Alex Hodgson
September 15, 2013 --

Grad School is a Whole Other Planet

Papers Blog Things I Wish I knew in Grad School Feature Image

Forget Men are from Mars, and Women being from Venus – in grad school, we are all on Pluto.

If you go through a Ph.D. program, you will find graduate studies to be a very different world from undergraduate school. If you just get an M.S., then graduate school may not be much different from undergrad (depending on where you get your degree), except that the courses are deeper and more advanced. But for a Ph.D. student, graduate school is a whole different story. The students who do well are the ones who learn this earlier rather than later and make the necessary adjustments.

Graduate school is not primarily about taking courses. You will take classes in the beginning but your later years will be focused on research aspects. People judge a recently graduated Ph.D. by his or her research, not by class grades. And, without any offense to my professors, most of what you learn in a Ph.D. program comes outside of classes: from doing research on your own, attending conferences, and talking to your fellow students. Success in graduate school does not come from completing a set number of course units but rather from successfully completing a research program.

Graduate school is more like an apprenticeship where each student has his or her own project, and the masters may or may not be particularly helpful. It’s like providing swimming lessons by tossing students into the deep end of a pool to see who is capable of making it out without drowning. With incomplete instruction, you’re forced to rely on instinct and what you have come to know thus far throughout your experiences. It’s much less about hand holding, and much more about one’s basic desire for survival and growth.

Excelling in a Ph.D. program requires different skills than those needed for undergrad studies. Undergraduate education tests you through class projects (that do not last more than a semester), essays, midterms, and finals. For the most part, you work alone. Your professor may not know your name. Every other student in your class takes the same tests or does similar projects. But in a Ph.D. program, you must select and complete a unique long-term research program. For most of us, this means you must learn how to do research, keep up with research of others in the community, get results that inevitably get you published. In addition to that – there are necessary elements therein to factor in: working closely with your professors, staff, and fellow students, communicating results, finding your way around obstacles, dealing with politics, etc.

Take one day at a time.

Be Humble.

Listen more than you speak at first

Keep your eye on the prize.