundtable: Final Words of Wisdom and Advice from Graduate Students

This blog roundtable is part of a series about graduate school – why do it, what is it like, and what to do afterwards. I encourage you to give your own opinions in the comments section, and if you disagree with a point made by the panel, voice your opinion! This is something a lot of my readers can relate to, so I’m hoping to hear from all of you. Note that these are the opinions of those involved, and do not reflect our institutions or departments in any way. For a full list of the questions, read the first post.

Mr Miyagi would have had something wise to say to you. But he's not here, so the panellists will have to step in

So we come to the end of our merry adventure. We tackled a lot of very specific issues, but I wanted to give the panel an open mic – if there was anything else they would like to add, and anything they wished the could go back in time and tell their undergrad selves when they were applying, this is the place to do it.

But before we get to that, let me first thank all the readers who have commented and read this series. Your feedback has been great, and I’ve really enjoyed putting this series together. If you do have any other feedback for me as to the format, ways I can make this more interesting next time, suggested ideas for next time etc, please don’t hesitate to let me know.

Also, let me thank the panel for volunteering their time (although if I meet up with them, I owe them *at least* a coffee). They’ve been really supportive through this, and their answers have provided multiple perspectives which has been enlightening.

So, moving on to the last prompt given to the panel: What does it take to be a successful graduate student? Are there any last minute tips/advice/inspirational words you have for budding graduate students?

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Blog Roundtable: What has surprised you so far about the grad school experience?

This blog roundtable is part of a series about graduate school – why do it, what is it like, and what to do afterwards. I encourage you to give your own opinions in the comments section, and if you disagree with a point made by the panel, voice your opinion! This is something a lot of my readers can relate to, so I’m hoping to hear from all of you. Note that these are the opinions of those involved, and do not reflect our institutions or departments in any way. For a full list of the questions, read the first post.

How Grad School is just like Kindergarten (click to embiggen) (courtesy phdcomics.com)

We’ve talked a lot so far about the grad school experience – ranging from how to pick a school/supervisor, to some thoughts on how to deal with criticism, and even dealing with impostor syndrome. To round off the series, I thought I’d spend the last two posts talking about some general thoughts and comments.

When it comes to grad school, people have very different experiences – some good, some bad, some horrific. However, there is no denying that graduate school is a very different experience to undergrad; the thinking is more sophisticated, there is more independence, and the challenges you will face are tougher and more nuanced.

To try and give those considering graduate school an understanding of what to expect beyond the academic experience, the panel was given the following prompt: what has surprised you so far about the grad school experience? In which cases did it meet your expectations and when did it fail to do so? (i.e. How is graduate school life different to undergraduate life?)

So, without further ado, lets hear from the panel!

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Blog Roundtable: Is doing a Masters and PhD at the same school frowned upon?

This blog roundtable is part of a series about graduate school – why do it, what is it like, and what to do afterwards. I encourage you to give your own opinions in the comments section, and if you disagree with a point made by the panel, voice your opinion! This is something a lot of my readers can relate to, so I’m hoping to hear from all of you. Note that these are the opinions of those involved, and do not reflect our institutions or departments in any way. For a full list of the questions, read the first post.

One advantage of staying at one place: Your degrees all match.

One issue that people face when deciding whether or not to go to Graduate School, after picking potential supervisors, is whether or not to stay at their current university or not. There are advantages to staying: along with comfort, you probably know more about the program and the supervisors (maybe even having them as lecturers in Undergrad) than another university. There are disadvantages as well: staying in one place reduces your exposure and the varied experiences you get from working with different people.

Of all the questions, this is the one that had the most variability within the panel. While for other questions there were common themes, but with this one, there was very little agreement.

Lets hear from the panel!

Continue reading “Blog Roundtable: Is doing a Masters and PhD at the same school frowned upon?”

Blog Roundtable: What if things aren’t going so well?

This blog roundtable is part of a series about graduate school – why do it, what is it like, and what to do afterwards. I encourage you to give your own opinions in the comments section, and if you disagree with a point made by the panel, voice your opinion! This is something a lot of my readers can relate to, so I’m hoping to hear from all of you. Note that these are the opinions of those involved, and do not reflect our institutions or departments in any way. For a full list of the questions, read the first post.

