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If experience is the name we give to our mistakes, the best teachers must be the accident prone. Robert Peters is a good example, having spent eight years working towards a PhD in fish behaviour at Stanford. His defence was long after his research funding ran out, and while writing he was forced to find practical applications for his work. Unfortunately, as a waiter in a seafood restaurant most of his specimens were deceased.

Peter’s book, “Getting What You Came For,” was written for current and prospective graduate students. Having hit nearly every stumbling block on his way to graduation, Peters built up a rich store of advice, which he then augmented with interviews and the academic literature [1]. Much of his advice revolves around forward thinking and good planning, realizing your goals long in advance and setting milestones on your way to achieving them. True to this mindset, chapters 2-4 question the very decision to attend graduate school, asking the reader to make sure that the extra education is required for their career aspirations. While graduate students are (nominally) paid, there’s a large opportunity cost in terms of lost earning potential and time, and the degree is not equally useful in all circumstances. One of the most chilling sections of the book is a simple table, showing the median time required for students to receive their PhD. In brief, the median chemistry PhD student is registered for six years, and takes just under seven to defend (US) (Can) [2003, PDFs]. As most programs describe themselves as a four or five year endeavor, this can be a little eye opening [2, 3].

For those willing to accept the cost, Peters walks through each step of graduate school, from selecting the school and professor (more on this later last week), to quals, thesis topics and the defence (there is of course a strong focus on the American system). His advice is punctuated by anecdotes and case studies from other students, which leads to a sense of shared experience that’s lacking from a lot of other graduate school advice books. Anecdotes also lend a touch of authenticity to sections that are outside of Peters’s experience, such as the chapters on mature graduate students, women and minorities.

The forward thinking theme shifts easily to necessary organizational skills, including the importance of interacting well with the staff and faculty in the department. Good organization helps keep track of your references, data and scholarship applictions, and ensures that they are on hand when needed [3].  Soft skills are are core to many of the non-research aspects of the job. Regular positive interactions with your advisor and thesis committee can shave months off the final portion of your studies, and make graduate school more pleasant in general. If your committee is pleased they’re less likely to grill you into the ground during annual reviews and more likely to go out of their way to help you when your research hits a snag.

Looking back, much of what Getting What You Came For espouses is common sense.  It’s value lies in the thoroughness of it’s advice, and it’s ability to clearly explain a lot of the unwritten rules that students are expected to know and follow.  More than once it has helped me avoid mistakes which would have surely been obvious in retrospect.

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[1] Yes, graduate school can be a thesis topic for aspiring graduate students.

[2] My sympathy for anthropology students. Their median time to defence is just under twelve years, with 9.6 registered in the program.

[3] Kudos to Stanford, for accurately describing their program as six years in length.

[4] As usual, the sections on computers and the internet are a little dated. I would strongly recommend using an electronic reference manager instead of keeping physical copies. Zotero is one software that comes highly recommended, and most schools provide access to Refworks, Endnote, etc..

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