Reasonable expectations in graduate studies

Doing your best to be successful

Prof. James Friend

Here’s some practical advice and thoughts on what works in graduate school towards completion of a PhD, with—hopefully—a healthy dose of humor.

We seek to answer the questions "what is expected of you, what can you do about specific problems you have in being successful, and what can you expect from others around you here?” Contact me if you’ve questions or thoughts. The topics include how to manage your time, how to effectively engage with others and especially your supervisor(s), how to get along in diverse groups, and what matters most.

Our aim for this page is to help you get the most from your time at UC San Diego, and to find a way to deliver on the best of your abilities.

What matters?

What matters most in the graduate degree?

Research: communication, learning, pursuit of novel directions in generating new knowledge, to work with integrity. To remember: “If we knew what we were doing, it wouldn’t be research.” — (unknown; actually not Einstein)

Teaching and training: to learn how to teach and train, both in class and outside the classroom environment, to handle a diverse range of students—in terms of their goals, backgrounds, and requisite knowledge, from high schoolers to faculty members.

Community: to develop a network of professional relationships, contribute through journal and conference publications, to help build a collegial and collaborative environment in your own research group through supporting the work of your fellow students, to behave ethically and responsibly, and to work in accommodating the rules and regulations of the organization.

From Stuart Firestein: Ignorance: How It Drives Science. Oxford University Press, 2012 

Fundamentally: science produces ignorance and vice-versa.

Good questions to ask:
- Do you think things are unknowable in your field? What?
- What are the current technological limits in your work? Can you see solutions?
- Where are you currently stuck?
- How do you talk about what you don’t know?
- What was the main thrust of your last proposal or plan? Your next one?
- What would you like to work on knowing but can’t? What are the limitations, money, people, power?
- Are there data from other labs that disagree with yours?
- How often do you guess?
- How often are you surprised?
- Do things come undone after you finish them?
- What questions are you generating?
- What ignorance are you exposing?

Expectations for the PhDKey questions for a researcherThe importance of stupidity in researchWhat represents a good question?Discoverer of GFP drives for ToyotaIs the graduate degree really for you? What should you be doing?

Time management

How to avoid wasting your time

Most people are terrible at managing their time. Research makes things worse, because the method, goals, and approach all are poorly defined. 

This can lead to a significant waste in the student’s time, because they’re unaware of or unable to focus on the things that most likely will lead to completion of the degree.

There is plenty of time to get the things that matter done. There is never enough time to get everything done. Choose wisely.

The Pomodoro method (Cirillo)Basic principles of efficacy (from Robert Boice)Alex Vermeer: 8760 Hours: How to get the most out of next yearRobert Boice: Professors as Writers (overcoming problems in writing)

Working with your supervisor (PI)

Learning to communicate and work in a difficult environment

Because most researchers are overcommitted by necessity and very busy as a consequence, and because many researchers are inherently poor communicators, there are ample opportunities for misunderstanding. PIs have a lot of responsibilities that students generally aren’t aware of = time panic. Students have a life that PIs aren’t aware of = suffering in silence. The work becomes personal, and the pressure increases the stakes to the point that disagreements and confusion are all too common. 

An approach to overcome these issues is to learn to communicate well and often: try defining your goals and interactions as S.M.A.R.T. and transactional. As a student, those around you may not be able to do this; it’s up to you to decide if you can make up for their failings and still succeed if you want to complete the degree.

Transactional interactions between people implies an approach like relationship banking: If you ask for help on a problem, offer a potential solution = withdrawal + deposit = $0. If you keep needing, you will have no “money left in the bank” and those around you will be less willing to lend a hand. Regardless, your supervisor can only help guide you, not solve your problems: fortunately and unfortunately, no one knows the problems in your research like you.

Whatever happens, remember that everyone is human and are prone to the most human of behaviors: making mistakes. Try to bring the following to the conversation: (1) Integrity and honesty, (2) A willingness to not take it personally — you’re learning, (3) Respect: time and focus are finite resources, (4) A willingness to lead and learn independence, (5) A positive attitude.

You should be able to expect from your supervisor (1) enthusiasm, (2) sensitivity, (3) respect, (4) unselfishness, (5) availability, and (6) skills in the art of asking questions and listening.

S.M.A.R.T goalsCommunicating well

Managing the stress

Things go wrong. What to do?

How to live a balanced life and put your research into perspective. Working too hard is a very real problem, and how do you judge it?

Find a routine that works for you. “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.” — Aristotle

Don’t compare yourself to others. Is this a competition? Yes. A sure way to lose is to compare yourself to others as you do your thing.  Besides: you compare yourself, good and bad, to what you perceive of others without the knowledge of their struggles and failures.

Adopt the Pareto Principle: 80 percent of your output is the product of 20 percent of your efforts. If you are able to identify which of these efforts make you more productive, you will be able to eliminate the unproductive behaviors and accomplish more in a fixed amount of time. 

Have a life. Working long hours is not productive, and is not a measure of personal quality nor an indicator of future success. Make the best of the hours you are working, and limit them. You can work 10-12 hour days 6 days a week. You cannot produce more than about 12 hours a week of productive results (scientifically proven). Would you rather spend it wasting time or recovering so that those 12 hours are truly the best you can offer? Further: you provably require more downtime than you think.

Express gratitude. Seriously, there are many ways things could be worse. And every one of us has things to be thankful for. It helps to take the time to be grateful for it all.

What would your best friend tell you? Then be that best friend to yourself.

Some basic ideas to helpStrategies for living a balanced lifeDealing with stress: an infographic