The early phases of a graduate program, specifically a Ph.D. program, are often cluttered with exams. These exams tend to be quite difficult because faculty really want to test students’ mastery of the material. Often entire semesters or summers are devoted to preparing for these exams, both alone and in groups. While I do not want to understate the importance of preparing for and succeeding on these exams, I do want to emphasize that they are not the only part of a Ph.D. program.
In particular, the Ph.D. program is ultimately about research. Written or oral exams you take along the way all have well-suited purposes, but it is important not to become invisible while you prepare for these exams, as ultimately you will need to choose an advisor for your research. Sometimes this commitment is made upon arrival into the Ph.D. program, but many programs, especially those in the United States, intend for the first one or two years to be predominantly about coursework and exams, and only then does the focus shift to research. I think a mistake students make is making this a “hard shift,” rather than a softer transition. That is, students can get to the point of being ready to do research and have no idea what they want to do, when in reality, they can be thinking about it all along. In other words, preparing for preliminary examinations serves as a valuable opportunity to begin defining at least a general research direction, if you don’t have one already.
This article is intended to demonstrate how to maintain visibility in your Ph.D. program up to the point of identifying an advisor (and beyond). I’ll talk about what to do in class, and what opportunities you may have to engage with the department outside your usual classroom hours. Also, I’ll provide some tips for things to do during the summer before you start your Ph.D. program.
Finally, let me make one other introductory note: while I’m writing this in the context of graduate school, you can follow a similar train of thought to improve your visibility within a company as a new employee. It’s just that the exact opportunities you have to improve your visibility will differ. My article from 2018 regarding my experience as an intern at Lockheed Martin provides some further discussion of the concept of visibility in the industry settinng.
Day 0: over the summer
Graduate school doesn’t begin on the first day of classes. As far as I’m concerned, it begins when you sign the letter stating that you will enroll in the program of your choice. At this point you are on a mission to make the most of your time in the program. Even if you aren’t meeting with professors face to face yet, now would be a good time to scan the webpages of the faculty in the department. I don’t think it’s reasonable to expect you can understand their research at any great level of depth unless you already have a Master’s degree, but at least skimming at some papers can at least help you identify what specific areas they are active in.
Then, if you have questions, email the professors, making sure you introduce yourself. You aren’t committed to a specific advisor at this point, but are simply trying to make yourself known in the department. Even if you don’t have questions about their research (yet), you can ask about their advising styles, asking questions such as:
- How often do you meet with students?
- When you meet with your students, how do the meetings run? Does it take the format of a discussion, or does the student present what they did in the past few weeks and have it subject to criticism? Or is it something else?
- Are there certain courses or preliminary exams they expect your students have completed before starting a project?
While you may not be sure at this point what type of “advising style” you’d prefer your advisor have, if nothing else, having these conversations is a way of demonstrating interest towards working with the potential advisor in question. These discussions can also help you plan out what courses you need to take in the first year or two. Conversely, if a professor says they expect you to have some particular background before starting research with them, and you don’t have a desire to obtain that background, it’s a sign you may not actually want to work with them. In other words, asking about background material can shine a light on what the research is actually about.
The first two questions I listed above are also good questions to ask current graduate students who are currently working with the potential advisor. Speaking of which, I encourage you to reach out to these students before and during your time in the program. While you can ask them research-oriented questions, there is a wider range of topics that is appropriate to ask other students. Some examples may include:
- What is the transportation situation like? Do you need a car?
- How do you spend free time that you have? (hobbies, outdoor activities, etc.)
- How did you identify an advisor? (assuming they already have one)
- What is the camaraderie like among the graduate students?
The last question is also a good one to ask before you’ve committed to a particular graduate program. It’s an effective thing to ask during admissions tours and the like. All of these interactions may help you [informally] identify a student mentor who can help “show you the ropes” as you transition into your Ph.D. program. Some schools even have formal programs that facilitate the development of these relationships. The University of Tennessee just introduced such a program in its math department this year, where new Ph.D. students are paired up with more senior Ph.D. students who volunteer to be part of the program. The pairings were mostly made on the basis of similar research interests (as it should, in my opinion). I volunteered to be part of this program, and got paired with another student who is interested in analysis and partial differential equations. In addition to giving advice about picking courses, studying for preliminary examinations, and so forth, I also helped him with other things, such as picking an apartment to live in. If you’re the new student in this situation, these are some things you may want to learn more about!
One final comment about the phase before you start graduate school: set aside a little time to spend with family and relax in the months prior. You probably won’t get much chance to do so once you’re fully immersed in the program (though you didn’t need me to tell you that).
What to do in class
Ok, so now classes have started and you’re right in the thick of problem sets, exams, and essays. What to do now? As I said at the beginning, your top priority should be to perform well in the classes and prepare for any preliminary examinations you have. In many Ph.D. programs, these things in part or in entirety determine your eligibility to remain in the program.
For many people, an important part of performing well is asking questions to the professors and to other students. Now is a good time to make friends, and use that to establish study groups for the exams you will all take. And, if you prefer to work alone, that’s fine, though you still want to get to know your professor and make sure they get to know you.
