Unsolicited Advice, IV: How to Be a Good Graduate Student

Past installments of Unsolicited Advice dealt with such mechanical topics as how to choose an undergraduate school or graduate school, or how to get into graduate school. (Hell if I know how to get into undergraduate schools.) Now we step fearlessly into somewhat more treacherous territory: how to be a good graduate student. As always, this is one idiosyncratic viewpoint, and others should be offered in the comments.

It’s treacherous, of course, because there is certainly no right way to go about being a good graduate student. Once upon a time, as part of my ongoing campaign to discredit the notion of make-or-break general exams, I had the physics department at Chicago do a survey of their faculty, asking them to give a subjective rating of all the Ph.D. students who had graduated in the last five years (and with whose work they were familiar). We then plotted the resulting scores against how well they did on the candidacy exam. Result: there was a small handful of students who completely dominated on the exam, and were pretty much recognized as excellent physicists, clustered in the corner. Other than that, a complete scatterplot — there was no correlation between test scores and success in physics (among this highly-selected sample). But if you plotted candidacy-exam scores against incoming physics GRE scores, it was almost a perfect correlation. There are some students who are the kind who are really good at physics in an exam-type environment, and who have the ability to carry through that talent to actually doing research. But there are others who struggle with the tests, yet nevertheless are great physicists. And vice-versa: you can be a crappy physicist, whether or not you do well at the GRE’s and general exams.

The point being, there are many ways to be a successful physicist, and a corresponding number of ways to be a successful grad student. So the first piece of advice, possibly too vague to be useful, is: Look to maximize your talents. Typically, your first year or two in grad school you have some flexibility. You’re taking classes (this is written from an American perspective, sorry), and possibly also doing research, but you haven’t necessarily been tied down to a final choice of thesis advisor, or even research field, or even theory vs. experiment. This would be a good time to be honest with yourself — what are you really good at? You might have had your heart set on building the next great particle accelerator ever since you deconstructed your parents’ stereo when you were twelve, but when someone puts a soldering iron in your hand you just can’t seem to stop breaking things. But you did get a perfect score on the GRE. Well, maybe it’s time to face the music and switch to string theory.

But I’m burying the lede here. If I had to concentrate on a single useful piece of advice for grad students, it would be: Take the initiative. The deep truth of grad school is that the transition from undergrad to grad is when you go from primarily being “a student” to primarily being “a scientist.” As a student, your primary responsibility was to do what your professors told you to. As a scientist, your primary responsibility is to do good science. Many students struggle in grad school, especially in the early years, because they are implicitly waiting to be told what to do. Don’t wait — try to figure out what you should be doing, and do it. Check the arxiv in the morning to look for interesting papers. Go to colloquia and seminars, even if you don’t understand them — nobody really understands them, and it’s the best way to get a feeling for what those things are that you should be working toward understanding. Talk to people! Knock on professors’ doors (or, more politely, email them to make an appointment), and chat with them about what they are doing and what you might like to be doing. Even better, talk to senior grad students and — best of all — postdocs! They have more time than professors, and have a better understanding of the situation you are in right now. (When it comes time to apply for postdocs yourself, you’re going to need three letters of recommendation from scientists who know you and your work very well. If you can only think of one or two people who might qualify, you’ve badly mismanaged your time in grad school.) Come up with ideas! A good advisor will set you on a productive path for your first research projects, but that’s no reason why you shouldn’t also be trying to come up with good ideas yourself; at some point that’s going to be your job, after all. And when it comes to the nitty-gritty of actually doing research, whether it’s theory or experiment, don’t expect anyone to hold your hand at every step — use your brain to try to figure out what should be done next. At some point you will sit back and realize that it’s kind of fun. And then it will dawn on you that you’ve passed the threshold toward which you’ve been progressing for quite a number of years — you’re an honest-to-goodness scientist.

We can’t pretend, of course, that being a scientist is just a matter of willpower; you do have to learn some stuff. One of the eternal grad-school dilemmas is how many courses you should take, vs. how quickly you should just devote yourself to doing research. I’m going to have to be wishy-washy here, as there is no right answer, although it’s certainly possible to go too far in either direction. If you dive into doing research without having a proper grounding in coursework, you can end up being an expert in the one particular hyper-specialized thing that you are researching, but be left with a rather fuzzy grasp of all the rest of physics. Not only does a situation like that doom you to a lifetime of sitting in on talks that you don’t understand, but it might prevent you from making crucial connections that would actually be useful in your own work. But contrariwise, it’s certainly possible to spend too much of your time taking classes. Classwork is what you have trained to be good at, and in some ways it’s a comforting environment. But it’s ultimately not the point of why you are in grad school. Likewise, sometimes you will really want to learn some particular subject, but your department doesn’t offer a course in it. Here’s where you should figure out that it’s your responsibility to teach it to yourself. Especially these days, when there are not only five good textbooks but countless reviews on every subject available online, there’s no excuse for waiting for a teacher to come along — see the previous paragraph.

