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Learning from Grad School Mistakes

Failure is the ultimate impetus to learning. Even though one can learn from studying failures and studying successes, the latter is much more difficult. In our hectic lives, we celebrate our successes and quickly move on to the next task. We ponder failures more than we do successes. As a result, we do learn from our mistakes, which cause us to improve ourselves, learning new knowledge and skill that ultimately enable us to succeed next time. However, to learn from mistakes, one must be willing to admit mistakes first .

In the Research Methods in CS class I am teaching this semester, I’ve organized a panel of “Successful Graduate Students,” recent alums of our graduate program or those on the verge of graduation. One of the questions I posed to the panel was: “Imagine having a time travel machine that makes it possible for you to travel back into the past to the point when you just started your graduate studies. What would be your message for yourself? In other words, what would you do differently if you had to go through graduate school again?” I was quite surprised that almost all of the panel’s participants answered this question by saying that they would not change anything. On the one hand, I was glad that our graduate students have had such a positive experience in our program. Conversely, I was wondering if in academia we are reluctant to admit mistakes thinking that this would be a show of weakness.

Because I believe that admitting mistakes is vital for learning and growing, I’ll lead the way and admit some of the things I wish I had done differently when I was a graduate student.  Overall, I can’t complain, as my grad school career was successful. Earning my Ph.D. took me only 6 years, and was fortunate to secure a tenure-track faculty position at a research university immediately thereafter. Thus, none of my mistakes was a showstopper.

Now, let me board this time travel machine and transport myself back to August 1999. The Dot Com Boom is at its peak, and I have just quit my job as a software developer working for a large business software company in NYC. I’ve already earned an M.S. degree in Information Systems from NYU and have several trade magazine publications on various software development topics. The three most important pieces of advice I’d want to share with myself would be:

  1. Get a summer internship in a research lab. I know that you think that leaving campus, your adviser, and your dissertation research for the entire summer seems like an unnecessary distraction. However, immersing yourself into the environment of a research lab will not only give you a different research perspective, but will also help you establish valuable relationships that will come quite handy when you get your faculty job.In all honesty, I did attempt to get summer internships a couple of times, but when things did not work out, I quickly changed my summer plans. Instead, I should have made a concerted effort to secure a summer internship, making better use of my university’s extensive alumni network.
  2. Get involved in writing funding proposals. Although helping your adviser with a research proposal does not seem like directly contributing to your dissertation, proposal writing is the most important skill, bar none, for a faculty member in a research university. I should have proactively approached my adviser asking him to get me involved in writing a proposal.
  3. Balance out your life while in grad school. Keep it in mind that being a tenure-track Assistant Professor is like Graduate School 2.0 but only much much worse. So if you don’t have time for personal and social life while in grad school, things will only deteriorate when you start your faculty job. Getting a Ph.D. is a marathon not a sprint. Pace yourself. Life does not need to stop only because you are in grad school. If you push yourself really hard all the time does not mean that you’ll necessarily graduate sooner. Much depends on things that are completely outside of your control.
Now, what I wonder if back then I would heed this advice or dismiss it out of hand. Most probably it’d be something in between. Now, if I don’t think I’d listen to my own advice when starting my Ph.D., why would those who are just starting their graduate school careers heed my advice now?
  1. August 28, 2011 at 10:29 pm

    If I could travel back myself, I would try to change a few things. One thing that I wish I could have done differently is to not pass up the opportunities I had to work with undergrads on research projects. As a grad student, you should try to involve undergrads in your research. First of all, a competent and motivated undergraduate researcher can help you make better progress on your research. Yet, even more importantly, the experiences of dividing up a larger project into parts that can be worked on by individual researchers, of mentoring undergrads to become productive contributors, and of managing your team are invaluable for any senior position when you are in charge of other people.

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