Pursuing Science in South Africa

19. June 2014

Yaseera Ismail

I have worked and studied at South African universities since beginning my undergraduate degree. I started my research career at the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research (CSIR), which is one of 10 national research facilities, and I am currently based in the Quantum Research Group at the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN). Here, I will reflect on some of my experiences studying in South Africa.

Freedom of choice

One benefit of attending university in South Africa is the unique structure of the degree system. The arrangement is unusual in that there are four exit points during the completion of three degrees. We start off with a three-year Bachelor of Science (B.Sc.) degree, followed by a year of honors studies. The masters and doctoral degrees begin after the honors year. If you are not pursuing a career in research, you have the option of completing your education after earning a B.Sc. This allows students to tailor our honors year material to the research area we wish to pursue during our M.Sc. and Ph.D., and so we are more prepared and focused when beginning those higher-level degrees.

Availability of resources and funding

South Africa has a growing scientific community, but the opportunities for collaboration and networking are still limited. This can impact the level of research and the growth of facilities taking place in the country. If you are trying to build a research group, it may take more effort and time than other places. However, the lack of certain resources encourages us to look elsewhere for necessary expertise. This helps us build relationships with researchers across the globe. There is also funding available to promote and host national and international conferences, and there are extensive online resources to help fill any gaps.

A prerequisite for registering for a M.Sc. or Ph.D. degree at any South African university is a source of funding for the duration of your studies. Most candidates are awarded a scholarship either by the Department of Science and Technology, the National Research Foundation or national facilities such as the CSIR. The South African government recently set a target of spending 1.5 percent of its budget on research and development by 2018. Funding is also provided by universities such as UKZN, which has its own scholarship program.

Networking opportunities

I have been fortunate enough to attend 22 academic conferences since completing my M.Sc. Conferences are excellent platforms to grow within your field and expand your network of colleagues and friends. There is one major national physics conference in South Africa, known as the South African Institute of Physics Conference. It is hosted annually by various institutes and is currently in its 59th year. My research group also hosts the Quantum Information Processing Communication and Control (QIPCC) Conference each year. This meeting is focused on quantum optics and information science, and is an initiative of the South African Research Chair for Quantum Information Processing and Communication.

Joining professional associations is also a great way to network, and there are several options in South Africa. The South African Institute of Physics is a prominent association for researchers. It has student memberships and provides discounts for student conferences. There are also three OSA Student Chapters: Durban, Pretoria and Stellenbosch. I am part of the newly formed Student Chapter at the UKZN, Durban. Since we joined OSA, we have had numerous avenues opened to us. I recently attended an IONS conference in Montreal, Canada, which was a wonderful experience for me and gave me lots of ideas for growing our Chapter at UKZN.

As a South African student, networking opportunities and the increasing availability of resources have played a major role in expanding my opportunities as a young researcher. I am happy to be contributing to the developing community of scientists in my country.

Yaseera Ismail completed her masters at the CSIR-National Laser Centre in Pretoria, South Africa, where her research focused on novel laser beam shaping for optical trapping and tweezing. She is currently completing her Ph.D. in quantum communication within the Quantum Research Group based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa.

Academic careers, Career, Conferences, Graduate school, International careers, OSA Student Chapters, Ph.D. Perspectives , , , , , , ,

Finding Meaning in Your Ph.D. Research

25. February 2014
Arti Agrawal

I recently interviewed a Ph.D. candidate, and it brought back memories of my own graduate student days. In particular, it got me thinking about the times when I struggled to define exactly why getting my degree was important and what I was accomplishing.

Like most science students, I learned about the big, earthshattering developments in various fields while getting my Bachelor’s and Master’s degrees. It was exciting and inspiring to study key theories in physics and the critical advances that were made by people like Gauss, Newton, Feynman, Planck, Boltzmann and many others.

When I started my doctoral work, I was fresh-faced, eager and ready to make my own mark. I hoped to contribute something big to Science, with a capital S. I wanted to accomplish something like the achievements I had studied in class all those years, and add my name to the list of distinguished scientists taught in classrooms.

But as I proceeded with my research, things didn’t quite work out that way. Scientific accomplishment stopped seeming so simple. The work that you do when completing a Ph.D. is so narrow and focused that you begin to wonder where it fits into the big picture. What is the value of this small piece of work? How will it ever measure up against the really important developments written about in textbooks?

