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Lessons Learned at Graduate School - Part 2

In the first part of this posts series about the lessons I learned at graduate school I highlighted some points about what you have to take into account before thinking about applying to graduate school, during the application process, and the general environment and atmosphere at graduate school.

The main focus of this post is on the points that you need to know during the graduate studies, some tips for success, a few things to avoid, and how to keep a perspective about future that drives you during the post-graduation education.

It may be worth talking about something before going over these items because less or more, each of these items are trying to discover an aspect of graduate studies related to these. In graduate school soon enough you will realize that there are four main elements playing the key roles in your life: yourself and your life, your advisor, your research, and your courses. A major part of success at graduate school is keeping the correct balance between these four elements, otherwise even if you work so hard, you may not get the results that you expect.

Put Yourself First

Most likely, you’ve come to graduate school to make something better in your life not your advisor’s or somebody else’s, so never let anything or anyone supersede yourself and your life because if it happens, you will lose the balance.

Graduate school is a place, just like many other workspaces, where there is an employer/employee relationship between people with some differences but many of the general rules still hold. Your boss, who is your advisor along with your department, will try to get the best out of your time, skills, and knowledge. You have to be able to dedicate enough time to what they want from you while you also keep enough time for your personal life as well as your courses, research plan, and similar stuff. Apparently, this doesn’t mean that you have to escape from working because it’s your responsibility to do your job and eventually, you will have mutual interests with your advisor or your department on some topics. For example, if your advisor wants to publish a paper, your name will be there, too, and you will get credit for that, so not only you work for your advisor, but also you work for yourself.

Put Your Courses Last

Whether you believe me or not, courses offered at most graduate departments are so bad and usually you can’t find many courses offered in your areas of interest. Even the courses offered in your areas are usually far from what you do for your research and many factors like the weaknesses of instructors, weak design of syllabus, or unrealistic workload will make you dislike taking a course. Graduate courses have the least importance and you wouldn’t focus much on them and waste your time and energy on completing the homeworks and implementing the projects. After graduation, your GPA is one of the last factors that will be checked in your CV and a bunch of research courses that you usually get a high grade in will help you improve your GPA.

I’ve seen some students working hard on their courses ignoring their research and losing the valuable time in the first few years of their programs. You’re not in high school to list your A grades and be proud of them. As an example, I’ve observed many students at our department who start their doctorate program at a young age (which is the reason they’re so passionate about grades and class competitions) and spend a lot of time and energy on courses in the first few years as much as many of them don’t have an advisor for the first 2-3 semesters and even if they do, they don’t care much about the research. Unfortunately, many of these students have been staying at our department for a longer time.

The best strategy is to take easy courses that have the least workload and you have some kind of interest in. I, myself, had a bad mistake taking a course on Computer Graphics in the semester that just finished, and this course with an uncommon high workload made difficulties for me to manage my schedule and it hurt my GPA. I had followed an interest to learn something new about Computer Graphics by taking this course which turned out to take away all of my interest as well.

Do Not Go Fast Nor Slow

Unfortunately, one frustrating tradition of graduate school is similar to what I experienced in my military service and that is the least impact of efforts in accelerating or slowing down the progress. Unfortunately, people at academia often think in a classic style and follow the patterns, so whether you work so hard or not, you can’t graduate much earlier than the typical case. So working harder is usually equal to losing your energy and perhaps facing with frustrations. The same thing goes for a slow pace even though they will try to let you go out after a certain number of years has passed. However, if you don’t work enough and graduate, you will have a poor Ph.D. degree that you can hang on your bedroom’s wall only!

Have a Backup Plan

It’s a general rule that I recommend to everyone in life because it has hurt me a few times, but even at graduate school you need to have a backup plan. Always ask yourself what if this happens or doesn’t happen, and what you can do in those cases. Always ask yourself what you can do if you quit the program today, or what happens if you graduate and you can’t find a job with this degree!

Always develop a backup plan and maintain it because even if nothing goes wrong, at least it gives you the confidence and peace of mind. If you have a backup plan, it is you imposing your conditions on others.

Do Not Try to Be the Best

Never try to be a hero at graduate school! It’s not like high school or even undergraduate programs where being the best is very good and you can be considered as a successful person. At graduate school it is really difficult to define a best because everybody has his own research field and these fields are different and incomparable. If you try to be a super-hero, then it will be the people trying to use you because you’ve already proven to them that you’re capable, and believe me on this one that it will not help your situation in any way. There will be no rewards waiting for you except the waste of time and energy!

I had such mistakes myself. When I started my graduate program, I founded some reading groups to help promoting certain topics related to our research and work, and later on everybody took advantage of these reading groups against me!