Sometimes graduate school feels like a marathon done while juggling. One of the panelists can attest to whether this is a good metaphor or not. I'll let you guess who🙂

Graduate school can be a great experience. The chance to learn about an issue that you’re interested and passionate about, combined with the intellectual freedom and support to pursue that issue can be enlightening. However, at some point in your training, things aren’t going to be going well. That time between collecting data and having enough data to do preliminary analyses is particularly brutal – you’ve invested a lot of time and energy into the project but have very little to show for it. Usually that falls in the winter as well, so the 20 minutes of sunlight a day doesn’t help matters.

So I asked the panel: What if things aren’t going so well? What advice do you have for those who might having a tough time – either juggling multiple commitments, losing interest or falling behind?

Lets hear from them!

Continue reading “Blog Roundtable: What if things aren’t going so well?”

Blog Roundtable: Are there tips for fighting impostor syndrome?

This blog roundtable is part of a series about graduate school – why do it, what is it like, and what to do afterwards. I encourage you to give your own opinions in the comments section, and if you disagree with a point made by the panel, voice your opinion! This is something a lot of my readers can relate to, so I’m hoping to hear from all of you. Note that these are the opinions of those involved, and do not reflect our institutions or departments in any way. For a full list of the questions, read the first post.

One of those is not the mouse you are looking for (click to go to Snorgtees.com)

EDIT 11/11/11: Added John Hodgman Nerdist interview

Imposter syndrome is something that not many students have heard of, but are paradoxically very familiar with. In a nutshell, the Imposter Syndrome suggests that you’re not as smart as your peers, that you’re “lucky” and sooner or later you’ll be discovered as a fraud. While it isn’t a formal DSM disorder, but is still recognised as a problem in higher education, both at the student and junior faculty level.

The long term ramifications of this negative thinking can be profound. If you don’t think you can succeed, or are afraid to try, you’ll not only appear more nervous at interviews, you’ll apply to less grants, not be as ambitious as you might like to be and even adopt negative behaviours such as procrastination or perfectionism.

For those interested in learning more, check out Wikipedia, this article, and this piece on teaching evaluations among faculty members, as well as the references at the end.

ADDED 11/11/11: Funnily enough, the day I posted this, I was driving back to my parents’ place while listening to a Nerdist podcast where they interviewed John Hodgman (“I’m a PC”). Around the 45 minute mark, John starts talking about how his life changed following him starting on The Daily Show, and then being featured on the Mac vs PC ads. While telling us about this, he talks about how he felt like he was on a game show, and that at any point someone would jump out and tell him that his whole life was a giant prank. It’s interesting to know that even celebrities can feel the effects of the impostor syndrome.

Lets hear from the panel!

Continue reading “Blog Roundtable: Are there tips for fighting impostor syndrome?”

Blog Roundtable: How do you deal with criticism?

This blog roundtable is part of a series about graduate school – why do it, what is it like, and what to do afterwards. I encourage you to give your own opinions in the comments section, and if you disagree with a point made by the panel, voice your opinion! This is something a lot of my readers can relate to, so I’m hoping to hear from all of you. Note that these are the opinions of those involved, and do not reflect our institutions or departments in any way. For a full list of the questions, read the first post.

While they won't say this explicitly, sometimes the subtle messages are there.

Rejection.

At all stages in your career, you’ll have to deal with it. First, it’s when you are applying for graduate school and applying for graduate school scholarships. Then, you’re applying for PhD programs and more scholarships, then post-doc positions (and post doc scholarships), then faculty positions and grants. And that’s just funding.

Looking to publish? You may have to submit a manuscript multiple times (with multiple revisions) before getting rejected and starting over with a new journal. As Travis Saunders put it – everyone has that one manuscript that becomes their Chinese Democracy. At each stage you’ll have to deal with rejection. It’s part of the research environment.

