Transitioning from undergraduate to graduate school

By Dr. Sundar A. Christopher –
Purchase Book through Wiley Press : Click here

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.

Purchase Book through Wiley Press : Click here


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 Sciences at UAH as an Assistant Professor. He was promoted to Associate Professor in 2001 and was awarded tenure in 2002. He became a Full Professor in 2007. From August 2007-May 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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