Transitioning from undergraduate to graduate school

By Dr. Sundar A. Christopher – profsac@gmail.com
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You have decided to go to graduate school and you have applied to several graduate programs around the nations and even attended some open house events so you can learn more about the department and the University. This is the Spring semester already and you are just a few weeks away from getting that hard-earned undergraduate degree. Well done, you are almost there.

Something that is not discussed ‘until’ you get to graduate school is making that mental transition/adjustment from UG to graduate school. You probably already know that you had to make some adjustments and a huge transition in your way of thinking when you went from high school to the UG University. This next step from UG to graduate school is even bigger in terms of an adjustment.

Here are a few things for you to keep in mind as you make this transition.

The experience. You must learn and accept the fact that graduate school training/teaching is very different from the UG experience. Your class sizes  are going to be much smaller. Depending upon the University that you will attend, some classes that you will take may have only as many as 5 students. Yes, you heard that right – 5 students. This means that you are going to get a lot more attention during the classes and guess what – you are expect to engage with your Professor during the lecture. That could be an alien concept if you either came from a UG experience that did not cultivate interaction or by very nature you are reticent. You have to move beyond that reticence and start engaging with your Professors.

Beyond the classroom. You are not going to like this part of my blog when I say that in graduate school not everything will be explained on a Powerpoint or on the board. Good Professors are not supposed to ‘over-teach‘ (or under-teach for that matter) any given lecture. They are supposed to provide the framework and provide some thinking/creative time for you to figure out the material ‘after’ the class is over. As a rule of thumb expect to spend at least 3 hours of thinking/research time for every hour of lecture in graduate school. This means that you need to be taking good notes. Not everything can be written on a PPT or on a board and the Professor is supposed to be bringing his/her experience (including research experience) to the classroom. Therefore take good notes. Good students not only rework lecture notes after the class is over but also prepare for the next lecture by reading up on text books or journal papers.

Journal papers. This is another huge transition that you have to make while going from UG to Graduate school. Not everything from a graduate course is going to be in text books. If all of the material from a graduate course comes exclusively from a text, then something is inherently wrong with that course. Graduate courses must bring leading edge research material to the class room which means that you should be assigned reading based on peer reviewed literature in your field. Some of these papers are ‘classic’ which means that you should be studying them like a text.

Solving problems for home work/assignments. Do not expect all of your assignments to be cookie cutter – easy to solve – at first attempt type of problems. It may take hours or in some cases a few days worth of work involving group discussions with your classmates.

Which brings me to the next important point : Working in teams. Solving problems in graduate school is exciting when you bounce off ideas with one another. I remember during my graduate school days certain problems took many hours to solve and we had some lively discussions. We did our own work and turned in individual assignments but we had some excellent discussions. This goes for problems involving computer work/coding as well. Group discussions are profitable but do your own work and research.

Managing time. I talk quite a bit about managing time in my book ‘Navigating Graduate School and Beyond – Wiley Press’ but I want to say a few words here to place this in context. Poor time management will lead to undue stress on you and your professors – let alone your advisers. Do not put them in a difficult spot by turning in assignments/projects late so they have to give you a ‘zero’ for your work. Learn how to come to class at least 5 minutes prior so you can settle down and focus. When an assignment is due it is downright embarrassing if you walk in 5 minutes late to class after everyone else has turned their work in – and then proceed to walk up to the front of the class to find a stapler or a clip to put together an assignment. Graduate school is the best place to flex your time management skills. Learn from your peers if necessary and come up with a method that clearly indicates to your Professors and your adviser that you are serious about being in graduate school.

Assignments/Projects. Strive to have a top quality paper. Typed, spell-checked, staple it (beforehand) and strive for professional quality to indicate that you are serious about graduate school. Trust me, sloppy work shows!

The complete you. Graduate school is an exciting time to learn, do research and earn a degree that will propel you to an exciting career. However you must realize that you strike a good balance between classes, research, and personal item. Again managing that all important time is the key. Learn best practices for alleviating stress. I’ve known students who jog, play tennis or work out diligently in fitness centers. You can get carried away by focusing on these elements as well. Graduate school is probably not the best time to become a professional body builder or a tennis professional – so keeping that in perspective will help. I often encourage students to keep an eye on eating a balanced meal and chugging lots of water. I encourage foreign students to NOT room with fellow countrymen so they can get over the language barriers. The bottom line is this : Make sure that you alleviate stress (yes, graduate school is not entirely stress free!) while keeping your goals in mind.

Here’s some home work for you : Read the Chapter – Casting a Vision from my book and write down your Strengths, Weakness, Opportunities, and Threats – a SWOT analysis.

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Research guidelines for student and adviser

By Dr. Sundar A. Christopher – profsac@gmail.com
Purchase Book through Wiley Press : Click here

The discipline that I work in places a heavy emphasis on research – for faculty and students alike. We select graduate students who have high GRE scores, good GPA’, take a careful look at their transcripts and letters of references and finally make sure that the students have a passion for research. Once we select these students we provide a graduate student assistantship – a handsome (!) stipend of about $20,000 per year and a free tuition package including health benefits. In turn students are expected to work alongside faculty and conduct leading edge research in topical areas of interest. This is an exciting opportunity for students to engage in research. Seasoned advisers who have managed students in the past and who have some experience know how to effectively train students in research. There are no hard and fast rules for training a student as long as the student and the adviser understand their relative roles and work towards solving the goals that are important.

Genesis of a GRA. Perhaps the most important thing for the student to understand is that the GRA or assistantship has definite deliverables. How so? It is important to understand the genesis of a GRA. In case you did not know how it works-  here are some basics. Even before you landed on the doorstep of your adviser’s office she has been doing some hard work to secure that GRA for you. That means that she conceived and developed an idea, wrote a proposal and indicated that if funded she wanted a graduate student to work alongside her and requested funds for that assistantship. These proposals are usually written to federal agencies which means that if the proposals are funded the adviser has to make sure that the proposed tasks in that proposal are completed. Given this backdrop, I hope that you as a student understand that you cannot treat your GRA like a scholarship of some sort. You now belong to a team (even if it is a 2 person team – you and your adviser). You have to ensure that you work hard towards the proposed tasks and help your adviser complete the stated project goals. This becomes even more critical when your adviser a few years after you arrive wants to submit another proposal to secure more funds for future graduate students. Your adviser has to list the results and peer reviewed publications from the first set of proposed tasks – that you were working on. Therefore if you let your adviser down by not producing good research and publications the chances for future funding is slim. While this may seem like pressure (you bet it is!) it keeps the competitive nature of research flowing.

Conducting research that leads to high quality peer reviewed publications is not a trivial task. While it may be daunting for an entry level graduate student at first, with proper training and some patience the adviser can help the student achieve these goals. Not all students come with the set of knowledge, skills, and abilities and the same goes for the adviser. The expectations of the advisers are sometimes unrealistic. I’ve heard several complaints and comments and the interesting ones are : ‘The student does not even work as hard as I do and they not here on Saturdays!”.  ‘During my days of graduate school … (you can fill in the rest)”. ‘Students do not know how to write, let alone write computer algorithms”. The list is endless. On the other side of the coin, I’ve heard students say “He is unrealistic in his expectations,how can I expect to solve that problem in 3 weeks?”, “He never provides focused directions”, She never provides the big picture”. This list is quite endless as well.

Some advisers have quite the knack for training students. They hold one-on-one meetings as needed, put together vibrant group meetings, help the student solve problems, provide the big picture when necessary, motivate them when needed, and transfer ownership to the student very effectively. Moreover these students write good papers (quality and quantity) and seem to enjoy the experience. It is difficult to provide a one-size-fits-all type of advice on how to make all of that happen but there are some guidelines.

