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Advice for life July 2, 2013

Posted by mareserinitatis in family, personal, societal commentary.
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I found this while scrounging around my old blog for something.  I never found it because I got distracted when I found this.  It’s a compilation of my life experience distilled into a bulleted list of advice.  It was a nice refresher, so I thought I’d share it here.  If you have anything you’d like to add, feel free in the comments.

Be independent. Don’t depend on other people. Accept help when others offer it with good intentions but not if they give with strings attached. Be a person others can depend on, even if they don’t want to.

Never take your friends and loved ones for granted. Never hold back your feelings for them. Take every opportunity to let them know you care about them and appreciate their place in your life. Spend as much time with them as you can. You will regret missed opportunities later on.

Don’t wait around for other people to do things. You miss out on a lot of wonderful experiences, and our fears about doing things and being alone are often unfounded.

Don’t expect loved ones to easily let you know their feelings because a lot of people aren’t very good at expressing them. Just know that caring for a person never goes unappreciated and take their words at face value.

There is an unlimited supply of love in the universe, and you’re free to give out as much as you can. And you should!

Don’t be too hard on yourself and don’t hang around others who are negative about you or anyone else. It will take a long time to recover from the damage this causes you.  You can’t make everyone happy, but you should be honest with yourself and be the best person you know how to be. That doesn’t mean there isn’t room for improvement, though.

Never react to someone in anger. If you’re angry, take some time to go away and think about it before you say something stupid.

A person will remember the way you treated them and talked to them for the rest of their life. Think about that every time you interact with them. This is especially important when this is your family and you’ll be around them for many years.

Have goals in life, but be flexible. Having goals doesn’t always mean reaching them, and failing to reach them doesn’t reflect badly on you. The path toward the goal is a means to growing as a person, and that is more important than reaching the goal. Sometimes, often times, those diversions away from the goal will make you a better person.

Grad student advice: Picking a topic April 17, 2012

Posted by mareserinitatis in education, engineering, grad school, physics, research.
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It happened again yesterday: one of the email updates I received had a post from someone asking someone to give him a good topic for a dissertation.

It’s not an absurd question: some of us don’t have much if any guidance from advisors, though I get worried that this is indicative of a problematic advising relationship.  I’m also not saying an advisor should give a student a topic (at least not for a PhD), but they apparently aren’t even addressing the topic with the student.  However, I figured it’s a question worth addressing on the blog.  If nothing else, I can post a link whenever I see the question pop up, which it seems to do with regularity.

The real simple answer, in my experience, is to start reading.  Read journals in your field.  Look at what interests you.  Try to think of gaps or problems that aren’t addressed in the research you’re reading.  And don’t forget to go back and read the references for the most interesting articles.  Other ideas are to get involved in projects or try to choose something from a class project (I discuss this here).  Generally, you’re going to be spending several years on something, so let your curiosity guide you.  If it’s not interesting now, it certainly won’t be in four years.  (In fact, even if it is interesting now, you might be sick of it in four years, but it’s best to make that four years as tolerable as physically possible.)

The question in my mind is whether you should talk to your advisor before or after you start doing this.  Some advisors do give their students projects, but my experience in physics and electrical engineering is that most don’t.  (My friends in the biological sciences, particularly medicine, have indicated that, in their fields, getting a topic handed to you is the norm.)  However, even if your advisor doesn’t give you a project, s/he is likely to have an area of interest where they’d prefer you work.  My MS advisor was very much the exception in that he expected his students to pick topics outside of his primary research area as a way for him to learn more about other areas.  I think his rule of thumb was that it had to require electromagnetics…beyond that, you were pretty much on your own.  On the other hand, if you had no particular interest, he did have suggestions, so he didn’t leave you hanging, either.

Therefore, as you’re looking at topics, be sure to check in with your advisor on a fairly regular basis to make sure that you’re not going too far astray (been there, done that) as well as making sure they still ‘buy in’ to your project (done that, and it’s not fun when they aren’t terribly interested).  You also need to take into consideration whether or not you have the facilities and equipment and, probably, funding for your project.  If you want to go into a certain area and need funding, you’ll likely need help from your advisor.  It’s also a good idea to do this early because it gives you an idea of how invested your advisor is in your project and how well you communicate.  Figure it out early before you get four years into a thesis project only to have your advisor tell you you’re an idiot and won’t be graduating.  (Yes, it does happen.)

The take away message should be that you should try to use your curiosity and creativity to find a project, and that you need to make sure your advisor buys into it.  Don’t ask total strangers as they’re so far removed from the situation, you’ll never get anything useful.

Some of my readers are wise in the way of advising, so I’m curious what they have to add.

Grad student advice: what if my advisor leaves?! January 31, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in grad school.
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I’ve been getting quite a few hits with search terms along the lines of “grad school advisor leaves”. I imagine the page they’re coming across is the one dispensing advice stating anything can happen. And that is still true.

However, in this case, I am happy to be more specific. I’ve observed this happening to several friends over the years. In particular, my husband’s advisor left about a year before he finished his PhD. The good news, at least from my observations, is that there are many alternatives:

1 – You stay.
2 – You go with them.
3 – You go someplace else.
4 – You quit grad school.

