Welcome back Vols!
It's football season in Tennessee! Which also means... back to classes, homework, and exams. Blerg. Okay, okay, classes aren't that bad I guess. To help you get a leg up though, check out the 15 and 16 tips for undergrads I posted last year around this time, or if you're a graduate student, the 10 things I learned during my first semester as a graduate student. And then add your advice in the comments!
Also, follow me on Twitter for updates about my upcoming field campaign, research activities, or some ramblings about one of my latest #perksofbeingagradstudent. :)
Alright, on to the good stuff. Here's what I learned this summer:
1. There is no 'summer' anymore.
For the first 18 years of school, summer not only meant no classes or homework, but also, no responsibilities! Because let's be honest, that fast food job, life guarding gig at the beach/pool, or even that job that your parents set up for you weren't that much responsibility. ;) It was the time to take vacations, see friends, and relax. Those were the days...
In grad school, it means being in lab (or the field) 50+ hrs/week, catching up on research, pumping out data, and if you're lucky, going to a conference to present said data. The first year of grad school generally consists of classes, or TA-ing, or both, so there's not a ton of time to be working on your own research project. If you're lucky, you might be able to squeeze in a few rotations with different groups in your department to try and find an adviser, but for the most part, your first real graduate experience in lab will be during that first summer. For future Bredesen-ers, you'll also have your 'qualifying exam'. More on that in a minute though.
Okay, I don't want to worry you too much. The summer will go by so quickly that you'll barely notice it's the end of August, the pumpkin spice latte is back, and the grocery store has their Halloween aisle fully stocked. Who knows, you may even start to welcome the end of summer.
2. Switching advisers can kind of be like breaking up with someone.
Sometimes, you'll come into grad school with an adviser in mind. Great! That's the best way to do it really. You may even start working with them right away. Even better! But then, something just might not work out. It could be that you end up changing your mind about what kind of research you want to do, or funding opens up on another project you're interested in, or, there may be a personal issue. And that's okay! It's better if you figure it out earlier rather than 3 years into your degree when it could be too late to make a switch.
For some reason, this can sometimes be a tricky transition. It's probably just because you're such a great graduate student though and they just don't want to let you go.
Or, if your adviser is providing funding for you, I think they can sometimes feel like you are working for them. Personally, I've never liked that phrasing. I mean, I get it...they worked really hard to get that grant that includes a graduate student stipend on it, so they might feel like you owe it to them or something. But, advisers aren't 'bosses' in the traditional sense of the word. They're advisers. Mentors. Graduate programs are for the graduate students! This is our time to figure out what we want to do in life. A good adviser will understand that and not make a fuss when you decide to make a change for the better.
Every so often, instead of your adviser's full support, you'll feel like they're pushing back a little, or even trying to guide your decisions elsewhere. Stand strong. Sometimes you'll have to be very explicit in what you want (they don't always catch the normal social cues). Be confident, but let them down easy. Tell them how much you've learned while working with them, and that you have appreciated their guidance thus far. And then, be as honest as possible. The last thing you want to do is burn bridges. As long as you're polite and professional, they'll get over that initial heartbreak in no time at all. ;)
3. Coming up with a hypothesis is a lot harder than it was in 6th grade.
I think we sometimes forget that science and engineering revolve around being able to form a testable hypothesis. Remember when you learned the scientific method in middle school? Ask a question and then make an educated guess to what the answer might be.
Question: What will happen if I drop a ball?
Hypothesis: The ball will fall to the ground.
Not so bad, right? Wrong! The more specialized your interests become, the harder it is to form a hypothesis and a set of experiments that is detailed and specific enough to be different from the research of others in your field.
Was the ball dropped from waist height or eye height? What material is it made out of? Will it bounce when it hits the ground? Will it bounce straight up or at an angle?
And that whole 'testable' part isn't easy either. Essentially, you want to come up with a hypothesis that disproves a pre-existing hypothesis, and your new hypothesis should be able to be disproved as well. A little backwards from the 'go out and prove your hypothesis' method we were taught early on, huh? Another thing, rarely do you 'prove' anything in science. There's always limitations and there are usually a whole bunch of variables to take into account, some that can't be controlled and therefore may impact the results of your experiment.
Where is the ball being dropped? Is there a breeze blowing that could affect the movement of the ball? Is the temperature going to affect the volume of the ball? And, how do you measure all of these things reliably? What is your control experiment?
What really makes the process more difficult than I remember, is all of the research that goes into just finding a question, making a hypothesis, and devising an experiment to test that hypothesis. During that first summer of grad school, it's essential to start getting familiar with past and ongoing research in your field by reading the literature, going to conferences, and meeting with colleagues. You'll have to see which science questions are currently being asked, which ones have already been answered, and which questions still remain. Once you have a question, then you'll have to find out which experiments people have used in the past to try and answer it. Are those methods still acceptable or has the field and technology advanced? Are you able to have a control experiment? How much time (and money) will you need to complete these experiments? Many programs (including the Bredesen Center's ESE program) have an entire 'exam' devoted to developing these skills.