Even once you get past courses and are unambiguously doing research, a similar dilemma presents itself — calculating vs. contemplating. (That would be the theorist’s version of the dilemma, anyway; experimenters are invited to suggest alliterative formulations of “tinkering vs. collecting data.”) Being a scientist is a back-and-forth process, between on the one hand looking at the big picture, learning the basics, thinking deeply, coming up with new ideas, and on the other hand digging into the details, getting your hands dirty, and actually coming up with some tangible results. Science depends on both, although many people are happier on one side than the other. Despite what was said earlier about finding your strengths, here’s a situation where you should make an extra effort to compensate for your weaknesses. You might be someone who loves doing calculations, producing page after page of equations, or file after file of simulation output. But if they don’t add up to an interesting result, people aren’t going to care that much. Or you might have deep and creative ideas about the nature of space and time or high-temperature superconductivity. But if you can’t wrestle those ideas down to some specific calculations, your colleagues aren’t going to be all that impressed. Sometimes, remember, the best ideas actually come about because you are simply fooling around with some calculations for their own sake.

All of this has been necessarily vague, in accordance with the fact that there are many good ways to be a successful grad student. But at the end, the goal (for most people) is pretty concrete: to land a good postdoc. Do keep that in mind. So, no matter what your individual approach to success is, here is the eyes-on-the-prize advice: Be the kind of grad student that people would like to hire as a postdoc. What kind of student is that? Well, just ask yourself what you would be looking for, if you had a pile of promising postdoc applications in front of you. Some people are lucky enough to get general-purpose fellowships that are based simply on their genius; so if the genius thing is working for you, great. More postdocs are hired by some particular person or group, to perform some fairly well-defined kind of research. What those people are looking for is a postdoc who will contribute to their group, whether by being an awesome individual researcher, or by being a useful collaborator. So, be that person. While you’re in grad school, establish a track record of productivity by writing papers. Even better, write good papers — write about things that other people are interested in. What is it about your research or skill set that makes you useful to people hiring postdocs? Become the world’s expert in some hot topic, or the master of some novel technique, along with establishing your broad-based competence. A good postdoc is expected to enliven a research group by being plugged into all the latest good stuff going on in the field, bubbling with new ideas and the energy and know-how to turn those ideas into tangible results. That should be you.

(Certainly, not everyone will become a postdoc, nor should they. One of my best students didn’t even apply for postdocs, after he determined it just wasn’t for him. There are many other directions in which to steer your career after a successful time in grad school, and it pays to keep those possibilities in the back of your mind all along. But I’m not really the one to ask about them.)

To be more concrete yet: Be a finisher. After several years of grad school, what do you have to show for it? Write papers, do analyses, build equipment, finish experiments. Demonstrate beyond any doubt that you can take the project from beginning to end, not just sit around the coffee room and lob probing questions. Give talks! Have something to say, and be confident that other people want to hear it. I’ve actually heard some students say that they love science, but don’t like writing papers or giving talks. That’s like saying you love being a butcher, just aren’t very fond of cutting up animals. (Suggestions for more illuminating similes are welcome.) Writing papers and giving talks is the entire point of what you are doing. Be enthusiastic about it, and while you’re at it, be good at it. There are so many smart people out there who write impenetrable papers or give incomprehensible talks, one good way to distinguish yourself from the herd is to learn to communicate effectively. But it won’t help unless you have something tangible to communicate.

September has long been my favorite month of the year, as campuses come to life with the incoming students, many of them starting off on a new adventure of one sort or another. Go get ’em, tiger.

Update: Many other people, of course, have offered advice on how to be a good grad student. If you know of any, mention them in the comments and I’ll link from here.

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54 Responses to Unsolicited Advice, IV: How to Be a Good Graduate Student

  1. Flip says:

    Thanks, Sean! One question: you suggest `become the world’s expert in some hot topic’ — how does a graduate student get to that point? If the topic is really hot, then everyone and their little sister will be working on it. And to what extent does this become a matter of having the `right’ adviser?

