Poll: Grad student misconceptions

Sep 03 2012 Published by under [Education&Careers]

For many, the academic year is just beginning. In addition to the undergrads flooding campuses, there is a new cohort of grad students making their way into the labs of many universities. Like their undergraduate counterparts, there is huge variability in the level of preparation of these students. Some will know exactly what they are getting into and others expect undergrad 2.0.

I'm curious, on this day of rest for many, what my readers see as the most common beginning grad student misconceptions. For you grad students, what were the things that surprised you in your first week as a grad student? For Postdocs and PIs, what is the thing that you have to often disabuse your new students of?

20 responses so far

  • miko says:

    The first time I started grad school, May rolled around and I was like "What's everyone doing this summer?"

  • Drugmonkey says:

    That a Mac is a serious science tool.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    DM, I'm glad you finally erased the "sent from my iPad" signature from your posts.

  • FSGrad says:

    That I would have time or mental space for extracurricular stuff like clubs or music groups or other academic interests that I had once upon a time.

  • Bashir says:

    There were plenty of new students who didn't quite understand what they'd gotten into. I was kind of surprised by that. They knew there would be research to do but perhaps expected it to be guided. Like if you were taking a lab class. On the other hand a few adivsors did seem to treat it that way.

    A friend in a social science department said it was much worse there. Some students didn't think they would do any research other than a small project. Just take classes. This was a PhD program. A lot of people left with a masters.

  • Mac says:

    Starting grad school I wasn't prepared for how quickly I would need to start sending out grant applications. Somehow I thought it would be 'come in, figure stuff out and then in year 2 start applying' but fellowship and small grant apps need to start going out semester 1. Learning that was good prep though for the next steps (postdoc, faculty position, etc) but it did blow me away. Students I see now? There's a huge amount of variation. Some of them seem to expect their advisors to serve up a research project on a silver platter with a Science/Nature letter of acceptance attached. More of them are pretty good, understanding that they've got to start taking charge of their own research development, and a few are incredible and make me wonder how on earth I'm the professor - I was no where near that sophisticated at that stage.

  • Genomic Repairman says:

    Our noob, thought that we actually had a "spring break."

  • phagenista says:

    My second week of grad school, the DGS sent out an article by email to all the grad students that discussed how female PhDs rarely conducted the same kind of national/international, location-be-damned job search. Included in the article was the explicit admonition to current female students that if we were unwilling to do the same big search, we were keeping another, more motivated student from the resources of graduate study, and we should step aside. It was a fair warning shot -- sexism played a larger role in grad school than I'd expected.

  • anon says:

    I think I for the most part had a clue (especially after I started reading all these academic blogs 😉 ) since I had done a bunch of research as an undergrad- had plenty of time to screw up and learn then... The most common cases of cluelessness I see are about just how much *work* it takes to get a PhD- you will not get to be super social and have tons of outside activities, it will not be a 9-5 M-F kind of job unless you are very efficient while you're in the office, the academic calendar applies to classes and not research, etc.

  • cookingwithsolvents says:

    Few students seem to understand how important it is to develop other skills like literature searching, effective writing, presenting results, and cross-disciplinary awareness are to their career success. Good advisers are often loathed for forcing these "chores" upon their students.

    Many don't get it that most fields are small and people have long memories.

    Shockingly few ever seem to understand the difference between productivity and activity. Thus the few that have any semblance of a life outside of lab....

  • zy says:

    amazing big idea --> grad school --> awesome famous pubs

    Turns out, that middle part is really hard...

  • becca says:

    This gonna make me sound like a jackhat, but it's true. The biggest misconception that I had was that I thought most grad students would be as nerdy as me. I found my grad school colleagues who were from the US to be much more mainstream socialized than I was. International students were a bit more mixed.

  • Hermitage says:

    I've met a frightening number of newbie grad students who came because they "like taking classes." I would say at least a quarter of first years that I've met have no flipping clue what research really is, what graduate coursework is really like, or even what jobs they can get with their degrees.

  • proflikesubstance says:

    How is it possible that new grad students still think all they need to do is take classes when they went through the application process and had to talk with a PI, etc? I can't see that happening where I am, but maybe it's because we don't admit to the program without a specific PI taking each student.

  • Dr Becca says:

    I had absolutely no idea what to expect from grad school, but no expectations is probably better than erroneous expectations. I did what I was told (in the beginning), and cried every day for the first couple of months.

  • BugDoc says:

    We only accept students with a fair amount of research experience, so most of them come in understanding that there will be a focus on research. The biggest misconception seems to be that succeeding in grad school is just like succeeding as an undergrad, i.e., just learn the materials you are given, instead of working on developing critical and creative thinking skills. The sooner students make this transition, the more successful they are.

  • Jim Thomerson says:

    I had a MS student who really liked taking classes. He had some 90 graduate hours when he finished. He did good research as well. I just let him do what ever he wanted. He did eventually go get a PhD, and later was in a position to hire me part time, and to do consulting. I have said, partially in jest, that my goal is to educate my students well, so they can get responsible positions, and hire me to do consulting.

  • anonymous postdoc says:

    I happened to go to a particular undergraduate institution where about the only thing you are qualified to do afterwards is attend graduate school - it produces a disproportionate number of PhDs, particularly in the biomedical sciences. So I would say that my biggest misconception was that grad school would be harder than undergrad. In terms of coursework and beginning my research project, it was easier to equivalent. I went to a very highly ranked school in my subfield for PhD, and I thought I was gonna get my ass kicked, and instead I was ok.

    The thing that became hard, and is a misconception that I see in common with undergrads I mentor, is the lack of understanding that the faculty are imperfect human beings. This means they often get nervous before lecturing, make mistakes when distracted and stressed, and will not be able to create references for you at the drop of a hat, so treat them like fallible human beings when you need something from them. Further, they are not omniscient god-beings who always know the right thing, and consequently if they tell you the wrong thing it is out of personal dislike for you. You do not matter that much for them to hurt you out of personal dislike. However, they can hurt you out of utter disregard. Cultivate good, human relationships with your mentors, with multiple mentors, and it can only pay dividends.

  • Confounding says:

    That classes were the thing that mattered.

  • orange says:

    I'm currently a grad student in physics.

    What surprised me most? Well...

    1) There's not nearly enough time for everything on your plate.

    2) The kids who came from top schools (e.g., the Ivies) and got near perfect GPAs don't necessarily know more than the kids who came from state schools with somewhat lower GPAs. When I started my program, I felt very insecure and somewhat intimidated by the students from Princeton, Berkeley, etc. By the end of the first semester, it was clear that they weren't any better at physics than me. Maybe that's why we all managed to get into the same graduate program?

    3) Superficially, you may not have anything in common with your new cohorts, but once you start sharing TA horror stories---usually about grade-grubbing pre-meds, if you're in physics---you'll bond.

    4) Self-motivation is the key to success.

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