Take Care of Your Body

Physical situation is important for everyone at any age and in any situation but it’s very important for someone using his or her mind most of the times. Having a healthy body helps you have a healthy brain and have a much better performance. It also helps you stay energetic, happy, and positive which are vital for overcoming the difficulties of a graduate student’s life. In my opinion every graduate student has to work out at least 3 times a week, and that’s why I’ve been working out almost everyday despite my sedentary lifestyle for a few years before my graduate program.

Do Not Expect a Life

The fact that academia follows some old-fashioned traditions and hasn’t updated itself with modern requirements of life and career as well as the low income of a graduate student make your life tough. Perhaps the only tougher part of life that you can experience is in a military service or prison.

It’s a common belief that Ph.D. students are supposed to not have a life and don’t do anything but research. This has been the belief since stone ages among advisors to now. Your advisor had faced with this fact and his advisor, and so on and so forth, and if you happen to be a close-minded person, you will end up there, too! So nobody cares that they’re dealing with a human so they just throw their expectations at you. An instructor in a course totally unrelated to your research expects you to work on his course like that it’s your research while your advisor is expecting you to write many papers per year! Unfortunately, it’s like that and it is proven that such ambitions never have worked for any of the sides.

Photo taken from http://www.utoledo.edu/utlc/career/images/notebooks.jpgThe other unfortunate fact about graduate school is the low income. If you’re a full-time student, it’s very unlikely that you have any source of income other than your research and it is very low. Now imagine the world that we’re living in where money is everything for everyone and without money, you shouldn’t be able to do much.

Yet another problem is a social problem preventing you from going to the society and hanging out with ordinary people. The concept of being a Ph.D. student is not well-understood for some people and they mostly believe that it’s something like being an undergraduate student. Such a vague understanding of your situation plus the abovementioned parameters about academic traditions and income prevent you from hanging out with ordinary people and limit you to the small community of graduate students at your university.

In addition to these problems, naturally, you think more about your life and related issues in your late 20’s when most people study at graduate school and some frustrations due to the current state of the world make things harder. You may look around and see people wish lower education and less efforts making a lot of money and having a better life than you. You may also be frustrated by career perspectives because as a matter of a fact, a Ph.D. degree doesn’t have the value and benefits that it used to have before while as a student you still need to put the same level of efforts and energy into it.

Be Courageous

Once again, we live in a modern world but rules of nature apply to everything. Be the lion who eats others otherwise you’ll be eaten. Be courageous and do not let others force you to do everything. Don’t get me wrong and think that I’m saying that you disagree with everyone and avoid working, but keep in mind that graduate school is the place of research and faculties are always looking for a cheap labor that works more, so if you allow them to take advantage of you, they will, and after a while, it becomes a part of your daily responsibilities that nobody appreciates while you see others working less and have more respect. Do not let anyone expect you more than others and say no if necessary. Simply said, don’t be like me!

Your Department Cares About Itself Not You

Although you may eventually have mutual interests with your department in certain areas, generally, your department cares more about its reputation and outcome than you, and Ph.D. students are the main labor at any department, and are responsible to keep the ball rolling and pull the department forward. Most department chairs would love for all the Ph.D. students to go in their labs early morning and work till late at night hoping that they increase the number of publications and outcome of research to promote the department.

There are cases when they expect you to do something that is neither of favor to your advisor nor you only because it can help the department go up. Even many departments try to push you in a specific path of employment that helps their reputation which is being a faculty, something that is becoming harder and harder everyday with the saturation of market with doctorate graduates and limited opening positions.

Do Not Consult Academic People Only

Since we all seek the experience of other people and want to avoid making the same mistakes, we tend to consult people on different topics and ask for their opinions and recommendations. It may not be a good idea to consult academic people only on certain topics like employment. The reason is simple: if they chose to stay at academia, they’re obviously passionate about what they’re doing so no matter what you ask, they will respond the same. It’s similar with industrial people and they tend to make jokes out of the academic community! You need to consult different people on different topics and evaluate the pros and cons of everything and make the final decision based on your own situation. I also had some mistakes in this area and relied much on academic contacts.

Most Academic People are Weak

The least expectation from people at academia who have a doctorate degree (or are going to earn one) is to be technically skilled and strong but it’s not usually the case. Many people have developed a very big house of sand based on some theories and concepts that are not applicable to practice. Most but not all people at academia are just like that who are unable to implement their own ideas in a very simple form and are even unable to explain that to someone inexperienced in this field. Many things at academia are built around formalizing very simple concepts that are made complex. If you ask many academic researchers to explain their work, they will keep speaking for several hours but they can’t explain that to a normal person in simple words.