I’m pretty sure this really ought to be a flow chart…

The first question you should ask yourself is whether or not it is possible for you to continue working with your advisor. Don’t assume that if they’re leaving academia, the relationship is over. Even if your advisor can’t still be an official advisor, they can still sometimes act as a de facto advisor while the student has an ‘official’ advisor at the school. They can often serve as a committee member, as well. So when I’m asking if it’s possible, what I am saying is 1) are they willing to continue advising you? 2) What are your school’s policies about outside advisors and/or committee members? 3) How will you be supported (if you were previously funded by your advisor)? Some schools will honor their commitment and provide a TA or something, but some schools see that as the responsibility of the advisor. 4) Can you find someone to act as an official advisor? If everything sounds good, then you need to ask yourself one serious question before you go forward with this arrangement: how invested is this person going to be in seeing you graduate? If you have suspicions they may not care or will be too busy with other things, this is definitely not a path you should consider.

If your advisor is continuing in academia, but at a different institution, they may be able to advise you remotely such as in the scenario above, but there is also that possibility that you could (and maybe even should) move with them. Most professors, when they move, are able to make arrangements for their grad students to come with them. The whole process of admission is streamlined. If you are in the early stages of your project and are sure you want to keep working with this person, this is probably your best bet, especially since there will be new rules about how many classes you must complete. If you’re a pretty good way along and aren’t dependent on your advisor’s physical presence, say for lab space or equipment or funding, staying may be preferable to leaving. Also, if you would have to start over with your coursework, staying is probably advisable. The good news is that an advisor staying in academia will probably be more concerned about you graduating than one who is leaving.

But what if you don’t want to continue working with them, or moving would be too difficult and you can’t finish without them? This would be a perfect time to decide if you want to stay at your current institution and find a new advisor there, move to a different school, or jump ship altogether. The advantage of finding a new advisor at your current institution is that you probably have a good idea of the landscape and know who is a good mentor and who is not. You may also know more about others’ research than you did in the beginning. Both of these are useful pieces of information. Additionally, you wouldn’t be starting fresh with coursework requirements. Going someplace else presents more of an unknown. However, if you’re not happy at your grad institution, maybe a change of scenery would be helpful. Maybe you have a better idea of who you’d like to work with as well as what interaction style works better for you. If that’s not available at your institution, then perhaps you really would feel better going elsewhere. It will also give you more breadth to work with someone else.

Finally, if you really don’t want to go someplace else, you don’t want to stay, and you can’t work with your advisor, then I’d take that as a good hint that the ‘real world’ is calling. If your advisor is leaving, that’s a good time to make that decision.

My observations have been that the farther along a person is before their advisor leaves, the more likely they are to complete their degree. I suspect it’s because they have a harder time settling on a project that really appeals to them. However, that’s not set in stone…just keep in mind that if the situation you chose still isn’t working for you, you always have the option to change your mind and no one should hold it against you.

Linkety Link January 9, 2011

Posted by mareserinitatis in links.
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My friend (who is an NPS Park Ranger at the Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site) shared a story explaining five myths about why the South seceded.

The College Board is rethinking the AP.

Hopefully the US government has rethought its stance on ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ after it misused science to justify it’s stance.

Equally depressing is the addition of six birds to the extinct list in Australia. Some of the birds could have been saved.

Researchers have been studying moonquakes to determine the interior structure of the moon. (Also included is a discussion of solar spicules, but for more information, you can check here.)

Back on Earth, you may want to check out some awesome pictures of Yosemite Valley.

You could also learn about the physics of icicle formation.

And finally, Dave from the EEVblog has some great advice to newly graduated engineers. On the other hand, I think there’s a certain amount of advice that is applicable no matter where you work:

Advice to grad students September 14, 2010

Posted by mareserinitatis in grad school.
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Before I started my PhD program, I found a reference somewhere to the book, “Getting What you Came For.” I read it cover to cover. It’s great advice.

On the other hand, it’s the same advice you can read everywhere else, just well synthesized. A couple days ago, I came across this advice. It started out with probably the best advice you can get:

Always prepare for the worst.

This was the one piece of advice I don’t remember reading before, and yet it’s really the only one that has been universally true. The thing with most advice on grad school is that they deal with common problems that the person who really doesn’t know about grad school may encounter. They seldom talk about the really odd or horrible things that can and do happen in grad school.

It’s bad enough if your advisor leaves to go someplace else. I’ve seen people finish their degrees despite this and others who did not. I have chalked that sort of thing up to personality and drive, as well as how far along they are in their research. In all situations, it wasn’t an easy thing to deal with for the student, whether or not they managed to finish.

But what about the friend who’s MS advisor died before he was finished? In this case, it turned out that someone else was actually supervising most of his research, so he was able to finish. But I can imagine that, for a lot of people, it would mean catastrophic upheaval beyond that of an advisor leaving.

My experience is simply that Murphy’s law is bound to strike any time. Read all the advice you want. It does help. But there are times when things will happen that you don’t expect and didn’t prepare for. Sometimes you simply can’t prepare for them.

When those things happen, all you can do is decide how badly you want to keep moving. If you really want that degree, you keep moving. If not, if the stress becomes too much or something catastrophic happens, you change gears. Sometimes it’s permanent, but I’ve also seen people recover. There are those who quit, those who quit and come back, and those you just keep plugging as best they can.

There are circumstances for which there really is no ‘good’ advice because it’s very personal. One person can deal with a situation and another cannot, and the only person who can really judge what the best decision is will be the one making the decision, despite all the advice out there.

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