I recently defended my thesis at Fisk and am prepared to make the transition to Vanderbilt. What steps should I take to complete this transition?

Be sure to get and stay in direct contact with the assistant to the Director of Graduate Studies in the PhD department to which you have been admitted. For example, in Physics & Astronomy, it is Don Pickert. This person knows all the ins and outs of forms, deadlines, procedures for transferring your Fisk credits to Vanderbilt, payroll, etc, etc. If at any point you are not sure who the right person is, ask Alyce! She will point you in the right direction, or she will find out who is the best contact person if she doesn’t already know.

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!

I would like to get a part-time job that will help me develop skills that will be useful when I apply for a post-doc or faculty position. What would you recommend?

In most cases, outside employment is a violation of university policies. This is because the university makes a commitment to fully support you (the program, through grants obtained by the faculty mentors, cover your tuition, stipend, insurance, etc), and the expectation in return is that you will commit yourself fully to your studies and research. However, it is normal to serve as a Teaching Assistant at some point during your graduate career, and/or to participate in structured outreach programs such as Vanderbilt’s Scientist in the Classroom program. These activities usually provide some modest additional pay, but more importantly can significantly enhance your professional development and marketability for a future academic career.

What is an appropriate course load in graduate school?

The normal load is 9 or 10 credit hours per semester. Nine is required for full-time status. Twelve is considered quite heavy. More than twelve is crazy.

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!

Are we eligible to receive financial assistance/advances for GRE tests?

Yes. Talk to Consti or Alyce any time you need help financially with things related to your academics. The sooner we know that you need help, the sooner they can help.

Are we eligible to receive financial assistance/advances for travel to conferences?

Yes. Talk to Consti or Alyce any time you need help financially with things related to your academics or research. The sooner we know that you need help, the sooner they can help. The Bridge Handbook defines the best practices for booking research-related travel.

Are we eligible to receive financial assistance/advances for textbooks?

Yes. Talk to Consti or Alyce any time you need help financially with things related to your academics or research. The sooner we know that you need help, the sooner they can help.

If there is a hold on my account at Fisk, who should I talk to?

Consti! Any problem of an administrative, logistical, or bureaucratic nature, always start with Consti. He will direct you to where you need to go and/or take care of the problem with you. If you go to a Fisk office to resolve a problem and are told something different from what Consti told you, immediately go back to Consti. Chances are that he is right, and he will get it resolved directly.

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.