Navigating the Terrain of Graduate Education

Some Tips for Graduate Students

Les Sims (Graduate Dean Emeritus
University of Iowa and Senior Scholar in Residence and Director
External Grants Program Council of Graduate Schools)

Les SimsGraduate Education is a "process" that can be represented as a three-dimensional terrain with student responsibility and effort being the height above a set of contours created by institutional and program requirements and time (see figure).

The simplest pathways of progress appear as valleys between peaks representing major requirements that must be met to complete the degree: Admission to the program; course work and comprehensive exams; independent research; writing a thesis or dissertation; and public defense of the thesis or dissertation research

Note that the two highest "hurdles" are shown as comprehensive exams ("comps") and research (shown as also taking the greatest amount of time). Once the research is complete, writing the thesis or dissertation, and even more so the defense, usually loom as much less formidable hurdles than at the beginning.

path to the dissertation The following are tips for graduate students that can help negotiate the terrain of graduate education, allowing them to pursue fairly well defined pathways that minimize the effort and lead to significantprogress toward completion of the degree.

  • Be assertive. Graduate education is premised upon the student assuming much greater responsibility and initiative for their degree than any other type of education. This is perhaps the most important tip that can be proffered to graduate students -- as it applies to nearly every aspect of your life as a graduate student. Below are some of the areas in which being assertive will result in a better graduate experience.

    Introducing yourself to other students, faculty and staff of the program as early as possible and take an active role in seminars and other program activities. Ask questions about what is expected of you and anything that is unclear to you.

    There is no area of graduate education in which being assertive is more important than in choosing a "major professor" (i.e., research director/mentor). Although the best departments provide opportunities for new students to learn of faculty research and perhaps even a structured program of "interviewing" with prospective faculty mentors, graduate education presumes the student is "leading" in the dance ritual that is required to establish a student/mentor relationship. A good "chemistry" between the parties is absolutely necessary if the relationship is to serve as the basis for a productive and happy graduate experience. The same considerations apply to other members (3-5) that will comprise your Graduate Advisory Committee. It is not uncommon for a major professor to suggest other members for the GAC, but you should be comfortable and can expect a strong voice in the choices for your GAC.

    Teaching is generally an important aspect of graduate education, and one that nearly all graduate students find rewarding, both personally and professionally. Teaching Assistantships (TAs) also are a major source of financial support for graduate study. Departments (or the University) should offer training for serving as a TA, and you should request help to prepare for your role as a teacher if it is not offered. Students often serve in various teaching assistant roles for several semesters or years, and this can be additionally rewarding and valuable, particularly if there are graduated assignments over time that allow you to participate in all aspects of teaching (preparing a course syllabus, selecting textbooks or other materials, preparing exams and assessing student learning, etc.), with progressively greater instructional responsibilities. If this is not the pattern in your program, initiate a conversation with your peer graduate students and then engage the faculty in a discussion about implementing a program that will be more useful to those with continuing teaching assistant appointments.

    There is a similar parallel in research, especially for those who are supported on Research Assistantships (RAs), which are usually funded from grants awarded to faculty to perform research in areas that they proposed. Although grants restrict to a significant extent the areas in which funds can be used, your assignments as an RA should be related in a meaningful and helpful way to your own degree program -- if not, you should question the work assigned. Continuing RA appointments should allow you progressively more independent responsibility, since the intent of research in graduate education is to prepare graduates who are capable of conducting research that adds to the knowledge base of the discipline and pursue careers that require this capability. Since research careers usually involve competitive requests for funds to support the research, the best graduate programs will provide opportunities for students to participate in all aspects of research, including identifying funding sources and preparing proposals for research grants.

  • Explore what graduate education means. Graduate education may at first seem like a logical extension of your undergraduate experience -- course work, exams, papers, and other didactic activities. However, you need to understand from the very beginning the nature of the research, dissertation and final defense stages of graduate education, which will differ from any previous educational experience.

  • Consider all participants as resources for your success.
    A faculty advisor is often assigned to new students, but all faculty in the department or program can be important resources for information and advice and as possible mentors. What is not so often realized is that other graduate students -- especially those who have completed some of the requirements (course work, comps, . . .), are working on the most substantial degree requirements (research, thesis/dissertation, . . .) , and/or beginning the transition to career (job search, interviews, negotiating offers, . . .). These "senior" peer graduate students are among the most useful sources of information on what graduate education is, so it is useful to begin interacting with them early in your graduate program. These peers are also extremely important sources of information on the types of mentoring relationships various faculty members have with students for whom they serve as major professor.

    The Department Secretary, Administrative Assistant, or other staff member assigned as a primary contact with graduate students, is often a reliable and knowledgeable source of information. These often unheralded players in graduate education also can be the most empathetic and helpful to students in dealing with non-academic issues (such as housing, finances, taxes, personal relationships, . . .)

    Your Graduate Advisory Committee members also should be considered as resources to you as your pursue your degree requirements -- especially your research and thesis/dissertation. It is quite common for members of the GAC to meet as a group at the beginning of a student's program and not again until the final thesis/dissertation defense. This does not have to be the case, and most faculty members are pleased to be involved in helpful ways to a student on whose GAC they serve.

  • Regularly review your own progress toward your degree goal. The best programs will have a system of annual (or some other schedule) of review of the progress of each student. If this is not the case, this another area in which being assertive and preparing a written report of your perspective of the progress you have made in your program can be of benefit to you -- both in terms of providing feedback to you in response to your report, and in validating your view of expectations, work remaining to meet your advisor's (and other GAC members') expectations, and creating a realistic work plan for the next stage of work toward completing your degree. Your report can include plans for the next semester/year and even anticipated dates for completing the research and/or the thesis/dissertation and scheduling a final defense.

  • Engage in career planning in parallel with work on your degree. This is an area that is just beginning to become an integral part of the best graduate programs. If not provided to you, inquire about what jobs graduates from your program over the past few years have obtained, as well as information about what other jobs might be available to graduates with the degree you are beginning work toward. Keeping an eye on the ultimate goal -- entering a productive and satisfying career -- can help keep you focused on meeting degree requirements; it can also be useful in making decisions during your program that may determine which careers you consider or are prepared to pursue.