  2. Sean says:

    Yeah, I probably should have said something about finding an advisor. Except that, while everyone agrees that it’s crucial, I haven’t ever really heard of a useful algorithm for doing it.

    But it’s not actually true that everyone in the world will be working on some particular hot topic — it only seems that way. It’s clearly easier to come up to speed when you’re in an environment that is already engrossed in that particular area. But even if you’re not, between online papers and talks, you can do a pretty good job of catching up. Ultimately, again, it’s a matter of your own initiative. The advisor can provide help in distinguishing between interesting topics and ephemera, but you’re the one who will have to master things for yourself.

  3. Chanda says:

    That’s for a good collection of the most-needed advice, Sean. Having been in grad school for a bit, I can’t think of anything you left out! Most of it is stuff that I had to figure out either the hard way or by asking A LOT of different people questions until I got a straight answer.

    So I guess I just wanted to say that you’re doing a great service by putting all of the important stuff all in one spot 🙂 And of course you’re brightening my day by reminding me that there are some physicists out there who really do care deeply about the pedagogical aspects of their vocation.

    😀

  4. lylebot says:

    Nice advice, even for non-physicists. I’d add something for computer scientists: even if you think you want to be an academic, try to do an internship in industrial research. Companies like Microsoft, Google, and Yahoo! have interesting research problems that stem from commercial applications and that haven’t appeared in academic research. If you’re an experimentalist, they have lots and lots of data that will never find its way into academia. Plus, it may change your mind about staying in academia.

    I’m not sure how applicable this is to other disciplines.

  5. JerseyBoy says:

    As a current grad student, I can easily attest that finding the right advisor has a giant impact on your future. A good advisor will help in identifying 1) areas you should focus on learning(i.e. which of the 440k articles on Arxiv you should spend your time reading, etc). Otherwise there’s a stupidly large amount of info out there and you’re on your own to navigate through it. 2)They’ll help you identify current open issues or topics is need of research (“There’s that whole AdS/CFT relationship that’s still open. Why don’t you formally characterize the relationship. If you can have it LaTex’d by Friday morning, that’d be perfect!”) 3)They’ll answer your questions. There’s a line between “helping you learn” and “doing your work for you” that a lot of faculty are a little scared of, I think, but a good advisor will help you figure things out on your own and show you where you’ve gone wrong when you can’t figure it out.

    In terms of finding an advisor, I’ve found the best method (for me) to be to talk to the current students. I found out how the students interacted with their advisor, how their work is progressing and (most importantly!!) how long it took for students to complete their research. There are variations between people, but if all of Professor Jones’ students are on the verge of being kicked out due to time restrictions, that should tell you something.

  6. CG says:

    Wow. Great reading! Just one question: why you waited until I struggled to finish my first postdoc to write it? 🙂

  7. Rien says:

    Lots of great advice here! I think the most important part is the one about taking initiative. Nobody wants to hire somebody who just does what he/she is told, even if they do it perfectly. This is more important than great test results. Much more important. I know some great physicists who are slow calculators and make mistakes, but their ideas and visions are the important stuff.

    On the other hand, physicists who are just very good at really hard calculations tend to have a harder time finding jobs. This kind of physics is sometimes necessary too, but it doesn’t give you the great jobs.

    Of course a combination of both these traits, plus being a great lecturer, that is the preferred version…

  8. Dave says:

    Great post, and excellent advice. I can especially relate to Be a finisher – get your papers published as you go along, it makes life so much easier.

  9. Pingback: Excellent Advice for Prospective Grad Students

  10. Thanks so much for this post Sean. I’m a prospective grad student about to send out my applications shortly.

    What advice would you offer someone planning to enter graduate school later in life? I’m 45, have had a very productive career in support of many programs, but would very much like to get a PhD.

    I guess my main concern is that astronomy departments would look at my age as a detriment to being a good grad student, but I’m just guessing.

    Any thoughts?

  11. spyder says:

    Though retired, i continue to mentor a number of students matriculating through various levels of academia. And your suggestions above are spot-on, especially in tackling the “expectations” of the institutions–Initiative, Finishing and so forth.

    One of the issues that i find my students confronting is the intricacies of a university’s, or department’s arcana regarding policies and procedures. As a graduate student, one is expected to understand, and be knowledgeable of, the various responsibilities that one has to the institution: filing dates, advisors, review committees, etc. Thus i strongly recommend, and add to your list above, that graduate students get a copy of, and read, the appropriate and relevant official university catalog. Understand that policies and procedures change, sometime from year to year, and that as a grad student, such regulatory codes are applied based on those in effect the year one began in the program. One cannot take advise from another fellow student regarding such responsibilities because it is likely that the two are not operating under the same year’s catalog.

