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In a previous column, we polled leaders in the field of experimental psychology and asked “What do you know now that you wish you had known in graduate school?” As a follow-up to this, we asked the same question to senior-level graduate students. To encourage open, honest answers, we stressed that responses would remain anonymous.
Fight the fights you can win, not the fights that need fighting.
I think it's important to realize that part of being in grad school is spending time outside of the lab with your fellow classmates whenever possible; sometimes the best ideas are generated over a burger and a beer, not by re-reading an article for the 5th time.
Although things are always slow to get going, I wish that someone had told me to get started on collaborating earlier in my career. Both in terms of working with multiple professors and brainstorming ideas with grad students from other areas. I would say that branching out early can definitely be beneficial. When you put all your eggs in one basket, it's hard to get a realistic picture of what you know and what you still need to learn. The more that you involve others... the more you network... the more you see how you fit in and the more you can appreciate the talents of others.
This will probably be helpful if I become a professor. Students are valuable sources of information. The people who program and run studies will be just as helpful as the experienced professors who will make sure that your ideas are theoretically well-founded.
The other thing is that I wish that I had worked harder at planning breaks into my schedule earlier in grad school. Doing so now is harder than it should be. Taking time out to get away from grad school pressures can be valuable.
When looking at graduate schools, we presumably tried to match our research interests with our advisor’s interests. Unfortunately, over time our interests often change as we are exposed to more and more research. Never be afraid to pursue alternative avenues of research. What you study in graduate school need not be what you study as a post-doc or faculty member. This can be difficult to do, especially if your advisor is firmly “locked” into a research program. From the advisor’s standpoint, you will be dedicating time that could be spent advancing his/her research program towards exploring a totally new avenue of investigation. When dealing with this, keep in mind the following points:
One thing I wish I would have known when I was starting grad school was what really seems to matter versus what you think matters. For instance, people tend to get overly stressed about topics concerning course work, master’s projects, and doctoral exams, while advisors are more concerned with doing as much research as possible in order to get publications and build up the vita. In fact, I have heard some faculty members equate getting a masters degree with getting a fishing license. It’s just something that needs to be done. So, in retrospect, here are some things that I have found to be important.
1) Appearance matters. You want to appear like a hard worker and as competent on the outside even if you are freaking out on the inside. You don’t want to be the aloof guy who, despite intelligence, is seen as a slacker around the department.
2) Spread it out. You want to work on as many projects as can be successfully completed in your tenure. You don’t want to put all your hopes in one research project nor do you want to work on a number of projects that never get completed. You want to be able to walk away from this experience with something substantial to show for it.
3) Have fun. Remember, you are on this career path because you want to be. Presumably, you are interested in the work you do and you want to do that work well. However, it doesn’t make a lot of sense to work to the point that you end up burnt out hating what you do. Therefore, it’s important to always try and have fun both at work and, more importantly, when you are away from work. At work, throw a ball around with a buddy or just shoot the breeze for awhile. At home, engage in activities that have absolutely nothing to do with work. That way, when you get back to work you are refreshed.