We should not judge people by their peak of excellence; but by the distance they have traveled from the point where they started.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

A successful Graduate Student... What is that?

While I write this, I have a deadline tomorrow at 11am for a homework. I just finished up with a deadline today evening at 5pm. I know I have little time in hand beside cooking, sleeping, studying but still the strong urge to write down something has propelled me to get this post down over here today. I have things fresh in my mind and let them be published, else I will forget them. And I think what I will write here is pretty important. This post describes some of the feelings shared by 3 PHD students who are graduating after spending 5 years in my research lab about "How graduate school changes you". I believe these are successful students as they are starting with a new "Start up" funded from my research lab. And I believe what they would say is important for every one of us. So I explain here some of the things that they said and many more which I feel are important and how they changed me.

1. Graduate school makes you aware of the importance of time and how things need to be scheduled for the entire week so that you can take care of all those deadlines. Discipline yourself about prioritizing things. Making a time table for your chores and studies and helping you track it. This is something which would come a lot handy when you would enter any professional field as this quality makes you a lot professional in your approach about the things that you do.

2. It takes away that impatient nature from you. Because now you have to have your head strong and cool to deal with lot of uncertain situations that would arise while you are studying. It makes you think calmly on lot of issues because if you try messing up lots of things together you end up in trouble. So slowly you figure out that if you were approaching some things wrongly, that is not the correct approach.

3. It gives you lot of opportunities to do mistakes and then equally good opportunities to correct them. Believe me, mistakes done once or twice of the same kind are ok, repeat them again and the professor will get on to you badly. You learn the values of learning from your mistakes. A common quote said by one of my professors is "Mrunal, as a graduate student if you have committed mistake and if somebody points out that to you, accept it, do not explain or argue, and do not repeat it again. This system will not give you many chances to repeat things". So you tend to commit lots of mistakes of different kind in a short period. For eg. in case of studies. You might take a wrong approach towards your project in one quarter, you would understand that its not the correct one. Now when you will do it for next course, you would have the experience to correct it. Or if you had a wrong approach towards some subject in one quarter, you will learn from it and correct it in the next quarter. I believe the age also plays a lot of importance because by this time everybody understands and has capability to analyze oneself and learn from mistakes and improve.

4. You learn importance of contacts. Research community is a small one and many conferences you attend you tend to find lots of same people. So its really important to develop your contacts and approach people on your own. Because if you do not they will not approach you and you lose the chance to grow your network. Contacts can get you jobs, internships, new opportunities for new work etc.

5. Graduate school is all about taking initiative. Its all about succeeding because you are here because you wanted to be here. How much initiative you take in doing work. How much enthusiasm you show in keeping yourself involved. This initiative taking capability is something you learn because if you do not take it somebody else will take it. And its always you who would lose. Like if you do not know anything about in a course say, its your initiative to go and talk with students, professors, try to get the basics clear by studying the material from various sources. Its your initiative which would help you secure good academic projects which would have values in industry and would help you in building your resume. No professor would ask you about that, because as a graduate student you are consider mature and are expected to follow certain code of conduct.

6. It makes you responsible. Often professors say, "You are a graduate student and you should have better approach of attending things." This does not mean they wont help you in doing things that you do not know but it keeps you that feeling that yes, you have grown up and you are expected to show some maturity and responsibility.

7. It helps you lose your shyness. It tells you its ok to be dumb and learn how not to be. The thing which these phd students said were, in graduate school you will constantly feel that you are the dumbest person in the school because you do not know certain things. Or your professor might say something which you do not understand and he might give you a look which will make you feel dumb. It gives you confidence to ask the most stupidest questions in the class because even after studying something if you have not got that concept, something could be wrong and you not asking that question makes lots of other points unclear in the whole remaining lecture. So its ok to ask stupidest questions if you do not get them. This confidence is important.

Or when you attend conferences and speak with rest of the people who are very knowledgeable about your project and the feeling that you might be getting that "he knows so much or he is working on such great stuff and I am so dumb and what would he think of me ....blah blah...."...Point is it makes you aware that "You can not be a great person and know everything and there will be people who would know much more than you always". It eases the tension on you many times.

8. Talking with people helps. Everybody at certain point of time feels dumb. PHD students many times feel like quitting because PHD is not a easy thing to do if you are a "bachelor" and do not have strong support from friends, wife, parents, relatives in terms of physical presence. I am not talking about long distance presence. You can be a great success only if you have your spouse which many students have with you, if you have your parents/ relatives around, or if you have a like minded friend circle. The stay otherwise could get really hectic and it could draw your emotional and mental stress levels to a large height. So talking with people helps bring down the stress level. Talking about your study related problems makes you aware that you are not the only dumb person but there are many other. They just hesitate to ask eachother.

9. You learn to value others intelligence, you learn to value others professionalism, you learn to value the humbleness shown by others when they know so many things. You learn to learn people by their behavior. Mostly professors are helpful. You learn to be humble, helpful and approachable so that others can take advantage of your knowledge. At the same time you learn to prioritize your own schedules so that no one disturbs them. You value the private time that you get. You are surrounded by so many great minds that you get influenced by the way they think. The progressive thinking that they show. You understand that you have so many role models around you and its only on you to decide how you want your future to be. This entire thing gives you a lot motivation to propel ahead, it gives you a much needed vision of how your future life could be and what you might want to try in the future.

10. It makes you understand that life has priorities. It makes you understand that the time you would spend doing a PHD could be worth spent somewhere else. You start comparing the equations in your life and what is more benefitial. It makes you understand importance of your family who are enduring your absence and managing without you. It makes you think hard on how you want a future for your family and what role you are going to play in that. It helps you understand the role a spouse plays on a foreign land. It makes you understand importance of a good understanding wife and someone who is close to you when you get all stressed out, when you see lot of couples around you who are married. It makes you take a deep look into your future, though you can not control it. It builds your expectations from future and makes you understand the role of a stronger support system in terms of family.

11. If you were one of those who used to worry a lot about the future, and all. You tend to unlearn that. I was one of them around a year back. I used to worry a lot about many uncertain things. Life in grad school teaches you that there could be lots of unfortunate events that could happen on which you dont have any control of any sort. Yet life moves on. It teaches you that if you were sincere, if you were genuine you 99% time come out the bad situations. It teaches you that worrying doesnt help. Action helps. It teaches you that you have to have a strong head to take decisions and you have to stand by them. This all is part and parcel of a graduate school environment where you are given lots of opportunities to do mistakes of different kind and given a chance to learn from them. Once you know that you could come out of some situation, you slowly build that confidence that yes tomorrow if some thing more worst happens I will come out too. It depends on how I approach the situation, worrying right now about it wont help it. You never have time to do many other things and it makes you realise that you are wasting your time by worrying on uncertain evernts and its better to make use of that time for a better cause. You tend to respect your thinking and the positivity that you get out of it. you build a new confidence and be more positive about your approaches.

Overall this gives you a lot more personality boost in terms of personal and technical knowledge. As one of these PHD students said, "I feel, I grew into my adulthood only in graduate school". I truly feel so. I too feel the same. I feel I have changed for good.

It feels great. Exactly one hour was spent in drafting this post and here I resume my studies again :) I seriously forge to keep a tab on time and it flies so fast. Oh that brings me to another imp thing. I seriously believe time flies so fast, it just feels that I was in India just some time back and I still do not believe that I have actually completed a whole year in US. Everything is so fresh in my mind....Its been a great learning experience so far.


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