Untold code of successful grad school


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Untold code of successful grad school

Tomas Zvolensky, 15 December 2020

Navigating the path to a Ph.D. degree has many caveats. The wealth of instruction and personal accounts is but a google away, at least regarding the technicalities you need to complete on the journey - choose the right school, advisor, the courses you need to take to qualify, etc. The struggles on the way to the diploma can be manifold. In this blog, you will learn to:

  • Choose and change the advisor with no regrets 
  • Create great life-long connections with your advisor and colleagues
  • What to consider a successful outcome of a Ph.D.

The seriousness of making choices 

The advisor is the alpha and omega of your early academic journey, right? Maybe, maybe not. Depends on your personality. The key point is to know yourself - what kind of leadership fits you to further your development. Looking back at your undergraduate times, think of all the teachers that taught the courses you took. You will remember clearly the teachers that inspired you to aspire, to achieve, to learn or those who were great at teaching. Those in general are the right potential advisors for your doctoral studies. But if you enjoy having a firm and strict hand over you, then the supervisor should have those qualities to push you further. 

If you intend to apply for graduate schools outside your alma mater, it gets harder. Most likely you do not know your prospective supervisors personally, only from what you can gather online. I have been in this situation when applying for grad school in Finland, where I managed to get to. You most likely do not even know anyone working with them well enough so they would give you an honest account of their personality. Here, the project you are applying for should be your main deciding factor. If the topic of the project is what you are interested in beyond the worry about the potential flaws the supervisor might have, you should go for it. 

Yes, you do risk that your PI will not be the right leader for you. This is where one should always be willing and ready to change. The PI is taking a similar risk if you think about it - they never met you either. All they see is your CV, education, and wannabe motivation letter. Humans naturally need and enjoy stability. Changing a supervisor is going against our deep-rooted desire for stability but especially in cases like this one should develop sensitive antennas to know when is the time to make the move. This is your life and there is nothing wrong with realizing one needs to change. We all make mistakes, so there is no need to stick with a difficult PI. It is okay for the program itself to be difficult, but not the teacher-student relationship. The change does not necessarily need to be accompanied by negative feelings. The transition can be done upon mutual agreement as long as the PI is a reasonable person.

An important part of the change is to find the other supervisor you would be happy working with and making sure he/she is open to the idea as well. You do not want to find yourself in limbo. This can lead to unintended consequences like lapses in your research, to say the least.

Take the university and the department you are in like a pool of wisdom and collective to tap into. If you find that person that fits what you want to do and click with them, get to know them, and keep the fire burning.

Researcher - a social animal

Despite nowadays the idea of a self-made man is popular across all walks of life, we all are very much co-dependent. Especially in academia, politics can play a huge role in your advancement or funding acquisition. The more prestigious university, the more this applies. Even in the institutions of the noblest pursuits, the basic human factors never fail to function. For better or worse, jealousy, anger, competition, etc. is all the same in universities as anywhere else. Sometimes in very funny ways, since academics can be somewhat more prone to immaturity. 

Understanding and internalizing this can be great protection against taking things that might happen down the Ph.D. path too seriously. We all know it is great to have trusted friends, so double down on it during grad school. These connections can last you a lifetime and might be invaluable help on your academic path. On the other hand, you are not a pizza - you can not make everyone happy. So relax when those few difficult characters remain hostile it is a simple fact of life and it is okay. 

Find your people, stick to them, and maintain as cordial a relationship with the rest as possible. If you happen to have to work closely with academics who are difficult to work with, try to focus on the work to be done. A singular focus will get you through the obnoxiousness and keep yourself out of their trip whatever it may be. It is hard to do, but you can do it if you focus on it.

Overlooked essentials for researchers

Getting the diploma is nothing but a confirmation you fulfilled the criteria to get it. Becoming a researcher goes well beyond ‘just’ that. No, I am not trying to belittle the effort that goes into you being legally entitled to put those three letters after your name. 

Besides all the hard skills you need to master and excel at, there are several very important components to prepare yourself for a life long journey into the tierra oscura of the scientific world. Assuming that you found the passion in your research topic, keep being humble. 

“Maintain humbleness, even if you are the foremost expert in your field.”

You might become the prime expert in your field of research and be on the cutting edge of the knowledge, cited by everyone… but only as long as you keep being humble, you can keep on moving forward. Pride, so common among the elite of any kind, is a sign of decline or at least stagnation. Do not fall into the trap of thinking or behaving like you know it all or are superior to others. Be ready to listen - a feat of great leaders. If you should be a great research group leader, you need to listen well. 

You do not want to be the guy everyone has to work with but nobody enjoys the process. While it might seem harmless, in the long run, it will cause you harm in the form of difficulty to find collaborations, frequent rotation of collaborators and students, and eventually a lonely work life. 

Being humble is a stepping stone towards becoming a great teacher. Even if you have no teaching ambition, one way or another you end up teaching anyway. Maybe not in the formal sense - teaching and leading courses, but the people you work with closely will need your guidance at times. What makes one a great teacher? Balanced focus on helping others understand. Balanced, because you should avoid two extremes.

First, being overly kind and always willing to help is sentimental. It is an art in itself to be able to see how much support is enough and with practice, you will improve. The people you guide need your patience, kindness, and knowledge. But you need to develop the skill to recognize when is the time to let or make them do their own thing.

Second, being a technocrat with little to no human warmth is not a sustainable teaching style either. As trivial as the things you try to convey might seem to you, be compassionate and take the time and effort to explain things so that the recipient understands. Understand that in the long run, all that matters is that we help each other thrive and move forward. No one enjoys feeling belittled and it does not benefit anyone, the giver, neither the recipient.

Third, bringing the previous two points together is communication. Researchers are masters of delivering their knowledge to the world, but less often of clear interpersonal communication. It makes sense and there is nothing wrong with it. After all, we train all life to perfect our craft of science. Yet, communicating our ideas and opinions clearly to others goes a long way and should absolutely be our goal to develop. 

It is a skill as well, do not shy away from it. You need to be able to say what you mean in ways that others can refer to and take in well. This takes personal maturity as well, but tons of material on communication can be found online. People are similar on the basic human level and tend to react similarly to certain impulses and communication styles. Learn about these, internalize, and use them as if your professional life depended on it! Because in fact, it does!

#GradSchool #ECRchat, #research, #AcademicLife, #AmWriting, #AmReading, #PhDchat, #MakePublishingGreatAgain #Frelsi

Photo courtesy: NASA


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