Four Common Misconceptions of Graduate School

Last Friday I participated in CMU's Fusion Forum, a really fun program designed to improve recruitment of minority students into graduate school. In the panel session, a bunch of faculty discussed their thoughts on what it was like in graduate school.

I framed my thoughts in the form of four common misconceptions of PhD level work. They are:

1. Grades still matter in PhD programs.
Grades matter a lot in undergraduate programs, because you need a high enough GPA to be a plausible candidate to be admitted. However, once you are in a PhD program, grades matter only insofar as you need a good enough grade to pass required courses, and a high enough grade not to antagonize the instructor (who may be on your dissertation committee one day). Nobody really cares about your grades when you do the job search. What they care about is whether you can do original and insightful research.

2. In computer science, a lot of students think that the majority of their time will be spent programming. I had this misconception when I first started graduate school. In reality, I spent maybe 15% of my time programming, with the rest of it spent on thinking about what problem to solve, reading related work, talking about ideas with other folk, and doing presentations. This is why I look for people who can write and communicate well, and can think really well about problems.

3. Some students come into graduate school thinking that there will be a lot of structure and that they just need to do the work assigned to them. This is still an undergraduate way of thinking. In graduate school, you need to be able to go beyond this, and eventually teach us, the faculty, new and interesting things. Part of the goal of graduate school is to give you the tools and mindset so that you can accomplish this.

4. Some students believe that graduate school is primarily an individual activity with just more coursework. Graduate school is an apprenticeship, where you not only learn the tools and skills to conduct original research, but also become a member of the local community at your university, as well as a member of the international research community. Phil Agre has a great description of this community aspect of graduate work in his essay Networking on the Network.


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