Graduate School Survival Guide

Getting the most out of the relationship with your research advisor or boss:

Meet regularly - you should insist on meeting once a week or at least every other week because it gives you motivation to make regular progress and it keeps your advisor aware of your work.

Prepare for your meetings - come to each meeting with:

  • List of topics to discuss
  • Plan for what you hope to get out of the meeting
  • Summary of you have done since your last meeting
  • List of any upcoming deadlines
  • Notes from your previous meeting

Email him/her a brief summary of EVERY meeting - this helps avoid misunderstandings and provides a great record of your research progress. Include (where applicable):

  • Time and plan for next meeting
  • New summary of what you think you are doing
  • To do list for yourself
  • To do list for your advisor
  • List of related work to read
  • List of major topics discussed
  • List of what you agreed on
  • List of advice that you may not follow

Show your advisor the results of your work as soon as possible - this will help your advisor understand your research and identify potential points of conflict early in the process.

  • Summaries of related work
  • Anything you write about your research
  • Experimental results
  • Communicate clearly - if you disagree with your advisor, state your objections or concerns clearly and calmly. If you feel something about your relationship is not working well, discuss it with him or her. Whenever possible, suggest steps they could take to address your concerns.
  • Take the initiative - you do not need to clear every activity with your advisor. He/she has a lot of work to do too. You must be responsible for your own research ideas and progress.

Getting the most out of what you read:

  • Be organized
  • Keep an electronic bibliography with notes & pointers to the paper files
  • Keep and file all the papers you have read or skimmed
  • Be efficient - only read what you need to
  • Start by reading only the conclusion, scanning figures & tables, and looking at their references
  • Read the other sections only if the paper seems relevant or you think it may help you get a different perspective
  • Skip the sections that you already understand (often the background and motivation sections)
  • Take notes on every paper you find worth reading
  • What problem are they trying to solve?
  • What is their approach?
  • How is it different from other approaches?
  • Summarize what you have read on each topic - after you have read several papers covering some topic, note the:
    • key problems
    • various formulations of the problem they are addressing
    • relationship among the various approaches
    • alternative approaches
  • Read PhD theses - even though they are long they can be very helpful in quickly learning about what has been done is some field.

Especially focus on:

  • Background sections
  • Method sections
  • Your advisorís thesis - this will give you an idea for what he/she expects from you.
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