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What I Accomplished in Grad School

I often talk to students who are thinking about grad school. The advice I generally give is a dressed-up version of “Just do whatever the hell will make you happy.” But if we all had solid ideas about what would make us happy then, well, we’d probably be a lot more happy. Here’s a list of things that I actually accomplished in grad school. Most of these things did make me happy or at least were satisfying. Of course, I cannot know the extent to which these things would make other people happy, and I also cannot know whether I would have been happier with the things that I’d have accomplished if I hadn’t gone to grad school. Since I got a PhD 13 years ago and started the program 18.5 years ago (crap!) I have at least a modest amount of perspective at this point.

First, some work-related things.

  • I became pretty good at doing and evaluating research.

  • I started to become good at writing. When I arrived at grad school I was not a good writer. When I left, I was not good either, but at least I was on the way. Since 2001, every time I write something, I have been thankful that it’s not a PhD thesis.

  • I wrote a few pretty decent papers. None of them set the world afire, but none of them has been a source of embarrassment either.

  • I did some internships in industry and, along the way, learned a bit about how the real world works, if such a thing can be said to exist.

But really, the things in grad school that weren’t about work were better:

  • I read a lot of books, often several per week. I’m afraid that I’m going to have to get the kids out of the house and also retire if I want to reach that level again.

  • I found someone to spend the rest of my life with. This was the purest luck.

  • I made a number of friends who I am still close to, though we don’t talk nearly often enough. I doubt that I’ll ever have another group of friends as good as these.

  • I became quite good at disc golf.

  • I did a decent amount of programming for fun.

  • I avoided going into debt. In fact, the TA and RA stipends that I received in grad school felt like a lot of money compared to the ~$7000/year that I lived on as an undergrad.

There are a bunch of things that are important that I did not accomplish in grad school:

  • I failed to learn even rudimentary time management.

  • I did not develop good eating, drinking, sleeping, or exercise habits. When I graduated I was under the impression that my body could tolerate almost any sort of abuse.

  • I didn’t learn to choose good research topics, this took several more years.

  • I didn’t figure out what I wanted to do with my life.

I put this out there on the off chance that it might be useful for people who are thinking about grad school.

{ 10 } Comments

  1. Derek Hoff | February 12, 2014 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    Throwing your new friends under the bus, eh John?

  2. Shrutarshi Basu | February 13, 2014 at 7:22 am | Permalink

    I’m curious as to how you managed to do all your PhD work, maintain a relationship and read several books a week without developing strong time management skills. That seems like a combination for a very stressful life.

  3. Ben Davis | February 13, 2014 at 8:26 am | Permalink

    I can second that part about making great friends in grad school. That was one part of my life when I had the most close friends.

    Stephen Covey’s “4 quadrants” are a good basic structure for time management. Basically, use your time doing things that are important and not urgent, and have enough foresight to prevent things from becoming urgent.

    Another thing I’ve seen is kids feeling “burned out” after their batchelors degree so they intend to take some time off before jumping in to grad school. Don’t do it! Most people who take time off before going back for that degree never do pick it up again. It’s easier if you keep on going. Another dirty little secret is that grad school is easier, more fun, and more applicable than most of what you pick up while working on your 1st degree. You don’t have general education requirements.

    One final point is that even though you feel like you can stay in one stage forever, it’s generally a good idea to prepare for that next stage so that when the urge to move on comes, you’ll be prepared to do so. Inevitably it will come, and if you’re not prepared to move on it can make life miserable for a while.

  4. Alex Groce | February 13, 2014 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    “I didn’t figure out what I wanted to do with my life. ”

    I assume this is different than what I think of as the standard American interpretation which is “I didn’t figure out what job to hold” because haven’t you always been a professor?

  5. Alex Groce | February 13, 2014 at 10:46 am | Permalink

    Grad school is great for lots of things, but I am pretty sure learning time management is not one of them for almost anyone.

  6. regehr | February 13, 2014 at 2:53 pm | Permalink

    Hi Shrutarshi, I think there are two ways to make effective use of time. First, one can be highly disciplined. Second, one can love one’s work. The second one got me through grad school, but has worked much less well as a professor, since there are so many more unlovable demands on my time.

    Ben, I agree that “taking a break between undergrad and grad school” most often turns into not going to grad school. Even so, I usually advise students to take a break if they feel like it. An unwanted stint in grad school can’t be good.

    Alex, I didn’t really think about that distinction. I think we are very prone to binning other people by their career, but most of us probably self-identify in other ways.

  7. Zhenyu Ye | February 16, 2014 at 5:41 am | Permalink

    Indeed time management is one of the most important skills that people seldom learn in grad school. I regret that I have not deliberately practiced this skill in grad school.

  8. Boris | February 16, 2014 at 3:01 pm | Permalink

    John, do you ever think about your own book? I finished your course at Udacity and read your blog for a few months. I think you can explain things clearly and precisely.

  9. regehr | February 18, 2014 at 11:58 am | Permalink

    Hi Boris, Alex Groce and I are working on a book about random testing but it is going slowly so far, unfortunately!

  10. Ben Ylvisaker | February 22, 2014 at 4:45 pm | Permalink

    Ben, John, Just felt like throwing out there that I’m even more on the “take a break before grad school” side of that spectrum. For CS students whose interests run more to the applied/engineering side of things (which I guess is well over half of CS grad students), I think getting a year or two of work under your belt can help enormously with developing intuition about what kinds of research questions are interesting. It’s also great for avoiding the “grad school’s not going well, but I don’t know what else to do with my life” trap that a non-trivial number of people find themselves in.

    Getting “stuck” in industry really doesn’t strike me as a big problem, because: 1) There is nothing intrinsically virtuous about going to grad school; 2) Most people who would do well in CS grad school are probably making enough money that if they really do want the research/academic life, it won’t be too hard to make the transition.