The truth is that, as I said in the first part, most people who go for a Ph.D. are people who don’t have enough skills to be employed after their undergraduate degree outside academia, so they chose to go to graduate school and earn a higher degree with the main hope that they can stay in their safe zone and deal with some weak theoretical concepts and building simple impractical prototypes. That’s why you saw a significant increase in the number of applicants to graduate schools in the United States during the economic crisis when they were laid off!

While this may not be the case for everyone and indeed there are a minority of academic people who are very knowledgeable and skilled, generally, do not expect much from other people at graduate school but to give you some comments on theoretical aspects. You will listen to them talking for you for several hours about the theory but it will not help much in solving the problem that you have!

Work Individually and Avoid Group Work

Team work is a skill and they’re only the professionals who can make good teams and work together on a successful project. Working as a team requires a high level of expertise in the field as well as communication skills and dedication. Whether in your course projects or in your research, try to avoid group work as much as possible.

The past experience by most graduate students has proven that such group projects end up in one of two cases: either one or two people on the team work hard and others watch, or nobody works and you get a flawed result. The reason is obvious if you read the above paragraph: at academia people are discovering something new and are learning about it so they’re not skillful, also they don’t have the same level of interest in a topic, and usually they lack the communication skills.

Based on what I witnessed, often you better work individually to have less hassle and get a better result at academia even though instructors and advisors tend to push you to make teams. Again, this is coming from their lack of knowledge in understanding the challenges in team work because they have the linear understanding that more people doing something can deliver itfaster and with a higher quality.

Be Realistic About Your Future Career

Most of my points covered the aspects you need to consider before going to graduate school or during your studies, but I haven’t talked about the future employment which would be one of the main motivations for someone to spend some of the best years of his or her life on a degree.

Being realistic about everything can help you succeed in different aspects of life and your employment after a doctorate program is not an exception! Getting a Ph.D. will restrict your opportunities for employment in comparison with a Bachelor’s or Master’s degree but improves your chances of getting the job in the areas that you can apply for.

Future employment of a Ph.D. student depends on several factors among which your own work (e.g., implemented projects, publications, or teaching quality) plays the most important role and then comes the demand for your research and its hotness, reputation of your advisor, ranking of your university, and the relevance of your job to your background.

One typical track of employment for a Ph.D. is academia and becoming a faculty but to be realistic, this is not as easy as 10 years ago or even 5 years ago. There are many Ph.D. graduates and departments are not expanding that fast. In Computer Science, like many other disciplines, it’s going to be common for a graduate to continue for his post-doctorate degree in order to improve his chances for employment.

For Computer Science graduates the other common possibility is to apply for positions at research institutions or big companies like Microsoft, Google, Intel, IBM, Oracle, Amazon, and Yahoo. This depends on your background and your skills and how relevant your field of research is to the position you’re looking for. Here the practicality of your research can play an important role specifically for working at big companies.

In all these cases, you have to be realistic and don’t plan for the wrong position that is not for you. An unfortunate fact is that opening positions are not uniformly distributed for all fields of Computer Science and Software Engineering has had the highest rate of open positions for a very long time.

Have a Strong Career Plan So Early

When you start a Ph.D. program, you may think that I have 4-6 years to work on my research and it may be so early to think about future employment, but I believe that you have to start thinking about that after the first 2-3 semesters seriously. On one hand, time flies and you won’t notice how fast it goes, and on the other hand, you need a career plan (with alternatives) that form your way in your program to work. This latter reason is a great motivation to know what you want to do, so you focus on the aspects that can help you in your future career otherwise you do something that may not have any demand in the job market.


Deciding to earn a graduate degree like a Ph.D. is a critical decision in somebody’s life and most people disregard many major factors in this process. The education experience, itself, is also challenging and can be frustrating at points, and this is not the end because employment can become a hassle as well.

A doctorate degree is just like other professions with its own difficulties, pros, and cons, and it’s wrong to assume that with a degree like that you will be in a safe zone. It’s also wrong to try getting a doctorate degree for reasons like prestige or environmental factors. I am sure that many people will read these posts leaving comments that they think they want to get a doctorate degree and in most cases it shows that they haven’t read these posts with an open mind at all.

I tried to highlight the main points that I could collect about different aspects of post-graduate education and didn’t try to follow clichés that many other people have followed before in publishing some classic posts that mostly talk about the goodness of what they’re doing. I believe that there are difficulties and challenges with graduate studies that are not discovered widely and I did my best to cover them, but by no means I assert that everything I said were correct and can be applied to everyone and all situations. These are just my experiences that I could check with the situation of some other people as well.


Published at DZone with permission of Keyvan Nayyeri. See the original article here.

Opinions expressed by DZone contributors are their own.

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