It takes time to realize that the advances we learned about were made over long periods of time and represent the work of many people. Science often advances in small increments, with lots of different discoveries added together to make a whole. Each scientist involved becomes a worthy contributor to the bigger picture. Some make larger contributions than others, and may become famous. That does not detract from the work of others, or the sheer joy that everyone can derive from research.

Once you come to terms with this and begin to understand where you fit in the larger scheme of things, it helps! At least it helped me find peace in my heart, pride in my work and the motivation to keep improving. Even though it may sometimes feel like it, your efforts are not useless. You are part of a larger scientific community, working together to make progress toward common goals.

Arti Agrawal (arti_agrawal@hotmail.com) is a lecturer at City University London in the department of electrical, electronic and information engineering at the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her personal blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com.

 

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How to benefit from internships, exchanges and scholarships

16. December 2013

Christian Reimer

Deciding where you want to conduct your graduate studies and on what kind of research are very difficult and important choices. Getting into the right program—ideally on a full scholarship—is even more challenging. Grades are certainly important, but there are other activities that can play a key role in starting your graduate studies on the right foot. Below are a few tips on how to make the most of these “extracurricular activities” to advance in your career.

Seek out new experiences

There are many ways for undergraduate students to get different kinds of experience and build a professional network, which will be helpful when applying to graduate school and other opportunities. Involvement with OSA Student Chapters, for example, offers valuable contact with other students and professionals with similar interests. Attending conferences and summer schools can broaden your scientific horizon and will help you to become more involved in your field. International exchanges are also valuable resources: a semester or year abroad will open your mind and provide new perspectives.

In my opinion, the most important activity is the acquisition of direct, firsthand research experience. Many research groups and companies offer internships for undergraduate students, which are a valuable addition to your CV and give you a glance into the academic or industrial world before you begin your graduate studies.

Apply, apply and apply

The lack of funds for research in academia is a fundamental and growing issue. It is therefore important to actively look and apply for as many scholarships and funding opportunities as possible. For example, there are many scholarships available to cover travel and other expenses for conferences, internships and exchanges. Even if these scholarships are small, there are very few reasons not to apply, and their impact can be significant for your CV. At first you may have to submit several applications to receive just one award, but after you have won a couple of scholarships and gathered some experience, you will find that success attracts more success.

Dare to ask

In my experience, there is a fundamental rule for a successful academic career: If you want something, ask for it. Being proactive and intelligently asking for what you want will help you throughout your professional life. For example, if you are interested in an internship, invest time and effort in writing a good and specific application letter, ask for help from someone who has already written successful applications, and apply even if no positions are advertised. The worst that can happen is that you do not get it.

The same applies if you want to collaborate with a research group, visit a conference or attend a summer school. If you do your homework and present legitimate reasons why you want to do it and how it will benefit your career or research, then do not be afraid to ask. You should be mentally prepared to have your request denied, but even then, the feedback and practice you receive will be valuable for the future.

While grades are certainly important, combining them with other types of experience will strengthen your CV and will help you get the right graduate position and succeed in academia. You can also take advantage of these opportunities without outstanding grades if you start small and apply often. The more you apply, the easier it will become.

Christian Reimer completed his German Diplom in Physics (equivalent to a M.Sc.) at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology, Germany. During his studies, he participated in exchanges, research projects and internships at Draeger Inc., Germany; Heriot-Watt University, Scotland; the University of St Andrews, Scotland; Surrey University, England; the University of Glasgow, Scotland; and the University of Sydney, Australia. He is currently writing his Ph.D. at the Institut National de la Recherche Scientifique (INRS, http://www.uop.ca/), Canada, supported by a Vanier Canada Graduate Scholarship (www.vanier.gc.ca).

 

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Transitioning Between Undergraduate and Postgraduate Studies

2. October 2013

Yaseera Ismail

Life is full of transitions, and starting a career in science is no exception. One of the major shifts that I faced was moving from my undergraduate to postgraduate studies, and this period was not without its difficulties. Below, I’ll share some advice that will hopefully make the change smoother for others on the same path.


Be adaptable. I was first exposed to a research environment when I worked at the CSIR-National Laser Centre during my honors year. This was quite an eye-opening experience for me, as it was the first time I was at an institution whose primary objective was research output. As a result, I had to change my way of thinking. During my undergraduate studies, I was provided with a detailed, step- by-step syllabus. There is no such spoon-feeding as a postgrad student. This may seem daunting at first, but, as with any job, you adapt to the demands of your new situation.


