7 Habits of Highly Effective Graduate Students

As a professor I know how much of the fun I have in my work and the success of my efforts depends on super human graduate students who do research in my group. And that is a rhetorical question. The answer is a lot, perhaps the single most important factor. So doubtless I, and all my faculty colleagues, spend a lot of cycles thinking about which graduate students to select and then observing how they work on their research tasks and then working with them so that they are even more effective. So here is my distillation of the qualities that I see among the successful graduate students. Like the original list of 7 habits of effective people, this one too does not apply to all successful graduate students. But I would hazard a guess that if you do not have a good many of these 7 habits, you are unlikely to succeed as a graduate researcher. Also I want to stay away from “motherhood and apple pie” kind of generic golden qualities, which we all instinctively know are good, but want to be more specific.

Context: I work with Computer Science/Computer Engineering (CS/CE) students at a tier-1 research university. My observations are focused on PhD students. But they are not confined to a specific field of study within CS/CE, i.e., I think they will apply to the first order of approximation, equally to students working in computer systems and theoretical algorithms, say.

1. Looks far and wide for a worthy problem

The student, let us call him Harry, spends enough time finding a worthy problem. Worthy means the problem has not been solved yet, is worthy of solving, and Harry feels that if he stretches, he has the capacity to solve it. Each of the criterion above is subjective and very individualized. It is tempting to short-circuit this step and jump into the seemingly more glamorous part of solving the problem, but that never turns out well.

2. Stands on the shoulders of giants

The student, let us call him Ron, knows like Newton does, that he can see far only by building on the work others have done before him. So he reads deeply to see what has been done before. He tries some of the solutions out, by downloading code or the simulator and giving it a go. He asks authors of the prior works for clarifications when he does not understand, and sometimes the authors even write back to him. Ron also reads to understand the basic tools that will help him solve the problem – say brushing up, or even learning afresh, a statistical technique or a basic abstraction of a real-time operating system. Here, he is spoiled for choice – there are so many good multimedia learning materials and good text book material. Oh, and about that, there are such things as text books still, and they are real and the good ones are enormously useful.

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Oh the sights you will see, by standing on the shoulders of giants.

3. Persists

Research is indeed a marathon, or at least a half marathon. So the student, let us call her Hermione, brings in oodles of persistence. There are stretches, of a few weeks even, when there are no results and no apparent progress. This is because the research if it is worth doing (point #1) will have the hard parts, which will need one attack strategy and then if that does not work, learn from that and come up with a second strategy. She is of course a little put off when the first idea that looked so promising in her head does not pan out, but she learns from it, dusts herself off, and moves forward.

4. Manages her time 

There are so many things that our successful student, call her Hannah, could be doing. There are endless hours of binge watching just waiting to be had right from her laptop. And there are oh-so-tempting rabbit holes of technical topics to go exploring. The computer is the gateway and getaway to so many things that she could be doing instead of her work. And so of course she does some of those things—after all who knows what wonderful places an exploration down a rabbit hole may lead to—but she does this while keeping in mind what her goal is. She manages her time well and she pushes and moves toward goals she has set for herself. There may be some apparently barren weeks with no obvious progress, but she is still pushing toward a prioritized list of goals. An obvious, but important, corollary to this is the wisdom to say no—to those seemingly picturesque detours away from her goals.

5. Practice makes perfect

The student, call him Godric, writes his research design and results in multiple drafts. He is not afraid to see red ink digitally sprayed all over his draft by his advisor. He sees the before and the after pictures and learns from that and becomes a better writer. You may have the most ground breaking ideas, but you need to be able to communicate that to your group of technical peers and then, when you rise up the scientific ladder, to a broad audience. Write to explain what the problem is, why prior solutions do not quite cut it, what your solution approach is, and then, for the deep crowd, the exact details of your technique. Writing often helps to clear up Godric’s thinking and removes blind spots that he may have had in the design or the experiment.

Image result for red ink corrections

6. Says no to perfection

Our perspicacious graduate student, call him Zach, does not get daunted by the fact that in much of his work, he will not reach perfection. The saying “Do not let perfection be the enemy of the good” is as true in graduate studies as anything else. Papers and presentations often tell the polished, almost clinically hygienic, story from hypothesis to design to implementation to the sparkling results. But in reality there would have been grimy detours and the end product is in truth a compromise. So Zach knows this reality and is happy to live in it.

7. The have and the have-not

Our graduate student, call her Ginny, knows that there are the “haves” (things she has) and the “have nots” (things she does not have and will not have, without enormous effort). For example, she has a caring advisor who devotes enough time working with her on the problem at hand. She does not have a distinguished professor with enormous name recognition and a large group of students and post-docs, who she can turn to frequently for help and advice. So she focuses on the haves and makes the best of them. She spends more time dwelling on the haves and does not indulge her thoughts that would like to focus on the have nots. This makes more productive and more chipper all around.

So there you have it. Being a successful graduate student, with all the varied and subjective dimensions of success, is an art but it is not pure magic. There is a method to approach this and despite all the subjectivity of us as different humans, different fields of inquiry, and different academic settings, there may be something to that method.

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