Finishing your Ph.D. dissertation – The final stages and preplanning

You’ve labored through courses and preliminary and qualifying exams. You’ve read a lot of papers, prepared a proposal for your research and travailed through reading, writing, coding, analyzing and the myriad of details needed to complete a Ph.D. dissertation. The only thing that is left to do is to get your written work to be approved by your adviser, mail the dissertation to your committee members and then stand up and defend. Sounds simple doesn’t it? This last stage requires a lot of planning and some careful thought.

This is what a forward thinking graduate student should do

1. Policies. Before you go any further find out the departmental policies for submitting a dissertation and the deadlines. It is also important to read the graduate school hand book to make sure if there are additional procedures and policies in place.

Common misconception : When the time comes, I’ll just ask the department staff assistant or my adviser. Better yet, I’ll just talk to a fellow student.

My answer : Wrong! Wherever you find a place of employment or life in general there are numerous policies and procedures in place – all with deadlines. Know these policies and write them down on your calendar/organizer. You should know all policies such as : How many weeks before my defense should I send my committee members (CM) my dissertation? It is important that you send your CMs the entire dissertation – complete from title page to references/Appendices. It is poor practice to send CM portions of your dissertation.

A dissertation should never ever be sent out to CMs unless the adviser has worked through the various drafts and approved (the complete dissertation).

2) This could be costly! Most Universities require the PhD student to be enrolled anywhere from 3 credits during the semester that you are defending. Let’s say that you are planning on defending your dissertation during the summer semester. Make sure that you adhere to the deadlines. The Graduate school will not process your dissertation of you do not submit it on time for the summer semester. This means that you will become a Fall semester graduate and guess what? You have to pay 3 credits of tuition even if it means that you will only need part of the Fall semester to finish your dissertation. Rules are rules and most Universities will not make exceptions. There is no sense in getting frustrated at the University or for that matter your adviser or the department. If you do not plan the sequence of events carefully leaving adequate time for the various steps there is no one else to blame but you!

Poor time and project management will lead to frustration and less money in your bank account.

3. Your Committee members have other responsibilities as well. If you have 5 committee members you may think that they will be there every step of the way. Some CMs are very involved and others are less so but it is your job to navigate the process of writing and defending your dissertation. Engage our CMs in meaningful ways and tap into their expertise. In other words, make them work for you!

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It’s time to move on

One of the hardest decisions for both the student and the Professor is to know when to end that relationship. There are so many dynamics in this complex relationship between student and mentor, or student and adviser.

When do I know that it is time to let a student go?

  1. When the trust factor breaks down completely between student and the adviser. Here is an example. I had gone for a 6 week research project to another country. I had talked with each one of my students in my research group about my expectations for their research during this very important summer time. I had mapped out research plans and goals for each one of them before I left and I indicated to them that business is as usual since it is easy to keep in touch via email and other means. For most of my students except one this worked very well. My emails always were promptly attended to and work was being done even in my absence. But for that one student it meant freedom. He never responded to my emails and when I returned back to my office I went to his office and my questions were met with a cold stare. Days later I found out that the student left on vacation for 6 weeks while I was on a research trip. Mind you, that this student was being paid through a Graduate Research Assistantship at that point. As you can imagine it only took a few days for him to leave my group and the University to never return again.
  2. Some cases are even harder. One of my students that I recruited from another country came with excellent credentials but soon after he landed in the United States he began to miss home and could not adapt to a new country and a new place. He failed in all of his courses and he made the decision to go back home. He still keeps in touch and a few years after he returned home, he took some time to adjust and then went to Europe to finish his degree. He is doing extremely. Wrong time at the wrong place.
  3. This situation is even harder. The student simply does not grasp the work required for a research project and complete it according to the expected standards of the community. despite training and mentoring the student simply is not a good fit. As an adviser try to find a landing place for the student rather than simply terminating them. After all you recruited this student.
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For the Early Career faculty member : The biggest picture

I was recently asked by a graduate student from a discipline that is not even close to mine about the the big picture view for a early career faculty member. It got me thinking seriously. Most early career faculty members have been taught to how to interview well, do good research, write high quality papers, proposals, present their material well and teach well. More over they are asked to be collegiality and serve their communities well and with respect. Don’t get me wrong, these are indeed good and usual pieces of advice. Faculty who succeed at earning tenure and even beyond are often times left wondering, there must be more.

