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Graduate Life Realities

Welcome to graduate school. The pursuit of a graduate degree is an intellectual professional and personal growth experience requiring assertiveness, tenacity, patience and innovation. The job description is simple: to deepen your major discipline knowledge and strive to become a subject-matter expert (SME) in one of the sub-disciplines. The goal is also simple: graduate, e.g., successfully complete a series of specialized courses in your chosen area of interest in your major discipline, conduct affiliated research in this specialized area and showcase these research findings in a written document (and possibly orally as well). The path to the goal is, by no means, a straight road -- it is dictated by factors within and outside of your control such as your personality, your prior knowledge and expertise in your field, your research advisor, your research topic, and your graduate institution's degree program.

Graduate student status comes with it a few realities some graduate students don't realize until it's late in their graduate degree program.

  1. You are no longer a college student. Many graduate students act like college students who don't want to grow up. You are a grown up now, sorry. You and only you are responsible and accountable for successful completion of your graduate studies. Your research advisor can assist in guiding your research. The degree program's graduate coordinator can assist in navigating some of your graduate school's policies and operating procedures. Your graduate school and graduate degree program's websites are intended to outline major milestones. The quicker you switch that bit in your brain the more enjoyable this growth experience may be. What's your reasons and objectives in attending graduate school?

  2. Graduate school is not an extension of your undergraduate studies. Yes, this tip is a re-statement of the first tip, but it needs to be emphasized. College is about making you a well-rounded college-educated citizen in about 8 semesters. Graduate studies is about your SME training. This training can be as long or as short as allowable by your institution's degree program. For MS, it's 3-4 semesters, for PhD, it's 4-6 years (typically). You have this time to complete appropriate coursework, conduct novel research, summer intern and/or co-op within your research interest areas and secure full-time employment. The number of semesters/years is irrelevant since completing your graduate studies happens when (and only when) the predetermined milestones are accomplished successfully.

  3. You are not the only smart person in the room. The minimum cumulative GPA for most graduate degree program admissions is 3.0. In a small number of special cases, an applicant can be admitted with a lower GPA (2.8 - 3.0) under a probationary period, usually contingent upon the receiving a ‘B’ or better in the first semester in the graduate program. In many cases, the incoming graduate student GPA from their undergraduate studies is at least 3.2. So, great and good grades in graduate school is the expected norm. The graduate coursework is the easy part since you are most familiar with it.

  4. Take a research methods course ASAP. Research methods focuses on the how and why the empirical study and/or experimental evaluation should be done. The how and why are an open-ended process with no single right answer. This open-endedness can be very uncomfortable to many students, who may strive on structure. To some extend, you must throw structure out the window. You will discover that research requires several verification and validation approaches. Your research setup and implementation assumptions must be clearly defined. What are you trying to prove through these experiments and does your experimental design support your research hypothesis?

  5. Once is never enough. Many graduate students think that performing a task once, e.g., reading related literature, conduct an experiment, etc., is sufficient. Nope. For each scholarly article in a related literature review, you can expect to read/skim/review the paper at least three times to comprehend the contents and determine if or how it is related to your own research. Experiment testing requires a certain number of iterations based on common best practices in your sub-discipline to ensure statistical significance of your results.

  6. The learning curve is wide and deep. You have learned so much in a short amount of time. This immersive experience has exposed and broadened your understanding within your discipline. Your tendency will be to include all of your research activity into your final graduate research manuscript. You want to show how much work you have done to prove evidence of your worthiness to receive the graduate degree. However, every course topic, paper you read, experiment you design and implement or any other work product is not relevant to your MS Thesis and/or PhD Dissertation. Your final graduate research manuscript is not a record of your learning experience, it's a comprehensive synthesis of the research.

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