Monday, January 27, 2014

Graduate school advice

Since it is the season for graduate school recruitment interviews, I thought I would share some of my thoughts. This is also partly prompted by two recent articles in the journal Neuron. If you're unfamiliar with it, Neuron is a very high-profile neuroscience journal, so the advice is aimed at graduate students in neuroscience, though I think the advice broadly applies to students in the cognitive sciences (and perhaps other sciences as well). The first of these articles deals with what makes a good graduate mentor and how to pick a graduate advisor; the second article has some good advice on how to be a good graduate advisee.

I broadly agree with the advice in those articles and here are a few things I would add:

1. Learn to code. Computers are very powerful tools and you won't get very far unless you can bend them to your will. If you don't have any experience with computer programming, now is the best time to learn. It is a time investment, but it will pay off in terms of efficiency (hours saved by writing a simple script to pre-process or re-format data instead of doing it by hand), accuracy (no more copy-and-paste errors!), and capability (use the cutting-edge experimental and analytical tools). If kids can learn to code, so can you.

2. Treat grad school like a full-time job. Unlike undergrad, you (probably) won't have constant homework assignments and tests, and even if you do, classroom grades won't determine your success in graduate school. Your advisor will help you set your research progress goals, but they will be your goals not your advisor's, and you need to meet them on time. The easiest way to do that is to treat grad school like a full-time job: start working every morning and work until the evening, just like your friends with "real" jobs. The hours are flexible, so you can come in early if you're a morning person or a little later if you're night owl, but don't be lulled by the flexibility; try to make sure you're working 40 hours per week. I mean actually working, not checking facebook or chatting with friends. You can do those things, but they don't count toward your 40 hours.

3. Nurture a big-picture perspective on the skills you are learning. Your graduate education will force you to master certain skills, but those specific skills are only the beginning. Your future success will require learning new skills and applying those skills in new and unexpected ways. More than anything else, learn how to learn -- how to become an expert in something and how to use that expertise to do something interesting.

4. If you don't already have one, get a hobby. Drinking doesn't count. Despite what your graduate advisor might imply, grad school can't be your whole life, you need some other activities that you enjoy and that make you feel good. Hobbies that involve exercise are particularly godd; if your hobby doesn't, then start using the university gym. Fun fact: the great cognitive scientist Allan Paivio won a "Mr. Canada" body building competition.

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