Survival guide for your first year of graduate school

So you made the unfortunate ambitious decision to go to graduate school. It’s likely that you don’t really know what to expect, and there is often no one to explain these things to you. I am here for you, friend.

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During your first year, you are laying a foundation for the completion of your PhD. It won’t be long until you are overwhelmingly busy and stressed with coursework, preparing for the quals, and trying to wrap your mind around research. Without a clear plan of attack, it’s extremely difficult to get off to a good start.

Here is a collection of encouragements and unsolicited advice for your first year. Your mileage may vary.

Start talking to your advisor

The sooner you start talking to your advisor about research, the better. There are a lot of questions that will help you identify where your advisor falls on a spectrum of issues. I list several questions below—don’t assume you know the answer to any of these, and don’t wait for your advisor to bring them up.

Example questions: Do you already have a research project in mind or is it up to me to develop an original idea? Is my work in support of an external grant? When do you expect me to graduate? What makes a great thesis in your mind? What is my first major milestone? How do I know if I am making good progress? How many hours per week do you expect me to work on research? Do you expect me to be in the lab over holidays? How many publications do you expect me to produce?

Postponing these types of frank discussions until after you’re done with coursework or the quals is a sure recipe for losing another year waiting for a research project to coalesce.

Or … so I’ve heard. :P

Pro tip: Request a standing weekly meeting even if your advisor doesn’t require it.

Build a network of colleagues

Your initial target network includes other grad students and professors in your department. Seek out the older grad students who really have it together. Spend time with them and learn from their example. They will have the scoop on how things work in your department and can point out hazard zones. Figure out who the sharp students are (you’re one of these, right?) who are starting at the same time as you—these will be the folks you take classes with and mutually help with research throughout your tenure. Finally, talk to students who also work for your advisor—they will have a lot of perspective on how to make the most of your relationship with him or her.

Don’t ignore the resource of an entire department of professors who are experts in your field. Schedule meetings with the ones you have good rapport with and get them talking about what research areas are exciting them lately—you’re not their student so their ideas don’t have to fit into their current funding/lab constraints. This isn’t betraying your advisor’s trust as long as you are upfront about who you’re meeting with and what about.

Pro tip: Take advantage of the physical network around you—that’s what they’re there for.

Fill in the gaps and pass your quals

Research is the primary objective of grad school, and you should spend your time to reflect this. That said, you may need to invest considerable effort up front on classes in order to (a) pick up any lacking skills needed to execute your research and (b) pass the qualifying exam. Unfortunately, if you do not do what it takes to pass the quals, a PhD is not in your future.

Research progress is difficult if you are doing heavy coursework—it’s important to have realistic expectations here. That’s why a lot of my advice deals more with building a strong foundation to enable you to hit the ground running with the meat of your research as soon as you get the programmatic elements such as classes and quals out of the way.

Pro tip: Have a mock oral qualifying exam with senior grad students.

Take care of yourself

You can’t indefinitely neglect the most important things in life without reaping negative consequences. Spend good time with your family and friends. Eat healthy food and get enough sleep. Make time for things you enjoy. Exercise. Invest in your spiritual life. Erect boundaries to prevent research from dominating your identity and existence.

There will be seasons when these areas suffer (approaching big deadlines, the quals, etc.), but plan and give yourself permission for recovery times after intense bouts. Academic culture is competitive and will pressure you to burn the candle at both ends, but you’ll be much more productive (and happy) over time if you don’t. Tortoise and hare and all that.

Pro tip 1: People are more important than publications.

Pro tip 2: Develop a sustainable schedule—and defend it.

Attend a big conference in your field

If you are responsible for coming up with a research topic on your own, there is probably no better place to get ideas than the largest conferences in your field. Go to a huge conference with multiple tracks and attend as many talks as you can. This experience will be a crash course in seeing the 10,000 ft view of the state of the art.

The goal here is simple: pay attention to what excites you. Attend lots of sessions and look for ways to combine research from different tracks. I have found many researchers to be surprisingly approachable, so don’t shy away from starting conversations with big names—these people love having fans.

Attending conferences like these also helps you see that there’s a world of opportunity out there and exciting things to do when you finish. These experiences will both inspire and ground you during the inevitable bouts of difficulty.

Pro tip: Choose a conference within driving distance and split the cost of lodging with several friends.

On to several practical ones…

Get a research notebook

It’s best to store all your notes in a single place like a high quality notebook instead of loose papers scattered around your home and office. If you need to find notes from a particular meeting, you know exactly where to look. Here are the things I track in my research notebook:

  • Research meeting notes
  • Derivations I’m trying to work out (i.e. a scratchpad)
  • Conference/seminar notes
  • Harebrained research ideas
  • Algorithms I’m trying to map out
  • Notes regarding specific simulations
  • Frankly, almost anything I need to write

I personally use a Moleskine grid notebook. It’s intentionally messy and full of half-baked ideas and notes I’d be horrified if anyone ever read. But it’s a useful tool and the glue that holds a lot of my thinking together.

