How do I know whether or not I am making adequate progress in my research?

Frankly, there is only one good answer: Talk to your research adviser(s). Just ask them, “what is your honest assessment of my research performance and progress?” Your adviser(s) may not often voluntarily give you direct feedback on how you are doing. This is an aspect of academic culture that is not often discussed. Unlike the corporate world, where it is common for supervisors to give their employees direct and frequent performance evaluations, in the academic world it is more common for supervisors to maintain a friendly (if aloof) interaction with their advisees whether the performance is poor, mediocre, good, or excellent. However, most advisers will give honest feedback if asked. So: ask. If you don’t, you may think that you are doing fine when in fact your evaluation is poor, or you may think you are doing poorly when in fact your evaluation is great!

How much time should students devote to research during the academic year?

You are embarking on the path of a professional life and career. A good rule of thumb for any professional career — including science — is that you should expect to work 50 to 60 hours per week. Occasionally you need to work more than that in a given week (e.g., in preparation for a conference, or a grant proposal). But rarely if ever is it likely to be less. As a student, “work” includes classwork and research. Early on, you will probably need to spend most of that work time on coursework, but as you progress you will spend less on coursework and more on research. By the time you are a PhD student and done with coursework, you really should be investing 50 to 60 hours per week just on research: doing experiments, running analyses, writing papers, preparing presentations, etc. It is a lot of work, but it should be exciting!

When should I begin research for my MA thesis?

The sooner the better. Your research productivity and focus are one of the most important ways that you communicate your passion for doing science, and the sooner you get going the more likely it is that you will successfully gain the research skills you need and produce exciting results. The most successful Bridge students get started on a research project in the first or second semester. At the latest, you should plan to dive in to a research project by the summer between your first and second year in the program.

If you have additional questions about this topic, please contact dina.m.stroud@vanderbilt.edu.

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