Some stats to put things in context: in 1980, 23% of NIH grant money went to researchers under 35, which dropped to below 4% in 2002 (1) while the success rate for NIH R01 grants dropped from 25.5% in 1999 and a low of 16.3% in 2006 (2). Success rates are higher in Canada for the tricouncil agencies (CIHR – 21%, SSHRC – 39% and NSERC – 58.1%), but the grants tend to be smaller, so you have to apply for more.

The question posed to the group was: How have you/do you deal with criticism and rejection; be it from advisers, professors, peers or funding committees? How did you deal with rejection when you were applying to schools?

Lets hear from the panel!

Continue reading “Blog Roundtable: How do you deal with criticism?”

Blog Roundtable: What is important when picking your adviser/commitee?

This blog roundtable is part of a series about graduate school – why do it, what is it like, and what to do afterwards. I encourage you to give your own opinions in the comments section, and if you disagree with a point made by the panel, voice your opinion! This is something a lot of my readers can relate to, so I’m hoping to hear from all of you. Note that these are the opinions of those involved, and do not reflect our institutions or departments in any way. For a full list of the questions, read the first post.

In a good lab group, you'll be able to make nerdy science jokes and people will laugh; run; (shout out to my SAS users!)

First off, thank you all for your positive comments from the last post. I’m glad you’re enjoying this series. Feel free to offer your comments at the end – I’d love to hear what you think! Now, onto our second question.

You don’t quit jobs, you quit people.

A friend of mine once told me that and it’s probably the best job advice I’ve ever got. Day in, day out, the people you work with can make or break a position. Working with passionate, motivated supportive people can make working fun, even when things are going terribly. That doesn’t just go for research – I used to work retail at Christmas, and when the season got busier, it was the antics of my coworkers that kept things entertaining and interesting.

The same way that a good boss can completely change the dynamic of a workplace, a good supervisor can change your entire graduate school experience. Given the impact that having a supervisor whose style meshes with yours can have both in the short terms (in terms of timely thesis completion) and in the long term (ensuring papers get published, supporting future aspirations), it is no surprise that a lot of students spend time researching their potential supervisors. But what should you consider when picking a supervisor? What is important and what isn’t? What characteristics make a good supervisor?

Lets hear from the panel!

Continue reading “Blog Roundtable: What is important when picking your adviser/commitee?”

Blog Roundtable: Why did you go to Graduate school?

This blog roundtable is part of a series about graduate school – why do it, what is it like, and what to do afterwards. I encourage you to give your own opinions in the comments section, and if you disagree with a point made by the panel, voice your opinion! This is something a lot of my readers can relate to, so I’m hoping to hear from all of you. Note that these are the opinions of those involved, and do not reflect our institutions or departments in any way. For a full list of the questions, read the first post.

Sheer geekiness is actually a really good reason to pursue graduate school

“Why go did you go to graduate school?”

A question that your family and friends will ask you, and eventually you’ll be asking yourself. Why invest another 2+ years of your life in school – including postdocs this could be almost another decade before you get out into the “real world.” I google’d “Why go to graduate school” and the first few links had some common themes that emerged: what are your career goals, do you have the grades to succeed, are you motivated, among others. Some of the links were positive: Exhibit A, and Exhibit B. Some were more negative, ranging from the simple, the pragmatic, and the funny-because-it’s-true.

So lets hear from the panel!

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Blog Roundtable: Graduate School!

Halloween and Graduate School (courtesy http://www.phdcomics.com)

As a graduate student, you get a lot of people asking you about what graduate school is, and what it entails. Is it worth it? How difficult is it? And once you’re in, the questions don’t stop – if anything, they multiply! How do you pick a supervisor? How do you deal with rejection? What do you do next?

I crowdsourced the internet for questions – among Twitter followers, other blogs and forums and came up with a list of questions. I also invited several prominent bloggers to participate. They have all graciously agreed to donate their time and effort to this piece.

Note that these are the opinions of those involved, and do not reflect our institutions or departments in any way. I’m trying to get a range of viewpoints here, and many different perspectives. If you disagree or have something you’d like to add, please feel free to comment either here or when we answer a question you’re particularly passionate about!

After the jump: The Panel! And The Questions!

Continue reading “Blog Roundtable: Graduate School!”

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