For the technologically inclined, tools like Notational Velocity or Evernote can be used in similar ways. (FYI: I have tried this and abandoned these tools for general notetaking—I do use them in other ways, but that’s another post.)

Pro tip: Use this notebook for research only—don’t mix personal/professional.

Set up reference management software

You will be downloading and reading hundreds of pdf’s. It’s important to start off with a coherent system for keeping track of articles you read so that you can later retrieve relevant information and even find key articles when needed. The last thing you need is for these to be littered all over your hard drive. You need reference management software.

A great reference manager should be able to: (a) file pdf’s in a central place, (b) import metadata (author, title, year, etc.) from research databases, (c) search the pdf’s (or at least their metadata), (d) handle inserting formatted citations into your writing software (which should probably be LaTeX), and (e) store your notes and ratings of papers.

I chose Bibdesk, an open source tool for the Mac specifically geared toward BibTeX. To identify the best one for your workflow, you might like to review the Wikipedia’s overwhelming comparison of reference management software. Some of the more popular ones include Papers, Endnote, Mendeley, Zotero, CiteULike, and Jabref.

Pro tip: Touch papers once. If it might be useful, file and tag it. If not, delete.

Implement a system for managing tasks

I have personally benefited from reading David Allen’s book Getting Things Done (affiliate link). You’ll be hard pressed to find a philosophy more complementary to the grad student lifestyle. You’ll feel equipped to process the barrage of demands arising from homework, grading, reading papers, programming, and experiments.

You’ll need some type of system to support the GTD lifestyle. Find what works best for you, whether it’s pencil and index cards, a planner, or any number of to-do list software applications. I use and recommend a product for the Mac called OmniFocus. OmniFocus was designed from the ground up to support a GTD practice and syncs flawlessly between my Mac and iPhone.

Regardless, your system has to be ubiquitously available—implement something where you can always input a new task, no matter where you are or what you’re doing. Your PhD will invade your subconscious and remind you of things to do at the most inopportune times.

Pro tip: Block off an hour in your weekly schedule for the GTD weekly review.

Learn LaTeX and start using it for assignments (optional)

I think investing in learning a power writing tool like LaTeX is essential for engineers and scientists (the people reading this blog). The learning curve is somewhat steep, but the time it will save you over your graduate career will be profound.

Start tinkering with it and use it for your coursework. If you become proficient in this way, you will be much more efficient when it is time to begin with real academic writing.

See my article: Why I love LaTeX (and you should too)

Set up your thesis files

Your university has a thesis template—download it and get comfortable modifying the files. Most universities will offer both LaTeX and MS Word versions. This set of files will converge toward your research proposal and ultimately grow into your dissertation. It’s rewarding to watch the page count grow as you write more and more.

Some people might think it’s too early to tool around with your eventual thesis files, but here are several reasons I think it’s a good idea: (a) it’s motivating to keep the big picture of the thesis in mind, (b) your automatically-generated table of contents provides a nice tool for visualizing the trajectory of your project, and (c) your literature review will be one of your first research deliverables—you might as well work with it in the final layout.

Develop a web presence and CV

I went into this in great detail in my posts Why build a website to archive your research? and How to build a great academic website.

Your site doesn’t have to be anything fancy—in fact, less is probably more. You also shouldn’t spend too much time creating it. But having that infrastructure in place is valuable as you build your network, attend conferences, and produce things worth sharing.

Find a nice CV template and gradually add things as you make progress. People will occasionally request your CV—having one that you regularly update will save you a lot of time. The last thing you want to do during a busy research week is take a few hours to dig up all those details and build a CV from scratch. My usual response to such requests? “Here’s the link.”

Pro tip: Add a line item in your weekly review—Updates to website/CV?

Bonus: Read the entire archive of PhD Comics

Every grad student discovers PhD Comics. Every grad student loses a day (or three) to reading the full archive.

I think this is actually good for you. Face it: grad school is a really tough season, and the more you (a) know there are others going through this as well and (b) take yourself a little less seriously, well, that’s all the better for your mental health. Invariably, you will experience many of the caricatures from this strip. Leverage this to your advantage by finding something to laugh at when you hit inevitable setbacks.

Further reading

Here is a collection of additional articles that might help you wrap mind around the PhD. Almost all of these are mercifully shorter than this post.

Pro tip: Keep a file of articles that inspire you and keep you focused. Review them once per quarter and learn from your progress.

Parting thoughts

I hope these suggestions provide a starting point for wrapping your mind around your decision to pursue grad school. Your experience will no doubt be different from mine, and the things most helpful to you different from me as well.

It’s a difficult but rewarding road, and I wish you all the best in it.

You can read more about me, follow me on Twitter, subscribe to this blog by RSS or email, and find many more posts in the archives.