The Graduate Student Survival Guide

Dr. Wanda Pratt


The following guide has been provided by Dr. Wanda Pratt and includes helpful tips on making the most of your graduate school experience.

Getting the Most Out of the Relationship with Your Research Advisor or Boss

Meet Regularly – you should insist on meeting once a week or at least every other week because it gives you motivation to make regular progress and it keeps your advisor aware of your work.

Prepare for your meetings – come to each meeting with:
List of topics to discuss
Plan for what you hope to get out of the meeting
Summary of you have done since your last meeting
List of any upcoming deadlines
Notes from your previous meeting

Email him/her a brief summary of EVERY meeting – this helps avoid misunderstandings and provides a great record of your research progress. Include (where applicable):
Time and plan for next meeting
New summary of what you think you are doing
To do list for yourself
To do list for your advisor
List of related work to read
List of major topics discussed
List of what you agreed on
List of advice that you may not follow

Show your advisor the results of your work as soon as possible – this will help your advisor understand your research and identify potential points of conflict early in the process.
Summaries of related work
Anything you write about your research
Experimental results

Communicate clearly – if you disagree with your advisor, state your objections or concerns clearly and calmly. If you feel something about your relationship is not working well, discuss it with him or her. Whenever possible, suggest steps they could take to address your concerns.

Take the initiative – you do not need to clear every activity with your advisor. He/she has a lot of work to do too. You must be responsible for your own research ideas and progress.

Getting the Most Out of What You Read

Be organized
Keep an electronic bibliography with notes & pointers to the paper files
Keep and file all the papers you have read or skimmed

Be efficient – only read what you need to
Start by reading only the conclusion, scanning figures & tables, and looking at their references
Read the other sections only if the paper seems relevant or you think it may help you get a different perspective
Skip the sections that you already understand (often the background and motivation sections)

Take notes on every paper you find worth reading
What problem are they trying to solve?
What is their approach?
How is it different from other approaches?

Summarize what you have read on each topic – after you have read several papers covering some topic, note the:
key problems
various formulations of the problem they are addressing
relationship among the various approaches
alternative approaches

Read PhD theses – even though they are long they can be very helpful in quickly learning about what has been done is some field. Especially focus on:
Background sections
Method sections
Your advisor’s thesis – this will give you an idea for what he/she expects from you.

Making Continual Progress on Your Research

Keep a journal of your ideas – write down everything you are thinking about even if you think it is stupid. It will help you keep track of your progress and keep you from going in circles. Do not plan to share it with anyone, so you can write freely.

Set some reasonable goals with deadlines.
Identify key tasks that need to be completed
Set a reseasonable date for completing them (on the order of weeks or months).
Share this with your advisor or enlist your advisors help in creating the goals and deadlines.
Set some deadlines that you must keep (e.g., volunteer to give a student seminar on your research, work toward a conference paper submission deadline, etc.)

Keep a to do list – Checking off things on a to do list can feel very rewarding when you are working on a long-term project.
List the small tasks that can be done in about an hour
Pick at least one that has to be completed each day

Continually update your:
Problem statement
Approach (or a list of possible approaches)
One-minute version of your research (aka the elevator ride summary)
Five-minute version of your research

Discuss your research with anyone who will listen – use your fellow students, friends, family, etc. to practice discussing your research on various levels. They may have useful insights or you may find that verbalizing your ideas clarifies them for yourself.

Write about your work.
Early stage: Write short idea papers and share them with your advisor and colleagues.
Intermediate stage: Find workshops and conferences for submitting preliminary results. This can also help you set deadlines.
Advanced stage: Target relevant journals.

Avoid distractions – it is easy to ignore your research in favor of more structured tasks such as taking classes, teaching classes, organizing student activities, creating web pages like this, etc. Minimize these kinds of activities or committments.

Confront your fears and weaknesses.
If you are afraid of public speaking, volunteer to give lots of talks.
If you are afraid your ideas are stupid, discuss them with someone.
If you are afraid of writing, write something about your research every day.

Balance reading, thinking, writing and hacking – often research needs to be an iterative process across all of those tasks.

Finding a Thesis Topic or Formulating a Research Plan

Pick something you find interesting – if you work on something solely because your advisor wants you to, it will be difficult to stay motivated.

Pick something your advisor finds interesting – if your advisor doesn’t find it interesting he/she is unlikely to devote much time to your research. He/she will be even more motivated to help you if your project is on their critical path (although this has down sides too!).

Pick something the research community will find interesting – if you want to make yourself marketable.
Make sure it addresses a real problem
Remember that your topic will evolve as work on it
Pick something that is narrow enough that it can be done in a reasonable time frame
Have realistic expectations (i.e. Don’t expect the Nobel Prize)

Don’t worry that you will be stuck in this area for the rest of your career. It is very likely that you will be doing very different research after you graduate.

Characteristics to Look for in a Good Advisor, Mentor, Boss, or Committee Member

It is unreasonable to expect one person to have all of the qualities you desire. You should choose thesis committee members who are strong in the areas where your advisor is weak.

Willing to meet with you regularly (about 1 hour every week or every other week).

You can trust him/her to:
Give you credit for the work you do
Defend your work when you are not around
Speak well of you and your capabilities
Tell you when your work is or is not good enough
Help you graduate in a reasonable time frame
Look out for you professionally and personally

Is interested in your topic

Has good personal and communication skills
You can talk freely and easily about research ideas
Tells you when you are doing something stupid
Never feels threatened by your capabilities
Helps motivate you and keep you unstuck

Has good technical skills
Can provide constructive criticism of papers you write or talks you give
Knows if what you are doing is good enough for a good thesis
Can help you figure out what you are not doing well
Can help you improve your skills
Can suggest related articles to read or people to talk to
Can tell you or help you discover if what you are doing has already been done
Can help you set and obtain reasonable goals

Will be around until you finish
Is well respected in his/her field
Has good connections for the type of job you would want when you graduate
Willing and able to provide financial and computing support

Avoiding the Research Blues

When you meet your goals, reward yourself
Don’t compare yourself to senior researchers who have many more years of work and publications
Don’t be afraid to leave part of your research problem for future work
Use the student counseling services
Occasionally, do something fun without feeling guilty!

Dr. Wanda Pratt is an Associate Professor at the University of Washington, specializing in the development and evaluation of new types of information technology to better find, share, manage, and use textual information. Her research has been most readily applied in the field of health-care. To learn more about Dr. Platt, visit: