I suspect that Lance and/or I have had blogs giving advice to grad students. I won't point to any particular posts since that's a hard thing to search for. However, they were all written WAY AFTER Lance and I actually were grad students. Recently a former grad student at UMCP, Prahalad Rajkumar, emailed me that he wanted to do a post about advice for grad students. Since he has graduated more recently (Master degree in CS, topic was Monte Carlo Techniques, in 2009, then a job as a programmer-analyst) his advice may be better, or at least different, than ours was.
Here is his guest post with an occasional comment by me embedded in it.
I Made this Fatal Mistake when I Joined a Graduate Program at Maryland
Getting accepted to a graduate program in a good school is an honor.
It is also an opportunity to do quality work and hone your skills. I made one fatal mistake at the start of my master’s degree at the University of Maryland which took me down a vicious rabbit hole. I believed that I was not cut out for this program.
The Only Person Who Gave an Incorrect Answer
Before the start of my graduate studies, there was an informal gathering held for newer students and some faculty members. A faculty member asked a basic algorithm question.
Everyone in the room gave one answer. I gave another answer.
This is real life and not Good Will Hunting, and of course, I was wrong. I had misunderstood the question. It would have been a simple matter to shrug and move forward. But the paternal voice in my head saw a good opportunity to continue to convince me that I was an imposter who did not belong here.
Who is Smarter than Whom?
Some of my fellow incoming graduate students, who TAed with me for Bill Gasarch’s class, played an innocent looking game.
“That guy is so smart”.
“I wish I were as smart as her”.
They couldn’t know that this would affect me. I too did not know that this could affect me. But it did. I asked myself “Am I smarter than person X?”. Each time, the paternal voice in my head was quick to answer “No”. And each time I took this “No” seriously.
NOTE FROM BILL: Professors also play who is smarter than who game and we shouldn't.
I Didn’t Choose My Classes Wisely
I made a few mistakes in choosing my classes. I chose Concrete Complexity with Bill, which I later realized I had no aptitude for. I chose an undergraduate class taught by a professor whose style did not resonate with me. Mercifully, I chose a third class that I liked and excelled in. A class which did not destroy my confidence.
In retrospect, though I chose a couple of classes that were not my cup of tea, I compounded my problems with the stories I told myself. I had several good options available to me. I could redouble my efforts in the said classes and give it my best shot. I could accept my inevitable “B” grades in these classes, and be mindful to choose better classes in the upcoming semesters.
I, however, did the one thing I should not have done: I further convinced myself that I was not cut out to be a graduate student.