“So long, and thanks for the Ph.D.!”
“Everything I wanted to know about C.S. graduate school at the beginning but didn’t learn until later.”
This guide describes what I wish I had known at the start of graduate school but had to learn the hard way instead. It focuses on mental toughness and the skills a graduate student needs. The guide also discusses finding a job after completing the Ph.D. and points to many other related web pages.
This guide covers the character traits and social skills that often separate the “star” graduate students from the ordinary ones. Who are the students who are self-motivated, take initiative, find ways around obstacles, communicate well both orally and in writing, and get along well enough with their committee and other department members to marshal resources to their cause? Which students seem to know “how the system works” and manage to get things done? These traits are hardly unique to succeeding in graduate school; they are the same ones vital to success in academic or industrial careers, which is probably why many of the best graduate students that I knew were ones who had spent some time working before they came back to school.
I wrote the first version of this guide two years after graduating, after reflecting upon my graduate student career. One thought that has repeatedly struck me is how much easier graduate school might have been if somehow, magically, some of the things I knew when I turned in my dissertation I could have known when I first entered graduate school. Instead, I had to learn those the hard way. Of course, for many topics this is impossible: the point of graduate school is to learn those by going through the experience. However, I believe other lessons can be taught ahead of time. Unfortunately, such guidance is rarely offered. While I had to learn everything the hard way, new graduate students might benefit from my experiences and what I learned. That is the purpose of this guide.
The following story, called “The Parable of the Black Belt,” is excerpted from Built to Last: Successful Habits of Visionary Companies, by James C. Collins and Jerry I. Porras.
Picture a martial artist kneeling before the master sensei in a ceremony to receive a hard-earned black belt. After years of relentless training, the student has finally reached a pinnacle of achievement in the discipline.
“Before granting the belt, you must pass one more test,” says the sensei.
“I am ready,” responds the student, expecting perhaps one final round of sparring.
“You must answer the essential question: What is the true meaning of the black belt?”
“The end of my journey,” says the student. “A well-deserved reward for all my hard work.”
The sensei waits for more. Clearly, he is not satisfied. Finally, the sensei speaks. “You are not yet ready for the black belt. Return in one year.”
A year later, the student kneels again in front of the sensei.
“What is the true meaning of the black belt?” asks the sensei.
“A symbol of distinction and the highest achievement in our art,” says the student.
The sensei says nothing for many minutes, waiting. Clearly, he is not satisfied. Finally, he speaks. “You are still not ready for the black belt. Return in one year.”
A year later, the student kneels once again in front of the sensei. And again the sensei asks: “What is the true meaning of the black belt?”
“The black belt represents the beginning — the start of a never-ending journey of discipline, work, and the pursuit of an ever-higher standard,” says the student.
“Yes. You are now ready to receive the black belt and begin your work.”
To me, there are two lessons in this story.
First, the Ph.D. is the beginning, not the culmination, of your career. Don’t worry about making it your magnum opus. Get out sooner, rather than later.
Second, if you bother to talk to and learn from the people who have already gone through this process, you might graduate two years earlier.
Read the full “Graduate School Survival Guide” by Ronald T. Azuma Click here.