Reading papers. Graduate students in the beginning of their careers must be given a set of papers for reading and studying. Note that I said ‘studying’ as well. Some classic papers must be studied like text books. Why not ask your adviser for some of these classic papers! They must be trained on how to read and study a paper and more importantly it is the job of the adviser to develop this appetite. As the months and semesters roll along the adviser must voice clearly that the student must keep up with the literature, maintain a set of good notes/blog/website and must become a resource center. Read my book ‘Navigating Graduate school and beyond – Wiley Press’ on how to become a resource center.

Hold the student accountable. If you do not have regular meetings, you never know if the student is reading or doing research work. As busy as the adviser might be it is important to ensure weekly progress. Extenuating circumstances are present but it must not be the norm. I have a weekly meeting where each student presents a 5 minute PowerPoint presentation (to be uploaded to a common server). The presentations must outline, what they did last week (with one or two significant figures and what they will do the upcoming week).

Write papers. Students must be challenged at appropriate times in their career to write papers. Show them how to develop a first draft, provide rapid feedback and clearly show them how to write a peer reviewed paper and train them on the process. Writing papers must be a positive experience. Hold the student to high standards when it comes to quality of figures and analysis. Never let a draft version of a paper that a student gives you languish in your email box. Rapid feedback is important.

Get Involved in the Department. Yes, the bottom line is to get a top notch graduate degree, take relevant courses, pass exams, write your papers and graduate. While these tasks may sound multidimensional, getting involved in your department and University could be a very rewarding experience. If you have excellent programming skills why not offer a workshop for new students – graduate and undergraduate. How about helping the department in recruitment activities? Mentoring newer students on how to navigate graduate school could be a great and rewarding experience. May be there are field experiments that you can participate in and host a professional development seminar series for students. Be creative and fill needs and gaps where necessary. This could be a very fulfilling experience.

It’s January again – and 2013 already!

By Dr. Sundar A. Christopher – profsac@gmail.com
Purchase Book through Wiley Press : Click here

January seems to come quicker and quicker each year. With that comes new beginnings, resolutions and hopefully steadfastness to review goals, vision statements, and finish what needs to be finished.

1. Review. To the student who just started graduate school it is important to reflect on the semester that just went by. How did you do in your classes? It is customary for the beginning student to take core or foundational classes so that a solid base can be built.  If you did well then continue to work on the core. If you had trouble then do not simply walk away and forget about those courses. They have a habit of haunting you. Seek out some basic books in the library. For example, if you had trouble with Holton’s book on Dynamic Meteorology then check out the classic Dynamic book my Panofsky. For those of you not in Atmospheric Science that previous statement could have been in Greek! I am pretty sure that for every complex graduate level book there is a undergraduate version available.

2. New graduate students probably got a bit of a break from their advisors. I had two students who started on their Master’s program in August 2012. My research expectations for them were low. All I wanted them was to get adjusted to graduate school, read a few papers and gather some tools necessary for research. In their second semester, my expectations are much higher. They have been told that already. So gear up for some research – especially if you are being paid as a Graduate Research Assistant.

3. The late graduate. Let me jump a step and talk to the graduate student who should have graduated with a M.S. or Ph.D. a year ago. For whatever reason you have been procrastinating or the excuse has been – My research is going no where! Either way, remember that you have to take charge and get going with the graduation plan. January is a good time to draw up concrete steps to finish. That means taking a piece of a paper and writing down items such as:

1. Finish draft of first paper by February 20.
2. Complete statistical analysis for Paper 2 by March 1.

Write it down and place it in a location that you HAVE to see every day. for me it was the wall directly above my computer.

Remember that without vision there is chaos and you will become a wanderer. Here is a warning: Your advisor is as frustrated as you because of your delay in wrapping up research. Do not let that fester this year!

3. For the student who is neither new or ready to graduate. It is still time to check up on the plans you made last year. If you hadn’t – now is a good time. Hone programming and writing skills, plan on converting some of your results to a peer reviewed journal. Read more papers. Mentor some younger students on how to read a journal paper. Think outside the box and analyze a new data set or come up with some innovative techniques.

Make sure that you read the chapter in my book that talks about – Casting a vision!

Have a great New year!

Remember : Sow well now to reap big later.

