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4 The Life of a Graduate Student

Dianne Prost O'Leary
©1996,1999,2009
Last modified 21 August 2009.


The life of a graduate student is much less structured than that of an undergraduate. Hours in the classroom are fewer, although hours of course-related work are greatly increased. The structure that might have been imposed on your undergraduate life by the routine of a dormitory, sorority, or fraternity is gone. You may find yourself far from home for the first time, or you may find that your family responsibilities are increased by marriage or parenthood. In any case, there will be more responsibilities to juggle and fewer fixed points to rely upon.

The next sections consider the major elements in the life of a beginning graduate student, some tools to help manage the workload, and sanity preservation. See Sections 14.2 and 14.5 for relevant links.

4.1 Courses

Graduate school gives you new freedom and flexibility in your choice of courses, although it might be a year or two before you experience this.

While the typical undergraduate carries 15 or more credit hours, the typical graduate students carries 9 or fewer. Expectations from the instructors are higher, however: you really will need to allow one or more study hours for every class hour. Different professors have different styles. Sometimes the instructor will lecture to supplement the text, and you will be required to master the textbook material on your own. Sometimes there is no text, so outside hours are spent in doing the suggested reading or in filling in the gaps in the course notes. Sometimes the students do the bulk of the presentations, with the instructor acting as resource person.

Choosing courses for your first semester must be done with care. Make use of your official academic advisor, the instructors for the courses that interest you, and fellow students. If you have any doubt about whether you are over- or under-prepared for a course, talk to the instructor about your background and get advice.

If you enter graduate school unprepared in some aspect of your major, remedying that deficiency should be your first priority. Try to take the elementary courses you are missing within your first year of study, but make sure that you also include some graduate courses if possible so that you can hasten your adjustment to graduate life.

Most departments have a set of course requirements or a set of exams that students are expected to pass within a given amount of time. Your second priority is to take the courses that will lead you to fulfilling these requirements. It is tempting to sign up during your first semester for several advanced seminars in a specialized area, but you cannot afford much time for this unless they fit into your plan of fulfilling the basic requirements. There will be time later to take advanced courses in the areas that interest you, and you may get a lot more out of those courses if you master the basics first.

On the other hand, it is a good idea to develop a good working relationship with a person whom you consider to be a good candidate for a thesis advisor--someone actively working in an interesting field who is willing to make time for you. It might be useful to take one advanced course during your first year or so with this person. Ph.D. students will also want to get a small start on research if at all possible.

Once you have completed the basic course requirements, you have additional flexibility. Strive for breadth in your knowledge even if not required for graduation. Often careers take unexpected twists, and an area that is now peripheral to your interests may be central later on. Strive for depth in your research area: make sure that you understand the full range of research problems.

Once you are past all the hurdles and working on your thesis, your course work should be very selective. Don't dilute your energy by taking too many courses, but don't miss special opportunities such as seminar courses by top researchers.

If more than one section of a course is offered, get advice on which instructor to choose. In general, regular faculty are to be preferred to visitors teaching basic courses, so that you get to know the people with whom you will be working. Try to choose faculty who are possible advisors. If that is not possible, choose the ones with the best teaching reputations, but try for a healthy mix of junior and senior faculty. Remember that eventually you will need a set of letters of recommendation in order to find a job, so it is a good idea to become known to the faculty early.

Don't make your course decisions in a vacuum. Talk to your advisor about what background would be helpful for work in a particular area. Talk to fellow students about what courses are most useful and what professors are best teachers. Talk to the instructors of courses you are considering if you have any doubts about the course syllabus or your preparation for the course.

4.2 Life as a Teaching Assistant

The job of teaching assistant is a crucial one. The success of the course you are assigned rests in great part on your performance. The instructor sets the tone and the standards for the course, but you have several critical jobs:

Some useful teaching advice can be found in Section 14.7.

4.3 Life as a Research Assistant

The job of a research assistant is amorphous, ranging from clerical help in finding library citations, to performing calculations or writing computer code to match precise specifications, to participation as an equal research partner with your supervisor. Usually the responsibilities increase with your experience, and if you find your duties to be too routine, make sure that your supervisor knows that you are ready for more responsibility.

