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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.



1. Fluxor - September 15, 2010

Wow, that’s some good advice from Stearns which I wished I had understood before starting grad school. Yet, it’s only good advice in hindsight because I’m not sure I would have been able to absorb the wisdom at time point in my life when I was entering grad school.

My favourite one: Nobody cares about you.

It’s true. Not my supervisor, not my fellow students.


2. mareserinitatis - September 15, 2010

Aw…now you made me sad. 😦 Actually, I think that’s the one great thing about my PhD dept: the students have a level of camaraderie I haven’t seen anyplace else. It really, really helps. It’s too bad that not everyone can have that.


3. Strigiformes - September 15, 2010

I think anyone who has gone through the process has basically said the same things, more or less. It just depends on how articulate they are. And no matter how much is being said, it only helps a little. As rookies we can get as many fishing tips as we want, but we still need to go out and catch our own fish, and make our own mistakes along the way.


4. Chris Gammell - September 16, 2010

One of my friends (who has been a PhD candidate for 7+ years) had TWO YEARS of research thrown out the window because of the advisor not reviewing data. 2 years! The data just kept coming in wrong and she kept getting in trouble. I am nothing but impressed at her tenacity, but I’m sure that’s the case with many doctoral candidates.


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