Another Academic year starts – Are you ready for graduate school?

August is always an exciting month for me. For one, I get to celebrate my birthday and more importantly it is the start of an academic year. This means that new graduate students will be entering the program with excitement and some trepidation. As faculty, it should be our top priority to take a step back and help students adjust. These graduate students, whether at the Master’s level or PhD level will spend the next several years working through courses, research, and juggling their personal and professional lives. This blog is primarily for graduate students but faculty and advisers (especially those who are new) will benefit from these pointers.

Whether you have a graduate research assistantship or not, it is important that you position yourself for doing good research.

- Set up an appointment with your advisor to discuss course work.

- Ask for key research papers that you should be reading. Make sure that when your advisor sends you those papers – read and in some cases study them in detail.

- Maintain a journal. Keep good notes on research and other issues you encounter

- If you are PhD student and you have finished your M.S. degree elsewhere you need to ask your advisor if you can make a presentation to your group – 20 minutes including questions. This tells your advisor that you are proactive.

- Make a honest assessment of your strenghts and weaknesses and make sure that you begin to address these issues.

- If programming is a weakness, start to strenghten it now. Ask for resources to help you with this issue and get your hands ‘dirty’ by coding. There is nothing like a good research problem that requires coding and analysis.

- Change your mindset from undergraduate to graduate work. Graduate degrees are not merely academic, they are research oriented.

- Do not take courses just for the sake of…. Think about how it will benefit your research.

- This is the probably the best point in your graduate school to start getting ‘seriously organized and manage time and projects

- Remember to exercise, rest and above all get to know your peers.

- Read by book : Navigating Graduate school and Beyond : AGU Press

Selecting Graduate School

Written by Sundar A. Christopher – profsac@gmail.com

At the book signing at the American Geophysical Union (AGU) conference in San Francisco and at the American Meteorological Society (AMS) in New Orleans, I fielded questions on how a student should go about picking a graduate school. This is a relevant and a challenging question to answer at times since the every student filters life differently. Nevertheless here are some guidelines to ponder about before making that final decision.

I will assume that you are interested in doing research as part of your graduate work and, therefore, I will provide guidelines based on that premise.

1. It is good to have a general idea as to what type of research you want to pursue. If you are passionate about severe weather research, then you need to pick a department that has faculty, students, and staff that have a strong portfolio in that area. Some departments are especially strong because they not only have good faculty but excellent measurement tools including radars and mobile instruments to study severe weather.

2. If you are interested in field work, then definitely check out the individual faculty member profiles to see if they have participated in that component of research.
3. Make sure that the department offers the breadth and depth of courses. If you are interested in satellite remote sensing and if all you see is one generic course on radiative transfer and remote sensing, then that may not be the correct match for you.
4. The biggest factor is the adviser that you will be working with. Does this person want to mentor you diligently? Check out their web pages and the team that they are working with. Make sure that the faculty are publishing in high quality peer reviewed journals, traveling to conferences and other venues to give invited talks and fully engaging with the research community.
5. Talk to some of the students in that team. Social media probably works to connect, but travel to conferences and network with these students.
6. Make sure that the adviser has a vibrant research program. OK. Let me say this upfront. A faculty member who is just starting out may not have a vibrant program so look at their peer reviewed publications and research portfolio.
7. Pay for the visit to the University. It is well worth the time. The department may sound good on paper (the web!), but if no one has the time to talk to you during your visit…You get the point!

8. Yes, research assistantships are competitive but do not pick one school over the other simply because the stipend is *slightly* higher that the other one.

Sometimes you may not be able to land a research assistantship immediately but you can get a solid research driven academic degree in some departments that will position you for an excellent career.

9. Ask if the department provides teaching assistantships. This may be of interest to you as well where you work with a faculty member to lecture, coordinate labs and grade papers.

10 If you want to know how a an assistantship works check out this blog. There is plenty of information.

11. Find out how vibrant the student community is – in the department. A vibrant student community is active in recruitment, organizing seminars, and promoting their department. Check out their on campus and off campus activities.