Not So Obvious FAQ

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The "Not So Obvious" Graduate School FAQ created by graduate student members of The Community Data Science Collective

How much of grad school involves... actually taking classes?

   Around 2-4 years. The extent to which those classes are also determined by program or more flexibly chosen by the student is variable across programs. E.g. some programs have more thorough "core" curricula.


What do you do the rest of the time?

   Mostly, research and teaching! Also, mentoring, service work (for instance review papers, organize social events, building community in program/across programs).


How much do I pay / get paid?

   Doctoral programs will almost always *pay you* a stipend on top of covering your tuition (this is true of all the programs CDSC is involved with). Be very skeptical of any offers of admission you receive that do not include tuition + stipend. Currently, the stipend for NU's MTS and TSB is around 32k / year (no grad student union, though there are ongoing efforts to unionize), UW is about 22k/year (but you will be union and have *awesome* healthcare benefits plus formal job protections and solidarity benefits like recourse in the case of workplace harassment), and Purdue's stipend is 23-25k/year in a low cost of living city. You may also have opportunities for additional paid teaching and work roles. Finally, students who earn certain kinds of grants and fellowships or take industry internships can substantially increase their yearly compensations. 
   Some specifics for increasing yearly compensations: For NU, if you get an external fellowship (aka a fellowship NOT coming from NU), they generally also give you a top-up of 6k a year ($500 per month).


What does a successful year of grad school look like?

   Depends on your advisor, but... if you want to do research after grad school, submitting high-quality papers for publication, completing coursework, planning a long term research agenda. Publications are a primary (but not the only!) unit of "accomplishment" in academia, so much of grad school centers on research, writing, and publishing. If your primary goal is to teach, you'll definitely have that opportunity, both as a teaching assistant and as a supervised instructor of your own course (you might even get to design the course yourself).
   An important aspect of grad school that maybe is not super talked about is also becoming acquainted with the community of researchers/colleagues you want to be involved with moving forward and making those kinds of connections! This includes fellow grad students, many who do and will go on to do super cool things. This can happen through one's own volition or by taking advantage of events hosted by your program/institution, conference + social events, etc.

How important are advisors/to what extent do they really control the grad school experience?

   The working dynamic between you and your advisor is always dependent on, unsurprisingly (1) you and (2) your advisor. Getting a sense of a potential advisor's working style by talking to previous/curent students can be helpful. And once you get an advisor, having conversations on Day One on what you expect from one another is also very important! Setting shared expectations can save a lot of trouble in the long run, and having a working relationship with an advisor in this way can really improve the grad school experience. I think it's important to work with someone you personally vibe with.
   It is also good and generally encouraged to work with faculty who are NOT your advisor; this expands your collaborative experiences and also, fosters potential to find a diverse set of mentors (but probably don't assume that a more senior collaborator on a project is automatically going to be willing to put in the labor of mentoring as well). I personally think that having multiple mentors is great, because it diversifies the feedback/advice you get and can put less pressure on a single individual to guide your academic career.


What happens when my paper is accepted?

   For conference papers (more important in computing fields), you also get to / have to present the work at a conference.


What impacts what hours I work, what my day to day looks like, etc.?

   Grad school is generally more flexible than other fields of employment. However, things like work hours and day-to-day structure may depend on your *advisor* and *lab*. Some groups try to keep fairly typical schedules (e.g. everyone is available between 9a and 5p). Other groups may embrace odd work hours (e.g. you and your advisor may collaborate on a research project late at night)---this might also be super regular, e.g. crunching for a deadline and setting work sessions for that purpose. If you're at UW, your union contract is for 20 hrs/week (whether you are teaching or doing research; if your work goes outside that boundary then there is recourse) and a full-time course load is 10 credits, translating to a target of 30 hrs/week of time in class/homework.
   In some ways, being a grad student is a lot like being an entrepreneur: you will need to set many of your goals yourself and structure your own time. You might have quarterly goals, but how to reach them may be unclear -- in fact, figuring that out is often part of the goal itself.
   We highly advise you to talk to potential advisors about this topic early and often! Setting boundaries is always a good thing given that graduate school can be so flexible/undefined in this sense.

Is grad school really as horrible as it sounds on Twitter/in comics/on TV?

   Nope. It's hard but it's super fun. Also work. A lot of work. If you're suffering in grad school then please reach out for resources to make a change.

How would I know if grad school isn't really for me?

   Grad school is not 'the next thing after undergrad'. Being an expert learner like you were in college might not make you a very good creator of new knowledge. In fact, many people pursue a PhD many years after undergrad, due to the experiences outside of academia (and these non-academic experiences are in many senses a real advantage/boon). A PhD is not necessary for most careers -- in fact, it might make certain career options closed to you if you disclose having earned it. Why do you want to go to grad school?
   Are you curious about a range of topics, concepts, and settings -- or very curious about a single topic/concept/setting? Are you able to make long-term commitments and keep them? Do you feel deep joy from working hard on complex problems you care about? Are you willing to read a lot and think really hard for a long period of time? Can you do that hard work and then live with being wrong in public, repeatedly? Can you take tough critique? Are you ok with a profession that makes work-life balance a bit illusory or at least messy and hard? 
   How are you with ambiguity? Can you set your own schedule and get things done, maybe without a lot of hand-holding? Some advisors are more hands on than others, but part of being a graduate student is training to be an independent researcher/scientist/knowledge-creator: advocating for your interests, deciding what to do when, and finding problems and solutions in a community but perhaps with very limited direction is part of the experience.