Wednesday, December 26, 2018

7 Rules of the Grad School Game

 5 minute read

In a dinner after a conference last spring in Chicago, several graduate students asked me if I had any advice about success in graduate school. I kept thinking of this question, mostly during my evening runs,  and I decided to compile my thoughts into a set of rules. I did not include things such as exercising, having a schedule, waking up at the same time etc, mostly because they are common knowledge and I have never been good at them anyway. I picked the rules system because (1) this seems to be the trend nowadays and (2) rules are easy to remember. 

1. Go to the cocktail party.  In academia, information is the valued currency. A solid advice can save you months of unnecessary hustle. Students will speak about advisor habits, research, classes etc. Staff will tell you which rules of the institution are strictly enforced and which can be casually broken. Professors will speak about general research trends, their students, lab equipment that you could possibly use. Not only that, but by clearly articulating your research, your goals, your hurdles, things that you are stuck, you bring structure to thoughts and encourage others to do the same. Be social and go to the party. 

2. Choose the right game. You joined a new lab, working on a direction that your advisor has little experience. You are asked to publish a high-quality paper in a year, competing in a domain where hundreds of senior researchers in large research institutions have been working in large teams for years. This is a game that you are -- more often than not -- not going to win. A game that you cannot win is rigged. Do not play a rigged game. Instead, design a new one: bring insights from different fields; find external collaborators; identify a niche that is less explored. Choose a game that is challenging but that you are likely to win. 

3. Make a good first impression. A student that excelled in the first term but had bad performance in the second probably overextended by trying too hard. A student that had bad performance in the first term is a mediocre student who may improve -- if lucky enough to be given the chance. First impression defines the initial expectations, and expectations are not easy to change. Apply maximum effort in your first research project, your first review, your first submitted paper. Make a great first impression. 

4. Be precise. Research is hard, and if you are pushing yourself, you will inevitably feel at some point overwhelmed. Things will break -- especially if you work on robots and you are running a demo and your advisor is nearby -- and progress may seem like climbing a shadowy mountain. To be prepared for this time, be precise about everything. What you want to achieve, how to formulate the problem, what method you use, when and how it breaks. Precision imposes boundaries and form to the undefined. The shadowy mountain will start having a concrete shape, and it may even reveal paths that you can hike. Be precise. 

5. Run the extra mile. Once things start working, research can actually be incredibly rewarding and fun -- for the most part. The last 20% of the effort in any project is usually the hardest and most tedious part. Arnold Schwarzenegger said that the last three reps are what makes the muscle grow. It is then that you get a deep understanding of the topic.  It is also what makes a good paper into a great paper. And a great paper is orders of magnitude more valuable than a good paper. Rerun the statistical tests. Check for patterns in the data. Refine the figures. Don't be like everyone else. Run the extra mile. 

6. Be aware of a distorted lens. Every scientific method has strengths and weaknesses. These are typically identified in an objective manner, by comparing to existing work, to an ideal baseline or to a well-defined goal. Focus, on the other hand, can be much more subjective and biased: a reviewer or an audience member can choose to disregard weaknesses and emphasize strengths, or vice versa. Every time you receive feedback that appears overly critical, ask yourself and others whether it is an objective assessment of the work or a result of shifted focus. Embrace and learn from all feedback, positive and negative, and adapt your work and your viewpoint.  But be unaffected from criticism through a distorted lens. 

7.  Smile.  As a first-year graduate student, with little research experience and published track record, you are at the bottom of the academic pyramid. But you have youthful energy and excitement that is scarce in an environment where people can be easily stressed and overworked. Maximize that. Be the source of radiant energy, the person who is optimistic when things break, relaxed when everyone else is on edge and who is cracking jokes at 2am. Make your advisor happy to have meetings with you. Be polite and kind to everyone, including other students, administrative stuff, cleaners. You need them more than they need you, and by being pleasant to be around, you encourage everyone else to do the same. Have fun. Smile. 

This post is inspired by past discussions with Siddhartha Srinivasa, David Hsu, Julie Shah, Seth Cooper, and many others that I cannot remember. 

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