Tuesday, January 14, 2020

How to Be an Awesome First-Year Graduate Student (or a Very Advanced Undergrad)

Today my son David leaves for Oxford, where he'll spend Hilary and Trinity terms as an exchange student in psychology. He is in his third year as a Cognitive Science major at Vassar College, soaring toward grad school in cognitive science or psychology. He is already beginning to think like a graduate student. Here's some advice I offer him and others around the transition from undergraduate to graduate study:

(1.) Do fewer things better. I lead with this advice because it was a lesson I had to learn and relearn and that I still struggle with. In your classes, three A pluses are better than five As. It's better to have two professors who say you are the most impressive student they've seen in several years than to have four professors who say you are one of the three best students this year. It's better to have one project that approaches publishable quality than three projects that earn an ordinary A. Whether it's admission to top PhD programs, winning a grant, or winning a job, academia is generally about standing out for unusual excellence in one or two endeavors. Similarly for publishing research articles: No one is interested to hear what the world's 100th-best expert on X has to say about X. Find a topic narrow enough, and command it so thoroughly, that you can be among the world's five top experts on X. The earlier in your career you are, the narrower the X has to be for such expertise to be achievable. But even as an advanced undergrad or early grad student, it's not impossible to find interesting but very narrow X's. Find that X, then kill it.

(2.) Trust your sense of fun. (See my longer discussion of this here and in my recent book.) Some academic topics you'll find fun. They will call to you. You'll want to chase after them. Others will bore you. Now sometimes you have to do boring stuff, true. But if you devote yourself mostly to what's boring, you'll lose your passion, you'll procrastinate, and your eyes will glaze over while you're reading so that you only retain a small portion of it. There may be no short-term external reward for chasing down the fun stuff, but do it anyway. This is what keeps your candle lit. It's where you'll do your best learning. Eventually, what you learn by chasing fun will ignite an exciting project or give you a fresh angle on what would otherwise have been a bland project.

(3.) Ask for favors from those above you in the hierarchy. This can seem unintuitive, and it can feel difficult if you are charmingly shy and modest. Professors want to help excellent students, and they see it as part of their duty to do so. But it's easy for professors to be passive about it, especially given the number of demands on their time. So it pays to ask. Would they be willing to write you a letter of support? Would they be willing to read a draft? Would they be willing to meet with you? To introduce you to so-and-so? To let you chair or comment at some event? To let you pilot an empirical research project with some of their lab resources? Be ready for no (or for no reply). No one will be offended if you ask gently and politely. Ultimately, if you are assertive in this way, you will get much more support and assistance than if you wait for professors to reach out to you.

(4.) Think beyond the requirements. Don't only read what you are required to read. Don't only write on and research what you are required to write on and research. Actively go beyond the requirements. If you're taking a seminar and topic X is interesting, go seek out more things on topic X, read them, and then chat with the professor about them. If you come across fun issue Y (see 2, above), chase it down and read up on it. You might be surprised how rare it is for students, before they start researching for their dissertation (or maybe master's thesis), to independently pursue issues beyond what is assigned. This can be part of doing fewer things better (1 above). If, for example, you are taking only three classes, instead of five, you have the time to go beyond the assignments. If you then chat in an informed way with the professor (ask it as a favor: 3 above) about the six articles you just discovered and read about this particular sub-issue that provoked your interest (2 above), you will stand out as an unusually passionate and active student. And this research then might become the seed of future work.

(5.) A hoop is just a hoop. The exception to point 1 above is for hoops you don't care about, especially if they are with professors you don't plan to work with long term. Don't let the more annoying requirements bog you down. The important thing is clearing time to be excellent in the things you care about most.

(6.) Draw bright lines between work time and relaxation time. With a standard 8-to-5 job, you clock out and you're done. Then you can go home and hang out with friends and family, play games, go for a hike, whatever, and you needn't feel guilty about it. In academia, there are no such built-in bright lines between work time and relaxation time. One common result is that people in academia often have this nagging feeling, when they are relaxing, that they probably should be working instead, or that they should get back to working soon. And then when they're working, some part of them feels resentful that they haven't really had enough relaxation time, so they slip in relaxation time through various forms of procrastination and inefficiency. The result is a constant dissatisfied state of half-working, half-not-working. This is no good. Much better is to figure out how much you can realistically work or intend to work, then carve out the time. During the time for working, focus. Don't let yourself procrastinate and get distracted. And then when it's time to stop, stop. Although sometimes people regrettably end up in situations where they can't avoid overwork, unless you are in such a situation, remember that you deserve breaks and will profit from them. You will better enjoy and better profit from those breaks, however, if you first earn them.

Good luck in Oxford, David. I hope it's terrific!

[image source]


Nat Lamb said...

Nice use of art from the game Path of Exile, which is about as complex as most post graduate course material

Rachel Peña Roos said...

Vassar is on my daughter’s short list of colleges! I’ll forward this great advice to both of my kids and maybe reach out more next year to learn about David’s thoughts on Vassar. Hope you are well!

Muhammad Mazhar Ali said...

they way you opt to deliver the remedy to all of the Postgrad students is quite effective and Appreciable.

Eric Schwitzgebel said...

Thanks for the comments, folks!

Hi Rachel! It's been so long since we've seen each other in person. I'm sure David would be delighted to chat with your daughter about Vassar if and when your daughter is interested.

Esther said...

Thanks for this advice. I have learnt alot

Emily Nudge said...

I'm sharing with my people - all the people - thanks for sharing with us so we can do so.

Callan said...

Thanks as well, Eric, I'm heading towards uni and it's good to know some management methods that have been field tested already.