  12. Kea says:

    This is very good advice, with the caveat that showing initiative can get one into serious trouble (not that that’s a bad thing in the grand scheme of things).

  13. So, now I’m curious where I fell on that scatterplot…

    Very sound advice, though.

  14. Sean says:

    AstronomyBuff, everything depends on the specifics of the circumstances. I’ve certainly seen people in their 40’s get admitted to grad school. It might be seen by some as a drawback, but not by others — generally other things will make the difference, not that.

  15. Pingback: A couple of links! « Entertaining Research

  16. jepe says:

    Excellent post Sean! I’m in the rien, david, kea camp that taking the initiative and being a finisher are key.

    I was curious what the ‘trouble’ might be in taking the initiative.

    One possible pitfall I’ve seen is taking the initiative too aggressively and/or too soon. E.g one hasn’t yet learned enough of the fundamentals, or even more dangerous, one cannot imagine making big mistakes, on either the theoretical or experimental end. Students falling into this trap often feel enormous pressure when they first come in to ‘kick ass’ and become chin-stroking scientists right away. Sometimes, the reality hits them almost like a second round of undergraduate education. The students realize they may no longer be “the” stars, and actually still have a lot to learn….about research. Fortunately, in my experience, most of these cases are completely curable as long as there is a good dialog between the student and the mentor and/or senior students. It may be a rough transition, but the student ultimately deals w/it and sustains that original “initiation” energy to do a solid independent thesis. Lack of initiation, on the other hand, seems much more difficult to cure. This kind of ties to the “finishing” thing….

    On the boundary between helping a student w/a project vs doing it for them…Sadly, I think this can be tricky. A good mentor will find a project a student can start or optimize , and nurture that student for the benefit of the lab and the student. However, at least for young labs, there is often little distinction between a project a grad student starts, and a project that must garner grant money to sustain the lab. Junior faculty often get advised something like this: “Let the grad student or post-doc start it, but if he/she can’t do it, you have to work right past them and just do it. You can’t wait.” So, one just hopes the grad student still gets something positive out of the experience, even if the prof ended up doing most of the experiments, interpreting the data, and writing it up.

  17. Mike says:

    With the lack of room in academia for all those many physics/astronomy ph.d’s out there, I’m glad you mentioned

    “Certainly, not everyone will become a postdoc, nor should they. One of my best students didn’t even apply for postdocs, after he determined it just wasn’t for him. There are many other directions in which to steer your career after a successful time in grad school, and it pays to keep those possibilities in the back of your mind all along.”

    But your last sentence

    “But I’m not really the one to ask about them.”

    …Why? If it really pays to keep possibilities outside of academia in mind, why not mention what they are or how those student’s lives went? Especially if one of your best students left academia?

  18. B says:

    Hi Sean:

    I am sympathetic to most of what you write, and I think it is great that you are offering your advice. However, some of your sentences strike me as really easy to misunderstand

    I’ve actually heard some students say that they love science, but don’t like writing papers or giving talks. That’s like saying you love being a butcher, just aren’t very fond of cutting up animals. (Suggestions for more illuminating similes are welcome.) Writing papers and giving talks is the entire point of what you are doing.

    Your comparison with the butcher is less than weak, and it’s not funny either. I too would say about myself that I love science, but I don’t like writing papers or giving talks (reg. the papers its not the writing that sucks, just the publishing, but that’s details). Does that make me a bad scientist? (Meta question: does admitting it make me a bad scientist?) I think the point you are trying to make is that for a scientist it is not sufficient to understand – if he or she wants to contribute to our society’s knowledge he must be able to communicate this understanding, otherwise it’s completely useless. I totally agree with that. But to me it’s more like saying you love your cat, and you’ve bought all that cat-food – but you can’t stand the smell of tuna so you just gave him the cans and the opener.

    If it was meant to be a joke, I apologize, but your sentence that ‘writing papers and giving talks is the entire point’ I find very disappointing. To me, and I believe to many students, the entire point of becoming a scientist is the desire to understand nature, not opening cans with cat-food.

    What those people are looking for is a postdoc who will contribute to their group, whether by being an awesome individual researcher, or by being a useful collaborator. So, be that person.

    Well, sadly enough that is certainly a good career advise. But is being the person who fits in optimally the best advice towards understanding? Is trying to find out and adjust to what ‘those people are looking for’ the the best way towards progress?

    Become the world’s expert in some hot topic, or the master of some novel technique,

    Thank you for confirming publicly that profs (or equivalents of) actually give this kind of advice.

