Research guidelines for student and adviser

By Dr. Sundar A. Christopher –
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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.


About Sundar Christopher

Dr. Christopher received his PhD in Atmospheric Sciences from Colorado State University in 1995. He also holds a Master's degree in Meteorology from South Dakota School of Mines and Technology (SDSMT) and a Master’s degree in Industrial/Organizational Psychology from the University of Alabama in Huntsville. After completing his PhD, Dr. Christopher joined the faculty at SDSMT in the Department of Meteorology. In 1997, he joined the Department of Atmospheric Science at UAH as an Assistant Professor. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 2001 and Professor in 2007. From 2007-2014, he served as Associate Director of the Earth System Science Center. He served as Chairman of the Department of Atmospheric Science from 2010-2014. He successfully designed a Master's level graduate program in Earth System Science that educates and trains graduate students in new paradigms involving research to decision making. In 2014 he was appointed as Dean of the College of Science at the University of Alabama in Huntsville. Dr. Christopher's research interests include satellite remote sensing of clouds and aerosols and their impact on air quality, environment, health, and global and regional climate. He works with numerous satellite data sets from polar orbiting and geostationary satellites, ground-based instruments, and aircraft data to study the earth-atmosphere system. He has published more than 100 peer reviewed papers in national and international journals including several review papers related to aerosols, air quality and the climate impacts of aerosols. He has served on numerous national and international committees including the Climate Change Science Panel and the GEWEX. Dr. Christopher enjoys teaching and has designed and developed undergraduate and graduate level courses with special emphasis on hands-on training using satellite data. He also designed a professional development course for graduate students and maintains a blog to help students navigate graduate school. In 2011 AGU published his book titled Navigating Graduate School and Beyond : A Career Guide for Graduate Students and a Must Read for every Advisor. Dr. Christopher has published extensively in national and international peer-reviewed journals and has also presented his work at major scientific conferences. He has been invited to speak at major venues including the World Federation of Scientists (Erice, Sicily), the United Nations Symposium in 2007 (Graz, Austria), the American Association for Aerosol Research, Australian Meteorological and Oceanographic Society (AMOS), the United Nations Symposium on Space Applications, 2008 (Graz, Austria), the Osher Institute of Higher Learning, American Geophysical Union, American Meteorological Society, and various national and international universities (Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, India, University of New South Wales, Sydney, Australia, Purdue University, Texas A&M, University of Nebraska, University of Wisconsin, Goddard Space Flight Center, Colorado State University, and others). He has won several million dollars in numerous grants and contracts from NASA, NOAA, and other federal agencies for studying earth-atmosphere processes. He has won several awards including the University Award for Research and Creative Achievement in 2006 and NASA New Investigator Award. He has published more than 100 papers in peer-reviewed journals and has served as an expert reviewer for the Climate Change Science Program (CCSP). He is a citizen of the United States of America.
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