Spending time in a laboratory also taught me that methodology is rarely set in stone. You try, you fail, and you come up with a new idea. Many postgrad students waste precious time fixating on a method that is not working. This is because, as undergraduates, we are conditioned to assume that our initial plan will not fail as long as it is approved by our supervisors. In graduate school, our supervisors are conducting the research alongside us, and therefore they do not already have the answers.


Manage your time. Cramming at the eleventh hour may work for undergraduates, but it won’t in graduate school. Postgraduate studies demand discipline. Procrastination is a crime that we are all guilty of, but it is critical to work diligently to finish your thesis on time. You should set short-term goals for each day so that you are never stagnant. It is difficult to keep your enthusiasm up at all times, and without a stringent supervisor to encourage you to meet deadlines, you may find yourself taking many a three-week break. Bear in mind that a Ph.D. thesis cannot be completed the week before the due date. Slow and steady wins the race!


Network. In the world of research, networking is a useful way to advance your career. Whenever attending a conference or public lecture, mingle with researchers and fellow students. Try to discover everyone's areas of interest and get their opinions on your work. A simple conversation over coffee can lead to helpful collaboration. I find it intimidating to speak to someone who is much more senior in my field, so I break the ice with a topic that is not related to my research and gradually direct the conversation towards the topic I want to discuss.


Be curious and open. Postgrad studies require initiative, determination and the desire to learn. You can choose what you want to learn and use that information to make something new. Don’t work in isolation. Instead, try to learn from everyone around you. There is a vast range of resources available, so make use of every opportunity on your way to success.


Yaseera Ismail completed her Masters at the CSIR-National Laser Centre in Pretoria, South Africa, where her research focused on novel laser beam shaping for optical trapping and tweezing. She is currently completing her Ph.D. in Quantum Communication within the Quantum Research Group based at the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, South Africa.

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Planning Your Career During Your Ph.D.

8. August 2013

Yanina Shevchenko

 
This spring I attended a talk given by Greg Morrisett, Harvard University, who spoke to graduate students about how they could best use their time while pursuing their Ph.D. I recently finished my own Ph.D. and have just started to transition into my postdoctoral work, and I found that his ideas lined up very well with my own observations. Although getting your degree might seem like a never-ending endeavor at times, it will be over before you know it and you need to be prepared. Below are a few tips to get you started.

Strategize. Try to plan six or seven years ahead in your career. If you don’t have an ideal track in mind, just come up with an option that seems most attractive to you right now. You can always adjust your career plans as you move forward. A bad strategy is better than no strategy at all.
 
Learn and practice. Use this time to figure out how you learn most effectively, and put that technique to good use. Enroll in courses outside your discipline—now is the time to sign up for that Chinese language class that you’ve always wanted to try. In addition to academic learning, take every opportunity to prepare yourself for teaching and management roles. Practice giving talks and hone your public speaking skills in any way that you can. These are all abilities that will serve you very well later in your career.
 
Explore both academia and industry. Apply for internships in different areas and attend conferences and workshops. Ask your advisor and colleagues for advice on the way that funding works and how to obtain it. Get comfortable applying for grants and other available funding resources. In general, develop a habit of asking for more--it never hurts to ask, as long as you do it the right way.
 
Analyze. It’s a good idea to keep a journal of your career plans and research ideas so that you can chart your progress. Be constructive with your appraisal of yourself, but don’t be too critical--there is some truth to the saying that cynics don’t make breakthroughs. Use this time to take some risks and experiment.
 
Collaborate. Work with other graduate students and different research groups as often as you can. Exploring various research styles will help you to identify your own preferred methods, and learning to work with a diverse range of people will teach you to be flexible and adaptable.
 
Socialize. Make friends and spend time with your colleagues and others outside the lab. Invest in these relationships, because these people will be your support network when you transition to your next position. The same applies to mentors and faculty. Get to know them and what they do before you leave the institution. Online interaction can be also quite helpful for making connections. Volunteer to blog and get your name out there.
 
The prospect of deciding your career post-Ph.D. can be daunting, but with careful planning you can make the transition much smoother.
 
Yanina Shevchenko (yshevchenko@gmwgroup.harvard.edu) is the NSERC Postdoctoral Fellow in the Whitesides Research Group, department of chemistry and chemical biology, Harvard University, U.S.A.