    Best,

    B.

    PS: In case you didn’t get the point, I encourage you to have a look at my posts Science and Democracy III and The Trouble With Physics: Aftermath and comments to these.

  19. daisy rose says:

    just be your self – you never know – the mind follows the path of least resistance – you be you – (that is what I said to my pit pull – dont try to be a poodle – )

  20. Count Iblis says:

    B wrote :

    reg. the papers its not the writing that sucks, just the publishing, but that’s details

    I don’t understand. Publishing just takes 30 minutes. It takes 5 minutes to upload your files to the journal’s website, it takes 10 minutes to reply to comments by referees, it takes 15 minutes to proofread the proof version and send the final corrections to the journal. 🙂

    Writing up the article takes much more time and is more frustrating work, at least for me. I mean, there is a reason why I didn’t choose to become a writer or poet. 🙂

  21. Harold says:

    Thanks so much for this post Sean! Especially at a very appropriate time!

  22. B says:

    Hi Count:

    Writing up the article takes much more time and is more frustrating work, at least for me. I mean, there is a reason why I didn’t choose to become a writer or poet

    🙂 Yes, that’s basically what I meant to say (not a big writer myself). Regarding the publishing or paper writing, I have no trouble writing up stuff – if I am at that stage it’s a matter of days (fine tuning takes one more week). The problem is then to put it in a form such that it’s suitable for a particular journal, which usually involves emphasising certain points, scraping subsections, adding things I find irrelevant (like examples), polishing the reference list, making nice figures etc. Waiting for reports is annoying. Replying to referee reports can take me weeks. And all of that just to have the paper rejected after half a year, rewrite it and send it to another journal. Yes, I am able to do that, and I do get my stuff published, but I honestly can’t say I like it. Best,

    B.

    PS: Oh, and while we’re at distributing advises, here are mine on publishing.

  23. astropixie says:

    currently existing deep in the depths of writing job and fellowship applications for my first postdoc, this line made me laugh out loud…

    Some people are lucky enough to get general-purpose fellowships that are based simply on their genius; so if the genius thing is working for you, great.

    i have a few pieces of advice:

    ask questions and talk to established scientists. if a guest speaker in your field comes to give a colloquium, chances are you can set up a short meeting with that person to discuss research you’ve been doing or to discuss his or her research. it’s wonderfully rewarding to hear outside opinions about the work i’ve been doing with departmental collaborators because i’m usually asked a question i hadnt thought of or introduced to a new line of thought. try not to be intimidated by the big names and instead dig into their knowledge base by asking questions.

    resist the imposter syndrome.

  24. agm says:

    At my institution, grad students get from August to February of the first academic year to find an advisor, who then takes over funding. Essentially one pops into research after one semester, if not sooner. This is hardly enough time to get the hang of the business, but it’s the way it is. I’d also emphasize being willing to cut ties if necessary, which has often enough to let one note who could be trouble to work for.

    I’d emphasize the “Take the initiative” line more, at least while students are getting the hang of switching from undergrad to grad. Classes are all good and well, but grad students don’t get schooled in the purpose of grad school, they seem to have to figure it out on their own. This leads to some people being around too long when they’d end up happier doing something else; this isn’t good for anyone involved.

  25. Jason Dick says:

    Your comparison with the butcher is less than weak, and it’s not funny either. I too would say about myself that I love science, but I don’t like writing papers or giving talks (reg. the papers its not the writing that sucks, just the publishing, but that’s details). Does that make me a bad scientist? (Meta question: does admitting it make me a bad scientist?) I think the point you are trying to make is that for a scientist it is not sufficient to understand – if he or she wants to contribute to our society’s knowledge he must be able to communicate this understanding, otherwise it’s completely useless. I totally agree with that. But to me it’s more like saying you love your cat, and you’ve bought all that cat-food – but you can’t stand the smell of tuna so you just gave him the cans and the opener.

    I think Sean’s point was directed at people who are reluctant to write papers or give talks because they don’t like it. And, well, let’s face it, if you don’t like to write papers or give talks, then you are rather likely to be reluctant to do it. If you want to be a good scientist, you really need to do lots of both, from what little I understand of the scientific community, and the absolute best way to do that is to enjoy doing both. If you enjoy writing papers and giving talks, you’re much more likely to not only write more papers and give more talks, but you are also rather more likely to put in the time and effort required to make those papers and talks good.

    After all, all of the brilliant work in the world won’t get you anywhere if nobody pays any attention to it.