Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Five Targets for First Semester PhD Students

The new semester is about to start in a week. Many new PhD students may not have a good plan for the first semester. Below I'm putting together five targets for my students:

1. Figure out if this is the right PhD program

Before joining the program in person, there may be many important questions that a student does not have solid answers:
  • How does the mentorship look like?
  • Where did the recent graduates go?
  • What is the drop-out rate and why?
  • How approachable are the professors?
  • How flexible is the curriculum?
  • How quality are the courses?
  • How reliable is the financial support?
Getting a terminal degree is like marriage in a sense that very often people do not marry with the first love. There is always an option for a PhD student to quit the program. If one had a priori knowledge that the end result is to quit, s/he most likely wants to end this journey sooner rather than later. The best time to make the call is by the end of the first semester. If the decision is to leave, then the student still has a few months to prepare for the move, either applying for a different program or looking for an industry job. Therefore, the bottom line for a first semester PhD student is to figure out whether this is the right program to get the PhD.

2. A GPA of 4.0

The transcript is probably more important than what most students think. Most professors look at the transcript before deciding to take the student or not. Most program directors look at the transcript before making the admission decision. Most employers look at the transcript before hiring interns and full time employees. In principle, unless the person has impressed the hiring side via other channels, transcript is one of the few things to filter applicants.

A 4.0 GPA means that you are better than most of your peers based on the rules set up by all professors in all courses you take. It also means that you may have an easy time when asking some of these professors to be on your committee in the future.

Nevertheless, there is no need to feel discouraged if getting a B. I got a B in my first semester as a PhD student, primarily because I told the instructor that nobody in the classroom understood what he was talking about. I'm fine with getting a B from a slack professor.

3. Get the paid job well done

Most PhD students in engineering are financially supported through research or teaching assistantships. Many students take the assistantship as granted rather than a paid job. To better prepare for the future career, I think a student should take it seriously as an opportunity of being employed and get the job well done. It's better make mistakes and learn the lesson in a hard way in school than in the middle of the career.

A research assistant (RA) reports to the professor, who is usually the advisor of this student. The RA is supposed to conduct research under the supervision of this professor. A teaching assistant (TA) reports to the instructor, who may or may not be the advisor of this student. Since it is usually the student's advisor who indirectly funds part of the assistantship and recommends the student for the TA position, the TA needs to conduct research under the supervision of the advisor in addition to satisfying the instructor's needs.

In my case, I expect two things from my RA/TA by the end of the first semester: 1) Write a good weekly report; 2) Finish reading a book on my recommended reading list starting with Rob's FPP.

4. Make some friends

I consider it a failure if a PhD student only does research throughout the program. An important outcome from the PhD student life should be the ability to network and a solid network to start the career with. The first semester is the golden time for making friends. Try to meet and talk to people in the orientation, classes, seminars, gym or bar. Some of these people will be fun to hang out with. Maybe one can even find his/her Ms./Mr. Right when pursing the PhD.

I met my wife first in graduate school, which turned out to be a good thing for my PhD. The idea of my dissertation was originally from her. While we co-authored several papers, she had contributions more or less in virtually every paper I wrote on forecasting. I quit my first PhD program mainly because of her. Without her help, I would have not got my PhD in 20 months either.

5. Identify work-life balance

I don't like lazy people. And I respect those who work hard. It takes significant amount of time, at least 6000 hours of work beyond MS in my opinion, to go through the required courses and pass all the research milestones. If the student works effectively 2000 hours per year, then it takes 3 years of elapsed time to get a PhD. If the student works 80 hours per week effectively, then the elapsed time may be as short as 1.5 years. However, working on a crazy schedule such as 80 hours per week most likely means sacrificing something important in life, such as family time, health and friendship.

How to identify work-life balance is nontrivial. I recommend three steps: 1) take a good record of the time spent on the work related tasks, primarily courses and research; 2) find out a comfortable zone and stretch limit for the number of working hours per week; 3) learn to estimate the time spent on a given task and prioritize the work accordingly. I expect my student to be able to get the first two steps done in the first semester.

Overall, the PhD life is very dynamic. I believe "no pain, no gain". However, with a PhD in "the science of better", I believe there are solutions to maximize "gain minus pain". 

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