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How to Find the Right Advisor

24. June 2013

Shoresh Shafei and Sean Mossman

When you enter grad school, you are immediately faced with a barrage of choices: which courses to take, where to find funding, which topic to study, etc. It’s easy to see how finding an advisor can fall to the bottom the list. Yet it is one of the most important steps you can take toward launching a successful scientific career, since a good advisor can help you to tackle all those other decisions effectively. Everyone has different needs and priorities, but here are a few factors we think are crucial to consider.

Look for a leader. Labs run more smoothly with a strong leader, so you should take the management techniques of the advisor into account. A research group may include several postdocs, graduate students and undergrads, in addition to long- and short-term visitors. These people most likely have different motivations and goals, and they may come from diverse cultural backgrounds. A group leader must be able to balance these varied interests, help the members to work together constructively, and minimize conflicts.

Understand that training is key. He or she should spend time teaching you the skills you need to become a successful scientist. A graduate student isn’t just extra help around the lab; he or she is a mentee! The ultimate goal should be for students to become original thinkers, not to learn how to run an experiment on autopilot without interpreting data or coming up with ideas of their own.

Learn communication skills. A good mentor should communicate effectively and urge you to do the same. He or she should encourage you to prepare and present talks at conferences, make informative and eye-catching posters, and build a helpful network of colleagues. You need to be thinking about all aspects of your education, and your advisor should too.

Consider your mentor’s accessibility. Many graduate students complain about having to wait for a long time to meet with their advisor or receive a response to their emails. Regular one-on-one interaction with your mentor is crucial to making the most of your relationship. It can be difficult to know in advance how available your advisor will be, but you can ask current or former group members about their experiences.

Think about research standards and reputation. Your future advisor’s research standards will become yours as well. Think about how his or her research projects are conducted, results are analyzed, and findings are reported. Is the emphasis on getting research published as quickly as possible, or does quality take precedence? What matters most to you? Finding an advisor with a good reputation will help you to build your own, especially as a young scientist preparing yourself for the job market.

Although there are many factors that contribute to your success in graduate school, having an effective and supportive advisor is extremely helpful. Do yourself a favor and give this decision the time and consideration it deserves by thinking about it early. The more information you have, the better choices you’ll make.

We would like to dedicate this article to Prof. Mark Kuzyk, a great friend and outstanding advisor, for his 55th birthday.

Shoresh Shafei (shafei@wsu.edu) and Sean Mossman are with the department of physics and astronomy at Washington State University in Pullman, Wash., U.S.A. 

 

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What They Don’t Teach You in Graduate School

3. January 2013

Arti Agrawal   

I learned a lot in graduate school: science, research, patience, and technical writing skills, among many other things. So when I took my first position as a lecturer, I thought that my grad school training and subsequent experience as a post-doc had prepared me for professional life as an academic.

Boy, was I wrong!  Many skills that I need in my current job were not taught in school, and sometimes I am blindsided when professional life rudely makes demands on me that weren’t part of my carefully scripted student career. Below are some abilities that I have learned in the workplace.

Persuading and negotiating with people: I must often deal with people in positions of authority to obtain necessities like lab space or funds for equipment, conferences, training courses, or publishing in open access journals. There are limited resources, and the people holding the purse strings are besieged with demands from many others like us, so it’s important to know how to get what you need. Start by prioritizing your wish list into must-have, nice-to-have, and don’t-need-right-now items so that you can focus your energy and efforts accordingly.

Developing good work relationships: You will interact with colleagues, students, peers, superiors, suppliers, vendors and administrative staff, and it can be difficult to maintain these relationships successfully. As a typical geek, I had no idea how to manage working relationships, especially with people who were very different from me. Sometimes taking personality tests like the Meyers-Briggs can help you to better understand yourself and others. You can also get a head start on cultivating working relationships by taking on volunteer leadership opportunities such as organizing an IONS conference  or leading a student chapter—or simply networking within a professional society.

Managing my lab: When I began hiring people, I suddenly needed to understand legal requirements for equality and diversity, health and safety, and risk assessment. I also had to determine how to evaluate my staff. You can find much information online about hiring laws in your area, and my recent OPN article on “Learning to Teach” includes some ideas on how to think through student assessment.

Balancing more than one demanding job: As a post-doc, I would work on several research projects at once and even throw in a bit of teaching on the side—which felt overwhelming enough. But now added to the mix were administrative work, department meetings, lab management, securing funding, reviewing papers and supervising post-docs. Learning how to organize and prioritize is critical.

