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General Resource : Resources for Graduate Schools >> 4. Graduate School Survival Guide

  • A computer science graduate school survival guide
  • Submitted by Joe Wilson on 2009-12-22
  • Brief description

    A computer science graduate school survival guide, intended for prospective or novice graduate students. This guide describes what I wish I had known at the start of graduate school but had to learn the hard way instead. It focuses on mental toughness and the skills a graduate student needs. The guide also discusses finding a job after completing the Ph.D. and points to many other related web pages.



      "To know the road ahead, ask those coming back."
      - Chinese proverb

      In February 1995, on a beautiful sunny day with clear Carolina blue skies, I turned in the final, signed copy of my dissertation. The graduate school staff member did some last-minute checks on the document and pronounced it acceptable. After six and a half years of toil and sweat, I was finally done! While walking back to the C.S. department building, I was sorely disappointed that the heavens didn't part, with trumpet-playing angels descending to announce this monumental occasion. Upon hearing this observation, Dr. Fred Brooks (one of my committee members) commented, "And the sad fact is, you're no smarter today than you were yesterday." "That's true," I replied, "but the important thing is that I am smarter than I was six and a half years ago."

      That day was over two years ago, and since then I have had plenty of time to reflect upon my graduate student career. One thought that has repeatedly struck me is how much easier graduate school might have been if somehow, magically, some of the things I knew when I turned in my dissertation I could have known when I first entered graduate school. Instead, I had to learn those the hard way. Of course, for many topics this is impossible: the point of graduate school is to learn those by going through the experience. However, I believe other lessons can be taught ahead of time. Unfortunately, such guidance is rarely offered. While I had to learn everything the hard way, new graduate students might benefit from my experiences and what I learned. That is the purpose of this guide.

      Very little of this guide discusses technical matters. Technical skills, intelligence and creativity are certainly strong factors for success in graduate school. For example, I doubt there is a C.S. graduate student who didn't at one point wish he or she had a stronger mathematical background. However, it's beyond the scope of this guide to tell you how to be technically brilliant, as the following joke implies:

        The Feynman Problem Solving Algorithm:
        1) Write down the problem.
        2) Think very hard.
        3) Write down the solution.

      You don't have to be a genius to do well in graduate school. You must be reasonably intelligent, but after a certain point, I think other traits become more important in determining success.

      This guide covers the character traits and social skills that often separate the "star" graduate students from the ordinary ones. Who are the students who are self-motivated, take initiative, find ways around obstacles, communicate well both orally and in writing, and get along well enough with their committee and other department members to marshal resources to their cause? Which students seem to know "how the system works" and manage to get things done? These traits are hardly unique to succeeding in graduate school; they are the same ones vital to success in academic or industrial careers, which is probably why many of the best graduate students that I knew were ones who had spent some time working before they came back to school.

      This document is aimed at junior C.S. graduate students, but these observations are probably broad enough to apply to graduate education in other technical fields. My conclusions are certainly colored by my particular experiences (doing my dissertation work in interactive computer graphics in the Computer Science department of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill) but I think they are fairly general in application and should be of interest to readers at other schools and other C.S. specialties. Obviously, these are only my opinions and may not represent the views of other sane individuals or organizations. Some points may be controversial, but if they weren't this would not be interesting reading. Parts of this document come from two informal talks I gave at UNC about "the Ph.D. job hunt" and "observations from spending one year in industrial research." Both talks had larger audiences than any informal technical talk I gave at UNC, which told me that students are definitely interested in these subjects!


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