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Advice for New Grad Students (in Engineering)

I’ve been meaning to write a post like this for a while now, but I’ve struggled with how to start it. So I’m going to start with a simple disclaimer: what follows is my advice based solely on my own experience in graduate school thus far. Your mileage may vary, so take everything I say with a grain of salt, and please comment below if you agree/disagree with anything I have to say.

And with that, I offer the following advice to new graduate students (specifically for those entering graduate school for engineering, but also for all students in general)…

Know What You Want To Do

It’s no secret that graduate studies take a while: 2 – 3 years for an M.S. and 3 – 6 years for a Ph.D. So you’re doing yourself a disservice if you show up for your first year and don’t have even a semblance of a clue as to what you want to do. I’m not saying you need to know the exact direction of your thesis or dissertation on Day 1 of your graduate studies — it’s going to be a negotiation between you and your advisor in the end. But it’s not in your best interest to decide to attend graduate school and then figure out what you want to study.

Find a Hands-On Advisor

There are many types of advisors, and no one type of advisor is right for every student. If you’re a traditional, full-time graduate student, however, I highly recommend that you try to find a “hands-on” advisor. By that, I mean find yourself an advisor who:

  • …actually knows the field and continues to practice it. When you run into roadblocks — and you will — it’s immensely helpful to have a mentor whom you can turn to for technical advice. Furthermore, an advisor who can’t practice what they preach will lead to trouble down the road when it comes time to submit publications and review your thesis/dissertation.
  • …actively publishes in the field. Check your potential advisor’s publication history, and their student-to-publication ratio. A brilliant advisor who has trouble publishing at all, or who only publishes once or twice a year despite having six or seven students, won’t bode well for your own publication count.
  • …wants and/or requires regular research meetings. There’s nothing worse than spending six weeks working on something, only to meet with your advisor and discover that they disagree with your approach. Or, conversely, to spend six weeks struggling with a problem, only to discover that your advisor could have pointed you in the right direction from the beginning.

Know Your Graduate Coordinator

Depending on your department’s structure, there may be a single graduate coordinator (also known as a graduate program director), multiple graduate advisors, or some combination of the two. Note that I don’t mean your research advisor here — I’m referring to an individual (or individuals) who know the administrative-side of your degree. Figure out who this is in your department and become fast friends with them. When it comes time to start submitting paperwork, they’ll be your greatest ally in sorting through all of the bureaucratic minutiae.

Keep a Research Journal

Pop quiz: what did you wear on this day, exactly 365 days ago? I’ll wager a student loan payment or two that you don’t know (’cause I sure don’t). Luckily for both of us, those details don’t matter. What does matter, however, is what you were doing in the lab way back then. And for that, there’s no substitute like a good research journal.

A research journal can take many forms: a mass of Google Docs, a giant Microsoft Word file, a meticulously-kept Evernote drive, or even just a good old-fashioned Moleskine notebook. Whatever format you choose, make sure that you:

  1. Date EVERYTHING. Especially if your journal is spread across multiple files, this will help you keep track of everything. And when your advisor asks what you’ve been doing for the past two weeks, it makes it significantly easier to form a coherent answer.
  2. Make it PERMANENT. A research journal should list everything you’ve done — even the bad ideas, if for no other reason than so you don’t try them again. It’s best if you can’t delete anything from your research journal — at most, cross it out and keep writing. For analog mediums (e.g., paper notebooks), that means using a pen (splurge, make it a nice one). For digital mediums, that’s a bit trickier to pull off; I recommend a combination of frequent backups and, if practical, some form of version control software.

Use a Reference Manager

Hand-formatting citations is for losers.

Period.

I mean that, as harsh as it sounds. Assuming you have access to a computer, you have absolutely zero excuse as a graduate student not to be using a reference manager. I recommend Zotero — it’s free and open source — but EndNote, Mendeley, or some other similar software works just fine.

Need a better reason? They can auto-generate your bibliographies. Many of them can pull citations directly from database websites — it literally only requires a click of a button. And more than a few of them allow you to sync your paper libraries across multiple machines.

So save yourself the time and energy, and download a reference manger TODAY.

Ask Other Students for Recommendations

Especially when it comes time to register for classes, but also when you’re:

  • Looking for an advisor;
  • Determining which sub-fields you should investigate;
  • Searching for housing;
  • Wondering where to find the best food and drink;
  • And so on…

…ask your fellow graduate students. They’ve been there before, they’ve lived the experience, and they can give you insights that no faculty member or graduate coordinator can provide.

Take Care of Your Body and Soul: Remember to Smile

The simple truth is that graduate school can be mind-numbing, soul-crushing, and body-draining. Your intellect will be tested in ways you can’t begin to imagine, and there may come a time when caffeine no longer has an effect. So remember to take care of yourself, both physically and mentally:

  • Maintain (or pick up) a new exercise hobby. For me, it was discovering group exercise classes. For some of my friends, it was yoga; for others, it was distance running. The science is undeniable: physical activity improves your brain’s functionality. So whatever you prefer, find a way to get yourself out of the lab and off the couch — you’ll feel better for it, I promise.
  • Try to maintain a(n at least somewhat) healthy diet. My first year of graduate school, I gained nearly 30 pounds eating a steady diet of pizza and 7-Eleven taquitos. It left me physically exhausted and mentally depressed, which eventually began to affect my graduate studies. Even today, I struggle to keep a healthy diet, and I definitely eat more pizza than I should, but I try to balance it with fruits and veggies — and it shows, both in my waistline and in my improved mental capacity.
  • Seek help when you need it. Graduate students are six times more likely to experience anxiety and depression compared with the general population. And if you haven’t heard of imposter syndrome, read up on it now to try and stave it off. Above all else, please, please, please, seek help if at any point you notice yourself feeling down and out — almost every university in the United States has some form of counseling services available to students. It’s a sign of strength to be able to ask for help if and when you need it — so don’t hesitate for fear of looking weak or inept.

My last piece of advice: remember to find something to smile about every day, no matter how small. You’re going to do amazing — I know it, your parents know it, and you know it too, whether or not you think you do. Best of luck, and welcome to grad school!

Published inGRAD 5104

2 Comments

  1. Subil Subil

    This page is now bookmarked, for all the advice but especially that last paragraph. I appreciate the words, Anthony!

  2. Tawni Paradise Tawni Paradise

    I absolutely agree with the above comment from Subil! This is extremely valuable and some of this advice I could have used about a year ago (reference managers have become my best friend).

    Thanks for taking the time to provide insightful and complete advice here. I am soon going to look up who my graduate coordinator is….

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