Things I Would Do Differently If I Started Grad School Over, Part I

The things I’m recommending are habits to form and things to try to learn or accomplish in your first 6 months to a year in graduate school.  Typically, newer students have less research load and less additional duties (if you are a Research Assistant), and so have more time to learn things that will help you save time and excel later.

The first set of recommendations can apply to basically any student pursuing a graduate degree in any subject, assuming that you need to do research and write papers for conference or journal publication.

  1. Prepare a survey paperThis is super helpful on so many levels.  First, it helps you practice finding relevant sources–discovering online databases, using the university library, and following the tree of citations in order to find all the important literature surrounding a particular subject.  Second, it provides the opportunity to start building a personal database of literature that is relevant to the research you are doing, which will be immensely valuable when you write journal papers or theses.  Third, your knowledge of your field expands far beyond what you will get from your coursework, and you’ll be able to start recognizing where the gaps in the literature exist, providing opportunities for thesis work.  Fourth, you’ll start to recognize what good papers look like compared to bad papers.  And finally, the act of writing a survey paper will give valuable practice in technical writing.
  2. Learn how to use LaTeX, BiBTeX, and a reference manager (such as Mendeley). LaTeX is typically used  only by technical disciplines, with good reason–no other “word processor” produces greater quality equations.  However, there is much to be gained even by graduate students in the liberal arts.  LaTeX really isn’t a word processor; it’s a typesetting language, which automates much of the details of paper writing allowing you to focus on content.  BiBTeX is a companion software that allows you to keep a single text file with all of your references in it (see #1!), which LaTeX will automatically format for you, no matter what citation and bibliography style you are required to use.  The learning curve is much greater than, say, MS Word, but it will pay off in the professional-looking papers it will allow you to produce.  A reference manager, such as Mendeley, can automate the process even more by using the internet to find missing bibliographic data, allows you to make notes and annotations on papers, has mobile apps to access your papers, and automatically produces the .bib file required by BiBTeX.  Maybe most helpful for graduate students is that all these tools are available absolutely free.  (The best place for Windows users to go is here.)
  3. Take an academic writing course, particularly if you’ve taken a break since completing your bachelor’s degree. At Georgia Tech, the course is CETL 8721.  If you spent significant time away from school, as I did, you’ll want to get yourself back in the academic mode of writing.  Moreover, they will teach you a few things that will help you tailor your research for publication BEFORE you’re facing a submission deadline.
  4. Start a discipline of daily writing. Writing a blog–about anything really, but ideally about your research field–and posting 3-5 times a week will help you keep the creative juices flowing.  There are so many options to be able to do this for free these days; WordPress and Blogger are the big ones.  Better yet, learn how to set up your own website using the WordPress software on a server at your university or from a commercial webhost such as Dreamhost. This will help you keep flow when you finally sit down to write your thesis.
  5. [EDIT 3/26:] Get in the academic paper-reading habit. Most graduate students get in the bad habit of only searching literature at the last minute when they have a paper due, often AFTER their own research is done.  This is bad, terrible, and also not good.  Instead, figure out what journals or sets of journals your research will go into, and subscribe to their “Alerts” mailing list.  For example, I subscribe to all of the AIAA journals, the Journal of the American Helicopter Society, and most of the IEEE journals dealing with control, aerospace, or robotics. Assuming your school has access to the journal’s database, you’ll get an email every time a new issue comes out; skim the titles ones that sound interesting or useful, scan those articles to see what’s really useful, read what’s left in depth, and save articles that you might cite in future publications in your Mendeley database.
  6. [EDIT 4/24:] Go to your university library and attend one of their orientation presentations. Every time I go into our library I find out too late about some service they offer which I could really have used.  For example, while our library has access to many publication databases, some of the things I’ve tried to access are hardcopy only.  I just found out this morning that the library staff will somehow find and create an electronic copy of these materials if you request it.  Wow.
  7. [EDIT 5/21/2015:] Review a journal paper or a refereed conference paper in your area of expertise. There’s nothing that can prepare you for writing a good academic paper quite like tearing up somebody else’s. Seeing things from the point of view of the reviewer can help you address problems in your papers before you ever submit.  You may need to ask your advisor to allow you to help on one he’s reviewing.

That’s it for today.  In my next post, I’ll be talking about some things that are a bit more tailored for technical disciplines, but might still be useful for those in softer sciences which perform quantitative analysis.


“Piled Higher and Deeper” by Jorge Cham

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