Thursday, November 27, 2008

The Tao of Grad School part 1

Since I'm gearing up to hire at least one Ph.D. student, I've started to reflect quite a lot about how to best get through grad school and get that Diploma at the end of the rainbow based on my experiences as a grad student and as an advisor. Whenever applicable, I'll also mix in experiences and considerations brought to my attention from others who have wandered the same path. I'm mostly doing this for my own benefit, as writing this down will hopefully succeed in one of the many areas where the mandatory pedagogics course failed spectacularly; improve my ability to advise Ph.D. students. Being as how this is a retrospective analysis of my own experiences, it might also be of interest for Ph.D. students or those thinking about getting into grad school.

How pretentious did that sound?

Since I'm based in Norway, the main focus will be on obtaining a Ph.D. in "hard/natural sciences" within the Norwegian system as it pertains to mandatory activities and timelines. Hence, what I write here might be utterly useless to a student planning to go into grad school at some liberal arts department. The plan is to write this up in approximate chronological order, but we'll see how long that lasts until the wheels come off. If anyone reading this has any experience from other systems/countries, feel welcome to share.

Part 1: Is grad school for me?
The reasons for going to grad school probably vary a lot between individuals, and while I don't necessarily think that there is one correct answer, I believe that there are some boxes you need to tick off for grad school to be the right place for you:

Do you have the necessary motivation?
Unless you're sincerely interested in pursuing further studies, you might want to think at least twice before you enroll in something as time-consuming and work-demanding as grad school. By this I don't mean that you should rule out getting a Ph.D. unless your earliest memory is a burning desire to one day stand in front of a committee and a less than captivated audience explaining why you went for the Rader FFT algorithm rather than the standard Cooley-Tukey algorithm. It's perfectly possible to succeed in things one stumbles into. However, you shouldn't contemplate grad school solely because there's nothing good on TV or because Mickey Dee ain't hiring at the moment.

In Norway, you're not getting accepted into a Ph.D. program unless you've got a Master's degree. Upon completing the M.Sc., it's very common to feel burnt out and in general the prospect of taking more exams and writing more term papers does not feel too tempting. Be aware that if you feel close to burned out following completion of your M.Sc., taking a Ph.D. requires a lot more effort. Something to take into consideration, as you don't really want to be exhausted before you even embark on the Ph.D. program. The Norwegian Ph.D. programs take between three and four years to complete following a "normal" progression, and unless you're dead set on following through, you should probably consider other career paths. At this point I should probably mention that I swore up and down that I never was going to take another exam following my M.Sc. examination.......

Do you have what it takes?
I'm not of the school of thought that grades are the be-all end-all student competence standard. Still, you've got to have above average grades to be accepted into a Ph.D. program, and if the grades are less than stellar, odds are that your friendly neighborhood faculty committee on graduate studies is going to assign a number of "qualification subjects" in addition to the required course work. Seeing as how there are 24 hours in a day and this adds to the work load, it won't make your journey towards graduation any easier. Thus, if your grades are less than stellar, you better be certain that your GPA is a result of lacking interest in subjects outside of your area of specialization rather than the courses being too hard. Otherwise you're in for a rough ride.

In the US, graduate students are generally accepted into the department on a bi-annual basis, and if your university is any good, there are a lot of "casualties" falling by the wayside during the first year or so. While this does not apply directly to the Norwegian system, I got a fantastic piece of advice back in NC: Pay close attention to your classmates. If you can't spot the weakest link within two weeks, you're it. While this is not directly applicable, you do NOT want to be the weakest link. Compare yourself to your classmates at your level, and make an honest evaluation. If you're among the best, all lights are go. Otherwise, you've either got to make up for this with extra hours and determination, or you're in trouble. Regardless of which alternative you end up with, make a realistic assessment.

Let's face it; grad school is a 3-4 year commitment with lots and lots of work. Do you have the work ethic required to follow through? Also, whether you're embarking on experimental or theoretical research, you've got to be aware that you're going to spend a lot of time doing things that turn out not to work. Even if things work, you've got to take the time to reproduce the experiments to verify the previously observed trends. If you know for a fact that you're prone to taking shortcuts, please don't even consider doing a Ph.D.. Precision, rigor and honesty are absolute essentials. Also, make sure that you can handle constructive criticism.

How does having a Ph.D. fit into your long-term plans?
Because if you don't plan on working with something where a Ph.D. is required or at least very useful, then you've got to ask yourself whether taking the Ph.D. is worth it. Especially if you're tempted to work within a different field than what the Ph.D. would be in.

...more to follow

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