You will probably be working on a very small part of a rather large project, but your role is crucial:

Sometimes a major source of contention between a research assistant and a supervisor is how much credit should be given to the assistant when joint work is published. In general, a research assistant should be listed as a co-author if the work could not have been completed without the creative intellectual input of the assistant. If the assistant carried out the instructions of the supervisor in performing some computations or writing computer code to accomplish a task, then the supervisor is the author, but an acknowledgement could be made of the assistant's contributions. ``Helpful discussions" between the supervisor and the student should be acknowledged as such. If a calculation required special expertise that only the assistant had, or if the work succeeded only because of a special set of new ideas designed by the assistant, or if the assistant found and fixed a major flaw in the supervisor's idea, or if the assistant made major suggestions for improving or extending the idea, then co-author status would be merited. Sometimes it is difficult to agree on the definition of ``major'' contribution. If the supervisor and the assistant disagree on whether the assistant should be a coauthor, the assistant should ask advice from another faculty member or student. In most cases, contesting a gray-area decision on co-authorship is not worth the resulting ill-will, but serious injustices should be resisted.

4.4 Life on a Fellowship

Some students are supported by a fellowship, a grant from their university or some outside agency. The funds may cover tuition and also provide a living allowance.

Unfettered by the responsibilities of being an assistant, graduate life can seem rather uncomplicated. This is largely an illusion, though, since the toughest part of graduate school is study and research!

There are a few pitfalls to avoid if you find yourself fortunate enough to have fellowship support:

4.5 Life with an Outside Job

If you have a full or part-time job outside the university, you may feel that you are between two worlds, without belonging to either one. Neither the university nor the workplace is well adapted to dealing with the other, and each may place demands that are incompatible with those of the other.

Your biggest problems may be the double commute, scheduling difficulties, and isolation.

While you are taking courses, each semester will bring challenges of how to arrange to be on campus at the necessary times without unduly hampering your work. Don't make the mistake of believing that you need time off only for going to class; a graduate student may need time for access to resources (e.g., labs or libraries) that have limited hours, for meeting with instructors or teaching assistants in their office hours, and for meeting with other students for group projects. Email, remote computer access, and other electronic communication will alleviate some of these problems but not all of them.

Many departments put time limits on progress toward degree that are incompatible with part-time status. Know and understand the rules, and have a plan to deal with them, either by taking a leave of absence from your job or by working as if you had two jobs.

Later, when you are involved in research, you will need to carve out time to meet with your advisor, as well as time for your thesis research.

Since you do not spend as much time on campus as a typical student, you may find it harder to get to know your colleagues, find study groups, and generally learn the ropes. Consider some of the advice given above for fellowship students.

4.6 Social Life

In some departments, the graduate students form relatively cohesive groups, organizing lunches, social hours, and excursions. In others, there is little interaction. Even if a department is relatively ``cold'' when you arrive, it only takes a few people to ``warm it up.'' Try to get a core of interested students, and aim for establishing a graduate student lounge, a student chapter of MAA, ACM, SIAM, or IEEE, a weekly brown bag lunch (perhaps inviting a faculty member or a finishing student to give an informal presentation), or a monthly excursion.

If interactions within the department look hopeless, try making contacts in another science or engineering department, or through the graduate school of your university. The gym or a special interest club could lead to good friendships.

4.7 Becoming a Professional

You are on your way to becoming a professional, and you should act the part! If you haven't already, it is past time to join the important professional societies in your field:

See Section 14.1 for links to these and other professional societies.

Watch the meeting schedules for your societies, and if any meeting in your research area is taking place close to home, find your way to it! If you are well along in your research, ask your advisor and your department to give you partial support to attend the right meeting, close or far!

There are also important contacts to be made by email. Several research areas (e.g., numerical analysis, approximation theory, and most computer science areas) have mailing lists or websites devoted to announcements of meetings, research results, open problems, and queries. Read them, and respond if appropriate, but keep in mind that you are becoming a professional, and your messages should not be frivolous or ``flaming''.

There are also resources for women and minorities in math and computer science. See 14

4.8 Maintaining Sanity

No student gets through graduate school without experiencing a significant amount of stress. There is always too much to do, and not enough time to do it. Sometimes it is not even clear what should be done--only that it should be completed now. It may seem that everyone except you is competent (the ``imposter syndrome") You may doubt your intelligence, your creativity, your motivation, and perhaps even your sanity.

This is normal, and probably unavoidable. But there are certain factors that will make your life smoother.

To prevent Failure in graduate school, rely upon as many of these F's as possible:

If, despite your efforts at balance, you find yourself depressed or having thoughts of suicide, don't hesitate to seek help. Also seek help if you find yourself regulating your mood with alcohol or illegal drugs. Most campuses have a health center through which you can easily find professional care. Seeking help when you need it is a virtue, not a weakness; failing to seek it when you need it is a mistake. See Section 14.5 for some resources.


next up previous contents
Next: 5 Surviving Written Exams Up: gradstudy Previous: 3 Applying to Graduate   Contents
Dianne O'Leary 2009-08-21