Five Expectations toward Graduate Students: Tips to Succeed in Graduate Studies

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Congratulations to those who recently have graduated and have been accepted as graduate student either in Masters or Ph.D. level in your respective areas. For those of you who soon-will-be graduate students this coming year, I sincerely am impressed of what you have done to reach your goal. I hope by writing these five general expectations toward graduate students, you and those are still considering whether applying for graduate school will find helpful information and possibly guide you during your graduate studies.

Graduate school is not easy nor it is your birth right. So, personal motivation, enthusiasm and dedication will go a long way toward meeting your educational and career goals. What I have learned is that the reason why graduate school in the U.S. may differ from Indonesia are the passion of each of your mentors who guides you. Every graduate students have to make sure that you take your time to find what professors in your school are up to, with their projects. Take the time to find what their interests are and see if your interest matched with theirs. Also, look for the possibility if they would be willing to be one of your committee members or even your major professor (for Ph.D.)/ Academic advisor (for Masters), though most of the time your academic advisor will also be at a professor level. We sometimes just say them differently.

In order to succeed in your graduate studies, first you need to find your passion. What really motivates you? After you find what your goal and what your interest to pursue during your graduate studies, then I am sure your life will become easier during the course of your studies, especially when it comes to choosing what kind of project(s) you want to do and what courses to take. Another advice that I could offer is try to kill two birds with one stone. While you are working through your research projects or dissertation/ thesis, try to find ways to publish your work in a conference or in a journal. Be in-charge, if you find a new findings during your projects, discuss with your peers and consult your professor if you can be the first author for publication.

Below are five general expectation that you should follow during your graduate studies, though few more can be added depending of the areas that you will be working on, e.g. laboratory, field work, and many others.

1) Your graduate education becomes a priority in your life. Graduate school is not easy nor is it meant to be. It takes hard work. To be successful, your graduate education needs to be one of the top priorities in your life; if not the only one. Hard work and perseverance are often much more desirable traits for a successful graduate student than intelligence. There will be times when you don’t feel like studying or your research/classes may not be going as well as you like. This is particularly true midway in your graduate program. This is normal. This is how you get through those periods that will determine your success.

2) Stay up-to-date with the literature in your research area. One of the most important things   is to stay up-to-date with the publications in the area of your research project. Sometimes our best and most novel ideas come when we can integrate ideas, theories and techniques from a variety of papers and use this information to make our research better and more productive. Everyone in science is smart and the more we can take from others prevents us from having to do everything from scratch. Remember, particularly for Ph.D. students, choose your major professor carefully and learn the styles of your mentors. Some major professor will not tell you which experiments to do or plan in your research project. That is up to you to figure out as part of the process to earn a Ph.D. They will always be happy to discuss it with you and provide advices but the driving force for your research should and must come from you.

Just like a newborn babies, we are shaped by our mentors during our graduate studies. So, choose your major professor/ academic advisor carefully. I am not saying that there are bad choices, but some might give you more knowledge and skills than others.

3) Maintain contact with your major professor/ academic advisor and committee. While the frequency of formal meetings may vary according to complicated schedules, it is critical that you take the time and effort to keep your major professor informed of how things are going and any problems or successes you are having. Use this resource. Believe me, if you encounter problems or obstacles in your research, it is something your professors or someone in your working area have seen many times and may be able to help save you time solving it.

The key word is communication. Another underutilized resource for most graduate students is your supervisory committee. These are individuals who have vested interest in your success and can give you another worth-considering perspective. Use them. The more you keep them informed of your project, the easier it gets when the times comes when you have to defense your proposal and/or dissertation/ thesis.

4) Learn to become a good speaker. I cannot impress upon you how important it is to learn to deliver good presentations. This is one skill that may be as important as how smart you are and how hard you work. Is it fair? Probably not. There are many good scientists’ fails to get funding and/or jobs because they cannot convince or provide good impression during presentations. If you cannot communicate your research to both scientific and, at times, non-scientific audience, you will not get very far. Giving presentations is sometimes hard and uncomfortable but I would encourage you to use every opportunity to stand up and talk in front of people. At first, this requires a thorough preparation for each presentation including practicing it. Whether you are a professor, a researcher in a company, or a salesman, having this ability will only help you.

5) You meet university, department, and work deadlines. Meeting your graduate deadlines is your responsibility. You should know what is expected of you and when everything is due. It is not your mentor’s responsibility to tell you these things. Be professional and punctual. Professionalism is the key. It is something that we, as a foreign student, need to learn during our graduate studies abroad. I have seen students who change their behaviors and attitude during their graduate studies in the U.S. but when they finished and return to their home country, their habits revert back to what they used to think as “normal.” Keep the good habit that you have learned during your education abroad and, most importantly, take control of your own graduate education.

The aforementioned are some of the general rules that may apply during your graduate studies. I hope that these rules may help you get recognize within your department, your professors, and also help you get a better life by being organized and well-planned. I believe that these rules will still apply even after you finished your graduate studies .

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Kevin Lawanto
Kevin Lawanto is a graduate student in the department of Instructional Technology and Learning Sciences (ITLS) at Utah State University. He has actively involved in writing numerous research-paper and poster presentations in numerous conferences. During his undergraduate study he had the experience working as a research technician in a behavioral neuroscience laboratory at the Utah Science Technology and Research (USTAR) facility where he involved in conducting rodents behavior analysis, perfusion, brain sectioning, and staining.