So You’re Starting Grad School…


Image credit Avolore. Used under CC BY 2.0

The new school year is rapidly approaching, or has perhaps already arrived for some. As one of the resident graduate students here at EngineerBlogs, I thought I’d offer some advice to anyone embarking on the quest that is the US doctoral degree. On my own blog, I’ve offered advice about questions to ask on visits.

So now that you’ve matriculated, what’s next?

Accept that everyone is going to have advice, and much of it may be completely irrelevant to your department and situation. Learning to parse large amounts of information to find something relevant is a critical skill in graduate school, so consider this practice.

Make sure you have all of the requirements for candidacy/graduation written down in one place. What courses do you need to take? How are your qualifying exams structured? When are you expected to achieve candidacy? In the beginning, you’re still going to have courses, but you’ll want to start on research as soon as possible if you’re doing a research masters of Ph.D. Coursework is required for most post-bachelors degrees, but with the exception of coursework Masters, the research is what ultimately earns you the degree.

Advisor selection (assuming you chose, rather than being chosen) is a huge issue. You may only have so much flexibility here. The professors you really want to work for may not have money, or may already have new students. However, you don’t just want to settle for the first professor who gets back to you with a positive response. Ask the students in the group how long a typical time to graduation is. You can ask the professor too: it might be interesting to see how these numbers differ. Talk to advisors working on things you don’t know much about, but seem like people you could work with.

Keep a hobby. In many places, there will be the expectation that you work 60-80 hour weeks and never sleep, but if you want to remain sane, it’s good to establish outside hobbies at the very beginning. If you learn to include a hobby in your schedule at the beginning, it will be easier when you start getting busier.

Even if you school has funding, apply for fellowships: I’ve written about it here and here. To summarize, though, there are many fellowships targeted specifically at STEM students, and you should try to take advantage of that. Fellowships often have better stipends than standard research and teaching appointments, and give you a little more freedom as a student to pursue side projects.

Former and current grad students, what would you add to (or remove from) my advice? Soon-to-be or future grad students, what questions do you still have?