Saying no without offending: I find it hard to say no to people, and, as a result, I often take on more than I can handle. Although it can sometimes be difficult, it’s important to learn how to deal with such situations and say no without causing hurt or offense. Just be friendly but assertive about what you can and cannot realistically do. You must be able to set healthy boundaries in order to succeed in any relationship, whether personal or professional.

Indeed, these skills are not confined to any single profession–we need them in every sphere of life. Although they may not be part of any formal curriculum, you can learn them through experience and practice. Good luck!

Arti Agrawal (arti_agrawal@hotmail.com) is a lecturer at City University London in the department of electrical, electronic and information engineering at the School of Engineering and Mathematical Sciences. To follow her personal blog, visit http://artiagrawal.wordpress.com.

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The Purpose of Grad School: A Socratic Dialog

23. August 2012

David Woolf

Last January, while I was at a conference to give a talk on my thesis work, I had a conversation with a professor over breakfast. It went something like this:

Professor:  What do you think is the number one output of academia?

Me: Groundbreaking research, discoveries and breakthroughs that push the forefront of what is possible further forward.

Professor: Wrong! Try again.

Me: What do you mean, “wrong”? What else could it be? There’s no other way to make progress. You have a huge number of problems to solve, so you throw a huge number of people at them. At least some of those individuals are capable of making a big discovery.

Professor: So how many people end up doing that?

Me: Oh, probably way less than one percent.

Professor: Right. So that tiny fraction of scientists will get fame and glory, but what about the other 99+ percent? What will they do?

Me: Well, some will become professors, but most will probably go into industry, or finance or something else altogether.

Professor: Exactly! They’ll take the skills they learned in grad school and apply them in the workplace, either within their field or outside of it.

Me: Sure, we all contribute, but most of us aren’t making any lasting difference. We aren’t discovering the laser, or the transistor, or…

Professor: Ahh, but you’ve got it backwards. Don’t get me wrong: Those discoveries were immensely important. But the greatest output of academia is not the science; it’s the students. Everyone who goes through graduate school is given a vast array of skills to apply in a thousand different ways—in industry, in business, in education, or otherwise. The whole process would be useless if this weren’t true. The great, world-changing discoveries are just a fortunate byproduct.

Me: I’m not sure I agree.

Professor: Well, think about it.

--------------

So I thought about it, and I realized he was right. Ph.D. programs are long but highly rewarding slogs, and it’s easy to end up with a skewed perspective. I’m lucky to have an advisor who has been supportive of both my research and of me personally, and yet I’ve still spent many years forgetting which was more important: my work or myself.

Grad school, though demanding, comes with great freedom and many opportunities for growth. In the past seven years, I’ve studied everything from plasmonics to optomechanics. I came to wrong conclusions more often than I came to right ones. I learned how to correct myself. I lectured on semiconductor laser physics and audited a class on the scientific and technological aspects of policy making. I picked up (and forgot) French. In short, I learned a lot.  Even if I never make a “big discovery,” I’ll be able to use the knowledge that I gained in grad school to contribute to the world in myriad ways. We invest so much in our educations that we often lose sight of how much our schools have invested in us in return.

David Woolf (dnwoolf@gmail.com) received his bachelor’s degree in optical science and engineering from the University of California, Davis in 2005, where he helped start and was president of the U.C. Davis OSA Student Chapter. He is currently finishing up his Ph.D. in applied physics at Harvard University. His research interests include optomechanics, plasmonics and the Casimir effect.

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Combining Science with Public Policy

17. August 2012

T.J. Augustine

When I started graduate school, I assumed that I would pursue a career in academics. However, about halfway through my Ph.D., I realized that that was not the right career path for me. I had always been interested in government and passionate about public policy issues. I began to wonder whether I could combine my background in science with my interest in public service. However, when I started talking to the people I knew in science, most had no idea how to help me get started. Since then, I have met many other scientists who have had similar experiences after deciding to pursue a career outside the traditional academic and industrial tracks. 

Now, six years after starting to think seriously about jumping into government, I have finished a year as an OSA/SPIE Congressional Fellow in the office of Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D.-Ill.) and started a new position in the U.S. Department of Energy as Special Assistant to the Secretary of Energy, Steven Chu. Recently, I’ve been asked by a number of grad students and post docs what steps I took to get these positions. I thought this would be a great opportunity to share some advice for current grad students who are trying to navigate a path into the policy world.

Make connections in the field. After finishing my Ph.D., I completed a master’s degree in public policy. Although an extra degree is not for everyone, it allowed me to meet people who have spent their careers working in policy. I was able to use these connections to track down scientists who had also worked in government. These people were fantastic resources, and they have served as role models at this early stage of my career. 