Early career faculty struggle with many issues. Fitting into a new University and an academic system that is supposed to be freethinking, yet rigid beyond reason is not an easy task. They are thrust into teaching situations with very little training, let alone mentoring. The pay check is a consolation either every other week or monthly. The only thing that may seem like a security blanket is the research that the faculty member finished up as part of their dissertation. Their mind wanders back into that success story.

Most departments pay no attention to deliberate mentoring, others do a perfunctory job a, while others realize that a properly mentored faculty member is not just a successful one but a future leader.

What I am about to say next is not meant to be a noble statement or a standard cliche. It is important for you as an early career faculty to develop a set of core values or a driving mission statement for your career. Nowhere will you find more satisfaction than being a mentor to a student. Taking the best of the best practices and pouring it into a student to see them do better than you ever did is sheer magic. That’s why I believe that you need to take a look at your graduate student as a future peer and an extension of yourself. If you grab a hold of this is as a process and not just events filled with exams and research mile markers there are several things that will begin to fall into place.

So, how then can you accomplish this paradigm of student to peer and beyond. Let’s take a trip down memory lane. Think of the first day that you walked into your adviser’s office for the first time. May be you were recruited over the phone or email or at a conference. But here you are, at the doorstep of an adviser with whom you will spend almost 3 to 5 years to get a graduate degree. Do you remember being nervous? I was!

It is important to realize that not all students come to the same set of knowledge, skills abilities and other characteristics. It is impossible to know how motivated they are, their work ethic and the skills that is needed in the long run to help them succeed. Having a strategy on training and mentoring students to succeed is your responsibility.Of course it is a partnership but you have the experience of having gone through graduate school, research and the joys and travails of graduate school that they don’t. Therefore this should be an opportunity for you to set the stage for their success.

Looking at incoming student as a responsibility is a good one but it is much better to view the student as a future peer. With that in mind it becomes easier to mentor and help your student succeed.

A graduate education is a blend of courses, research and it should be fiilled with professional development opportunities.

As an adviser you must pay close attention to course selections for your student. Make sure that you know how your program’s curriculum is structured. Help the student select courses. I’ve always tried to have my students have a lower class load in the first semester, very much like where you are now. Most Universities give you a lighter teaching load for the first semester or so, so you can acclimatized to your new surroundings. The same principle holds for students. A slightly lower course load for the first semester will help them get settled in. This is especially true if your student is from another country. The adjustment period is critical and it is your responsibility to help with the transition the best you can.

Keep the big picture alive. Remember that this is a long term relationship that you are building with the student. Start well and finish strong. Hell build the students’ career and it is probably the most rewarding thing you will ever do!

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Strengths and Weaknesses

As a graduate student it is important that you know your own strengths and weaknesses.You may ask why? Here are some reasons:

  1. Knowing your strengths and writing it down means that you are taking ownership. It builds self esteem. But be realistic though. If you write down that you are great speaker and you are not, then there is a mismatch between your self assessment and reality.
  2. Knowing your weaknesses means that you are willing to admit it and then you have a chance to convert weaknesses to strengths.
  3. Review your strengths and weaknesses periodically to see if you are moving some of your weaknesses to strengths. Graduate school is a great place to make these positive moves.
  4. Let’s not forget the opportunities that you have. Do you know that there are numerous opportunities and funding available for you to network, travel, and learn from experts. Ask what opportunities are available. Travel, network, present a paper and the possibilities are endless.
  5. Know the threats that you may have that prevent you from completing a degree. Learn how to mitigate them the best you can.

The best place to start is an honest assessment and then chip away to make progress towards your goals.

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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

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Research guidelines for student and adviser

By Dr. Sundar A. Christopher –
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.

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It’s January again – and 2013 already!

By Dr. Sundar A. Christopher –
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.

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