Friday, June 15, 2007

Advice to Graduate Students

A student of my former PhD advisor (previously at Georgia Tech, now at Duke) recently contacted me and asked if I had any advice or anything that I would have done differently as a graduate student. Now, it's been over 10 years since I received my PhD (feeling old here), so a lot has been lost to the sands of time. However, I did come up with the following tidbits. Good luck.

  1. At some point, most (or at least most successful) grad students start to consider their research as a job, not an extension of college. This happens later for some than for others. I worked with grad students who, 5 years into the plan, still hadn't made the transition. They were still coming in late, taking months off in the summer, pulling all-nighters just before reports were due. And after 5 years they weren't even close to having a thesis. The most successful researchers moved quickly out of this mode and into "job" mode: work 8-10 hour days consistently, avoid distractions into too many other projects that don't relate to your own, set goals and work to them, etc.
  2. Learn about the industry. If you want to be in research forever (I didn't), read the trade journals, go to the conferences, meet the leaders in the field. If you want to move into the industry, learn about what's going on. For example, I was working with what I considered high-speed transmission (155Mbps). That corresponds to an OC-3 in the telecommunications industry, so we called it "OC-3 speed". When I got ready to interview for a telecommunications job, a colleague sent me information on OC-3, OC-12, OC-48, and OC-192 plus the SONET framing involved. It was like reading Chinese - I had no point of reference. I should have been reading up on this industry stuff earlier in the process.
  3. Cultivate relationships inside and outside of your program. By the time you get out, your relationship with your advisor will probably be contentious. You've become a valuable resource and your advisor doesn't want to lose you, you started out as the neophyte and are leaving as the expert in your particular area, etc. Don't expect your advisor to find you a job. Go to conferences (if you can afford them). Communicate with others in the field. Keep in touch with graduates. Sign up for on-line programs like LinkedIn. You never know which connection will be the one that leads to a career. In my case, a former student introduced me to his manager at Fujitsu Network Communications and the rest is history.

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