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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Designing a Better Boss: Applying a Consultant’s Mindset to An Academic Job

20. March 2013

Damon Diehl

I stumbled into my career. I started working as a "consulting scientist” while waiting to defend my Ph.D. thesis. I had a knack for helping customers distinguish between what they really need and what they think they want. The customers’ needs, not all of which are technical, become additional input and output requirements when solving their problems. I then give them technical advice in terms that they understand. My angle proved to be successful, and within a few months, my gig as a consulting scientist turned into a full-time job.

Making a transition.
Last year I made a career change from full-time scientist to full-time undergraduate professor. Some colleagues were concerned that I wouldn’t like the change in the scope of my work. However, I’m actually doing the same thing: I evaluate what my students need and then give them technical instruction in terms that they can understand. Sure, generating 15 hours of lecture material every week is demanding, to say the least, but it lines up with what I’m best at. I enjoy it immensely.

Adjusting to authority.
The culture shock came from an unexpected quarter: having a boss—four layers of them, to be exact.  As a professor, I have immediate responsibilities to the department chair, the dean, the vice president and the president of the college. Separately, I must also answer to the people who control the way the college uses its money, time and facilities. That all adds up to a lot of bureaucracy. For example, I discovered this semester that having pizza delivered to campus, while not technically impossible, requires a purchase order, two weeks’ notice, and a variance for not using the on-campus cafeteria. After a while, I started to feel like I was trapped in an invisible mesh of rules designed to stop me from getting things done.

Creating a customer.
My solution came from a change in perspective. I have learned to view the college as my customer. This is not a stretch—they are paying me to do something, which is the definition of a customer/vendor relationship. I am still mindful of requests and demands from folks up the authority chain, but now I  take a step back and separate what they request from what they need. I make sure I understand the real problem, and then I let my engineering brain solve it within the allowed parameters. This has two advantages: It is more intellectually fulfilling for me, and it produces more effective results. In learning to shift my view and cut to the heart of the matter, I have reduced extraneous demands on my attention … leaving more time to grade the four-inch stack of lab reports, homework assignments and exams on my desk.

Damon Diehl (ddiehl4@monroecc.edu) is an assistant professor and program coordinator of Optical Systems Technology at Monroe Community College in Rochester, N.Y., U.S.A. He is also the founder and owner of Diehl Research Grant Services.

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