Advice for new graduate students

[Edit: Someone I respect took the time to suggest that my tone was condescending in this post – and I can see some of it, upon a second reading.  Thus, I have edited the post for tone, and so that it expresses my opinion more accurately.]

I had a talk this morning with a graduate student that recently joined my lab, sparked by an email sent to me last night. One of many I had received from this student with a similar tone.

As one of the “senior” students in this group, I figured it was my responsibility to give the student some advice on communicating more effectively with colleagues.  The student has agreed to let me repost their email so that others could learn from it.  I’ve made a few changes, but for the most part, it’s reproduced as sent.

Hi Anthony,

Thanks for all your help.

My PhD project will definitely involve [discipline of science]. Therefore, I would like to read up as much as possible on it so that I can comfortably discuss and defend my work in the future.

I understand that your dissertation will heavily involve [discipline of science] as well. I am wondering whether you could send me the list of references you included in your dissertation that are relevant to [discipline of science].

I am been trying to cover some of the key papers, especially those describing [topic]. But there seems to be too many papers out there on [discipline of science]..

It would be great if you could help me by providing the reference list.


My reaction to the email was to be rather upset by it.  To comply with the request would require several days worth of work, interrupting other major projects with their own deadline.  The tone of the email did not acknowledge the disruption or the quantity of work necessary – or the amount of work that has gone into my work to date.  Admittedly, references aren’t a hardship to share, once they’re already organized.  Alas, mine aren’t.

I don’t expect everyone to be humble as an incoming graduate student anyways – I certainly wasn’t!  However, it is important to recognize the value of other people’s time and effort and to do your best to match their efforts.

  1. Requesting years worth of work from other people. Everyone in the lab has been working for years, devoting hours/days/weeks to building reference lists, figures, charts, code and other data that solve problems or tasks specific to their own topics of interest.  The goal of your PhD is for you to identify the problems involved in your project and then make your own inroads into solving them.  Where you have a common goal, offer to collaborate, such that you can contribute to the process.  Teamwork is important, and establishing yourself as part of any existing team should be done with respect for the effort that’s already been invested in the team’s project.
  2. Asking someone else to do work for you without repayment. I realize that graduate students aren’t among the most highly paid professionals.  In fact, we’re one of the most poorly compensated in terms of training/reward.  However, that doesn’t mean that grad student’s time is without value.  Every hour a student spends not working on their own project is an hour they they’ll have to postpone their own defense.  That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t ask, but that you should be focused in what you do ask, to respect that people have other tasks on their desks.
  3. Expecting another student to share your objectives.  We’re all in the same lab, but my goals are to make myself comfortable in discussing and defending my own thesis.  That is in essence the purpose of a defense.  If I were able to do that for myself, I’d have already defended and gone on to other things!  (-:  Graduate students should help each other out in preparing for their defenses, but ultimately, it is your responsibility to prepare yourself.  Furthermore, what helps prepare one student for their defense isn’t likely to be the same as what helps prepare another student, even if you are working on the same project.  By all means, work together in preparing, but don’t expect them to do your preparation for you.
  4. Learn to be your own fisherman. Everyone knows the proverb: “Give a man a fish and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish and you feed him for a lifetime.”  When asking for help from others, don’t ask for their fish – ask them to teach you to fish!  This applies doubly for grad students since your goal should be to learn new techniques – not to get others to work for you. (That’s a separate degree called an MBA.)  Instead of asking others for their work, ask them to teach you to replicate it with your own data.  You’ll probably even learn enough to contribute back or help another student along down the road.
  5. Make the same effort to solve your problem that you expect from the person you’ve asked.  It seems simple, but in over 15 years of helping people on the web, I’m constantly surprised by the number of times people will ask someone volunteering their time to do more work than they’ve put in themselves.  This should be one of those things everyone stops to ask themselves before getting help.  “Have I worked hard enough to solve this to merit asking someone else’s help?”  If the answer you want is a quick one word answer someone else should know off hand, then the bar is VERY low – perhaps a couple seconds searching on the web.  If you’re asking someone to take you through the whole process of designing a building, then you’d better have spent the time to read a few books on architecture and engineering.
  6. Be specific! When you’ve taken the time to ask a question – ask one that’s bite sized.  “Where’s a good place to look for advice on magnetization?” is vastly better than “Explain how physics works for me!”

All in all, this all boils down to respect.  Respect the people around you, respect their time and respect their objectives. If you do this, you’ll find your time in grad school is much more efficient and you’ll gain a lot more respect in return.

7 thoughts on “Advice for new graduate students

  1. Coming on the heels of the previous “why I have not graduated yet” post, this is telling.

    It’s one thing to intimidate a student out of the way (rather simple, actually, if you have the slightest clue what you are doing), but what you espouse here will poison you. So you’ve been working on the topic for a while, and some meatball comes along and asks you about the topic, and your reaction is “get bent”? What will you tell people when they ask what you spent X years of your life on in graduate school? “Get bent”?

    Do you think that you are going to cure cancer, or are you trying to make a little tiny dent in the vast universe of ignorance that surrounds humankind? And if you are after the latter, why not start off with the ignorant student that approached you?

    If you have lots of good ideas, some dolt stealing one of them won’t hurt you. If you don’t have lots of good ideas, how the hell will you survive on your own as a researcher?

    • Wow… talk about totally misunderstanding the point. I neither intimidated the student, nor told the student to “get bent”. I said I’d like to help them find the resources they need – and that it makes more sense to start with points of reference that will help them in their studies. I pointed the student to forums, and suggested they be more specific in the questions they ask.

      So, really, how do you read those two posts and come up with such a mean spirited interpretation?

    • Since you were kind enough to leave an email address, Mr fuckhead, I did some simple tracking to identify the origin of the post. Would you care to confirm your identity? If you are who I think you are, your knee-jerk comment aimed at me is wholly inappropriate for a faculty member – and your accusations that I intimidated a student are baseless speculations, which are again unbecoming for someone in your position.

      If your comment had been spiked with less (misdirected) venom, I’d have been more interested in engaging you in a discussion, but at this point, I’m more interested in seeing if you’re willing to attach your name to your post, instead of hiding in the shadows and intimidating me – a lowly graduate student.

  2. I think the comment “That’s a separate degree called an MBA” is pretty funny. I think the comment on helping the “ignorant student” is a good one, but I can also vouch for you, knowing that you do help ignorant students when asked appropriately. These guidelines are good ones for a student use when to asking questions. Here are further useful links:

    • Thanks DW,

      I know I can be gruff at times – particularly when operating on my own deadlines, but I do try.

      And, for the record, those ARE awesome links! Thanks for the laugh!

  3. Pingback: My lesson learned. |

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