4. The qualifying exam is no joke.
The first milestone of some PhD programs is to pass a qualifying exam (qual). I've also heard it been called a preliminary exam (prelim) or non-dissertation proposal (NDP). Instead of a series of written test questions like some of the more traditional, disciplinary programs still have, this new format gives you 2-3 months to develop an original research proposal for a science question unrelated to your current path of research. You read the literature to find a question that hasn't been explored yet, and then propose how you would go about answering that question. The overall goal of the exam is still to test your background knowledge and make sure you are prepared to continue in a doctoral program. They want to make sure you can think critically, that you're able to work independently, and that you are capable of developing a research project that would advance the current state of your field.
It's not like I thought this was going to be easy by any stretch of the imagination, but I was definitely surprised at how much it pushed me (as I also heard from others in my graduate cohort as well). In our program, we are given a list of 50 or so topics/questions to choose from. Some programs will make you find a topic/question on your own. A few of us were even excited when we chose our questions and started poking around the literature. We found some great review articles and were totally ready to tackle the dreaded qual! Then, as each of us got deeper into the literature in our respective fields, we realized that proposing a new direction to go means doing something no one has done before. It was pretty daunting. Bottom line, don't underestimate how much time and effort you'll need to put into researching your question before you even start to go about answering it. #qualsohard
5. But, you have plenty of time to finish it.
So, all that scary stuff being said, as long as you start early, you'll be fine! There were about 101 other things I managed to do while I was procrastinating, including... folding my laundry as soon as it was done drying, writing 2 blogs and creating a new web page to help grad students find funding, getting to level 300 in Candy Crush, training for and running my first half marathon, and changing my Jamberrys...like, lots of times. I also read a novel completely unrelated to science (my annual new year's resolution is to read 12 of them ya know), watched Dead Poet's Society and Good Will Hunting (in one night, and cried like a baby), and dumped a bucket of ice water on my head for a great cause. So, really what I'm trying to say is, you can really get a whole lot done when you're avoiding something as much as I was trying to my qual. ;)
But, even with all those other things sucking away precious minutes I could have spent reading or writing, I still got it done. It was maybe even kind of fun. Okay, well let's not get too hasty now. Just don't stress too much and you'll be fine! :) Make sure you block out a certain amount of time each day to work on it. Whether it be reading a couple journal articles, making an outline, making a figure, or writing up the methods, just give yourself an hour or two each day in the beginning. Toward the last couple weeks before it's due, you're going to want to be editing pretty much full time to make sure you're ready to hand it in. Then, all that's left is the oral defense...
Some things to be aware of going into it:
- Schedule a time to meet with your committee as soon as possible. Like months in advance if possible. I'm not kidding! Trying to get 4-6 academics in the same room on the same day at the same time is a near-impossible feat.
- Schedule it in the morning and block off about 5 hours. Usually, you only present for about 40 minutes to an hour, but the question/answer period can last up to 3 hours. Depending on how your committee operates, you might present your whole talk and then have questions, or they might just ask as you go along. In that case, you will be 'presenting' for upwards of 3 hours. Your adviser and committee should let you know which format they are planning on in advance. Don't be afraid to flat out ask them about what they are planning on doing. You want to be prepared for either scenario.
- Practice your talk, out loud, in front of people, multiple times before you actually defend. Feedback from a non-threatening audience of friends or colleagues is the best way to find out where you're most comfortable, where you need to rehearse a bit more, and where you've left things out. Because, you WILL end up leaving things out. And that's okay! That's usually where your committee will ask questions, so leaving those open is actually a good strategy to ensure you have a few 'softballs' ready to hit out of the park.
- Think about how you're going to present. You set the tone for this presentation. And how you start and finish is the most important. My advice is to go in 1) calm, 2) confident, and 3) conversational. Ask each of your committee members how their week is going, or if they have plans for this weekend. Maybe bring coffee and donuts if it's a morning presentation. By having a conversation first before all the science, it will help calm any nerves and remind you that these are your committee members. They want to see you succeed! No matter how much they try to hide it... ;). Also, think about how your slides look. Are they aesthetically pleasing? Do you have so much information on one slide, it's hard to follow? Check out a this post for some more ideas on how to help your presentation flow.
And if all starts to feel like too much, just remember, YOU'RE the one who has been knee deep in this part of the literature for the last however many weeks. YOU know more about this than your committee members. They'll be able to find the gaps in your presentation, and they will ask you about those, but they probably won't know how to fill them. YOU DO! Be confident (not arrogant) in what you know. If you don't know it, don't try and BS it. They'll recognize that and drill you for it.
Side note: You'll have to have your entire committee sign a form saying they confirm you passed. The handbook says you need like 4 copies. Have them sign about 10. And hang on to them. Just in case. :)
What did you all learn this summer?!?
Welcome to Think Like a Postdoc. If you're a fan of science as much as I am, and/or are curious about getting a degree in a STEM field, or pursuing an interdisciplinary graduate degree (all from the perspective of a graduate student), then you're in the right place. Think Like a Postdoc also includes posts about my current lab and field research, including analytical chemistry, Arctic biogeochemistry, and energy & environmental policy. Comments and questions are always welcomed. And please tell me what you want to hear about next!
Questions to Ask Before Choosing Grad Program
First Semester of Grad School
Field Work in Alaska
Science Conference Dos and Don'ts
Women in STEM Series
Things I've Learned in Grad School Series
Blogs I Follow
Mass Spectrometry Blog
The Grad Student Way
Anthony's Science Blog
The Thesis Whisperer
Fossils and Shit
Science Communication Breakdown
Science Communication Media
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