Get involved. No matter how you end up getting your first policy position, you need to build a resume that shows more than your educational background and some papers you published. Take advantage of any opportunity you can find to demonstrate your interest in public issues. Volunteer for a political campaign, start a club at your university, write an op-ed for a local newspaper, or even just sit in on a class that deals with policymaking. Taking that first step may place you outside of your comfort zone, but subsequent steps will be easier. 

Look for fellowships. Once you’ve gotten your start in policy, the science and technology policy fellowships sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science are a fantastic way to get involved in the federal government. My OSA/SPIE Congressional Fellowship is part of that program. It was a fantastic experience that played a crucial role in helping me to find my current position.

Scientists typically have the ability to think outside the box and solve problems. Such skills are incredibly valuable, especially at a time when the U.S. government is faced with shrinking budgets and rising levels of debt. There is no time like the present for young scientists to bring their expertise to bear. All you need to do is dive in.

T.J. Augustine (tjaugustine3@gmail.com) is the Special Assistant to the Secretary at the United States Department of Energy. Prior to that, he was an OSA/SPIE/AAAS Congressional Fellow in the office of Sen. Richard J. Durbin and also worked as an intern in the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy. T.J. completed his Ph.D. in chemistry and a master’s degree in public policy at Stanford University.

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How to Survive—and Thrive—in Grad School

10. August 2012

Kasturi Saha

Regardless of your ultimate career goals, you should have the time of your life in graduate school and do your best to make your education count. Four years ago, when I received an offer to pursue a Ph.D. in physics at Cornell University, I was ecstatic. What I didn’t know then was that this initial excitement would soon vanish. What lay ahead were years filled with challenges and choices, both academic and personal. Here are a few ways to handle the difficult aspects of graduate school and have a good time doing it.

Find the right group. As an international student, I found that moving to a country with a different educational system and culture was a huge adjustment. I learned that choosing a good research group was crucial to making this transition easier. It is important to seek out a happy and balanced environment that is compatible with your research interests. The easiest way to figure out whether a group is right for you is to interact with the members and advisor. This will allow you to gauge the general level of satisfaction within the group, which ultimately sets the tone for your Ph.D. research.  You should also be careful when choosing your research topic. If you keep an open mind, you will discover research opportunities that you might never have considered when you first applied.

Push your limits. I have found that working on multiple projects simultaneously is a great way to keep life and work on track during my Ph.D. studies. Although it may be difficult to balance different priorities and learn new things at the same time, this approach increases your chances of success and builds confidence. Being engaged with multiple ventures allows you to continue being productive when one of them doesn’t work out. It also prevents you from feeling cynical and pessimistic.

Communicate. Have you ever wished that you had the courage to express your views? Don’t hesitate to share your thoughts and ideas, however silly they may seem to you. Brainstorming is an effective way to generate concrete research problems and ideas. Effective communication helps you to achieve exposure for your work, both amongst your peers and across the wider research community. Half-hearted communication can lead to misunderstandings and consequently wasted time and work. Often a one-on-one chat with your colleague or advisor can solve many problems.

Network and participate. Isolation can lead to a disastrous Ph.D. experience.  Share your work with others and learn about their achievements as well. Networking also fosters mutual growth for those involved and introduces you to a vast pool of resources that you can draw from. It is also important to give back to the community. This could include participating in outreach programs, organizing student seminars or other such activities. What you sacrifice in time you’ll gain in new skills, connections and accomplishments.

Have a social life. You might think that working days and nights in the lab will put you on the fast track to your degree. In reality, this is not the case. Working weekends and staying up late in the lab can lead to exhaustion, which is detrimental to both you and your work. All work and no play makes for dull grad students. Having good friends and taking part in social activities diverts your mind from the research grind and reminds you that there is life outside the lab.

Think about the big picture. My motivation for overcoming day-to-day frustrations often comes from thinking about my future and my larger dreams and goals.  I strongly suggest this kind of periodic self-evaluation. Think of grad school not as an end in itself, but as a stepping-stone to even greater success.

Kasturi Saha (ks652@cornell.edu) is a 5th year graduate student in Alexander Gaeta’s group in the School of Applied and Engineering Physics at Cornell University. She works in close collaboration with Michal Lipson’s group in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering. She received her B.Sc. from St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, India, and her M.Sc. in Physics from the Indian Institute of Technology, Delhi.

 

 

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