Here’s one tip for asking professors questions, though: if you’re asking about a specific problem or concept, don’t simply say that you’re lost and need help. That may be true, and that’s fine to admit, but explain any partial progress you have made towards understanding the concept or problem, and identify specifically where you are having trouble. This not only demonstrates to the professor that you have put forth effort on your own, but it makes it more likely that you will get a more thorough answer that will actually help you finish solving the problem on your own.
What to do outside of class
You’re probably not taking as many classes as you did as an undergraduate. So where are all those hours going? Well, aside from teaching responsibilities you may have, it may seem you have extra time on your hands, so it’s important to use it wisely. Even more so than as an undergraduate, making sure people know who you are in the department is important. Many departments offer seminars, colloquia, social events, or events held by student chapters that give students an opportunity to interact with faculty, and sometimes outside professors/researchers. These are important opportunities to network and talk to people in an atmosphere more relaxed than a typical classroom. Also, if you are interested in a leadership position in a student organization within the department, I would particularly encourage you to attend events for that organization.
Conferences are also a major part of networking, even if they are largely online. Major points if you get to give a talk. This will get your name in the conference proceedings, which is really important for exposure. Sometimes universities will host regional conferences, so if you’re lucky, you’ll get to fully participate in a conference with minimal hassle from travel and lodging.
Finally, here are some instances of what these types of events may look like, using the University of Tennessee’s Math Department as a source of examples.
- There are several research seminar groups that meet on a weekly or biweekly basis, covering different areas of math, including differential equations, numerics, machine learning, and probability. Students and faculty from within the institution will give talks, and outside speakers are invited as well. The organizer of the PDE seminar this year, Dr Tuoc Phan, devised an innovative plan to add some extra excitement to his seminar. He invited a guest speaker to give a series of lectures on one topic, the UTK-PDE Distinguished Lecture Series. From what I can tell this effort has been wildly successful, and he plans to do the same thing next semester.
- There are four student groups within the math department that all host their own events. One of them, for which I am an officer, is the Society of Industrial and Applied Mathematics (SIAM) student chapter. Next week, one of our faculty members, Olivia Prosper, will be speaking about her career trajectory at an informal Zoom luncheon.
- Every year (except 2020), the math department hosts a picnic at a campground about 10 miles from campus, to which all math graduate students and faculty are invited to attend, plus their significant others/families. This event is more for fun than anything, but is still an opportunity to meet people and socialize.
It is very common for events within a department to have free food and drink, especially in-person events. The quality of said food and drink varies considerably, but crossing your fingers for a pizza delivery is a good bet.
The “advisor shopping” period
At some point you will have to make a choice: who will be your advisor? Oftentimes, passing any written preliminary examinations comes first; if that’s the case, make that the priority, but use your time studying for those examinations to consider more closely what really excites you. This will give a direction for where you may want to go in terms of a research direction.
Hopefully by this point you have identified a few potential advisors and have begun having conversations with them (perhaps only informally); maybe you’ve taken classes with some of them as well. In my case, I had read up on different faculty members’ research interests, chatted with them about various academic topics such as coursework and research, and gotten a sense of who was actively looking for students. Don’t get too attached to a faculty member who’s about to retire! Then, in the course of about a month after passing my preliminary examinations, the following happened in fairly rapid succession:
- I sent out emails to five faculty members with whom I had an interest in working with, indicating that my written exams were done (and said which ones I took). I also briefly described my research interests and my intended long-term career trajectory. Specifically, I declared my uncertainty of preference between a career in academia versus industry.
- I sent the above emails out over the course of a week so that I wouldn’t have everyone trying to schedule meetings with me at the same time.
- Then, I had four meetings. Of the five faculty I contacted, all five were interested in working with me, though two of them wanted to “team up” because they had begun collaborating with each other not too long beforehand.
- After all the meetings were done, I sat for a week and a half and thought about it. I was making a very big decision. I talked to other students, including those who were currently working with the prospective advisors, plus students who had already graduated. For those who identify with a religion, this is a great thing to pray about as well.
Then, I formally accepted one of the offers, to work on a project in fractional calculus and non-local partial differential equations. I think I have a very exciting (and intense) few years ahead of me! I intend to write more about the experience of working on this project once I’m further underway, so keep an ear open to hear more about my journey.
- It only took me a little over a year after starting in my program to select my advisors. There are a number of factors that dictate how long it takes to identify an advisor, including whether you have a Master’s degree prior to entering the Ph.D. program, and what country you are pursuing your studies. Barbara Robson provides a lot of high-quality content related to the latter point on Quora, from the point of view of a researcher in Australia.
- The exact nature of assessment depends largely on the discipline. Programs in the humanities very well may eschew timed examinations in favor of essays, and many programs across all disciplines have some form of assessment that is an oral presentation before the actual dissertation defense. This is often called an oral specialty examination or just the “oral.”
- Feel free to take classes with professors who may not be looking for students; you can still learn a lot regardless. I had the same professor for classes three semesters in a row, and these happened to be his last three semesters teaching before retirement. I’m sad to see him go.