PART 2 OF 2
by Marie desJardins
This is the second of a two part article on how to succeed in graduate school. The first part of this article
discussed getting into graduate school, doing research, finding an advisor, writing a thesis, and obtaining
financial support. In this issue Marie desJardins discusses actions graduate students can take to become
part of the research community, provides some advice for advisors, addresses some issues unique to female graduate students, and offers advice on how to balance work and play while in graduate school.
Becoming Part of the Research Community •
One of the most important jobs of a graduate student is to become established as part of the research community. Your advisor can help with this
process by funding conference travel, encouraging you to publish research •
results early, collaborating on joint publications, introducing you to colleagues, and promoting your work.
In turn, you can make yourself more visible by participating in conferences and workshops, publishing papers on your work, and meeting and
maintaining contact with colleagues.
Talk about your ideas informally whenever you get the chance, so that
the talk will come more naturally and, hopefully, you’ll have a chance to
respond to and think about questions that might get asked at the talk.
Make sure your slides are readable and as simple as possible. Never put
up a slide with tiny text and say “I know you can’t read this, but...”
• Try to relax. Don’t read from a script or word-for-word from your slides,
and don’t talk too fast. Be confident: you know more about your work
(flaws and all) than anyone else.
Attending conferences and workshops is valuable whether you present a
paper or not. Some of the reasons to do so are:
• You’ll meet people and have a chance to discuss your ideas and to hear theirs.
• You’ll get a good sense of what the current state of research is, and will
learn more about how to write conference papers and give talks (
sometimes by counterexample).
• You’ll probably realize that your ideas are more significant, relatively
speaking, than you thought. A common reaction is “I could write a better paper than this!”
If you’re giving a talk you’ll gain even more visibility, and will have an
opportunity to make an impression on other researchers. Some tips for
preparing your talk to make this impression as positive as possible:
• Give a practice talk, especially if you tend to get stage fright. Be sure to
invite people who will give you constructive, but useful, feedback.
• Make sure your talk fits in the time slot allocated. There’s nothing
worse than a speaker who rushes through the last ten slides, or skips from
the middle of the talk to the conclusion. A good rule of thumb is to allocate 2-3 minutes per slide.
• It’s better to be somewhat abstract than to get bogged down in technical
details—but be sure you give enough detail to make a convincing case. Your
paper should fill in the missing details, so that people can read it to get a
more in-depth understanding. Know your audience: you’ll have to provide
more background to a general audience and more technical detail to audiences that are very familiar with the field of research you’re discussing.
• Use examples and pictures to illustrate and clarify your ideas.
• Learn by observation: try to imitate qualities of talks that you like and
avoid things that other speakers do that bother you.
Parberry [ 20] contains some more suggestions for organizing and presenting a talk, directed at theoretical computer scientists.
Publishing your ideas is important for several reasons: it gives you a source
of feedback from people who read your papers; it establishes you as a
member of the research community (useful for getting a job down the
line); and it forces you to clarify your ideas and to fit them in the context
of the current state of research in your field.
There are two key properties of a good paper: significant content—
original, important ideas that are well developed and tested—and good writing
style. The degree to which the paper’s content has to be “significant” depends
on where you’re submitting it. Preliminary ideas and works in progress are
more suitable for a workshop or symposium; well-developed, extensively
tested ideas are more appropriate for a journal. One way to decide where
your paper should be submitted is to read papers in potentially appropriate
publications, e.g., last year’s conference proceedings and current journal issues. Another method is to show a draft or outline of the paper to your advisor or other colleagues and ask for their advice.
If you have a great idea, but present it poorly, your paper probably won’t
be accepted. Be sure you know what the point of the paper is and state it
clearly and repeatedly. The same goes for the key technical ideas. Don’t
make the readers work to figure out what’s important—tell them explicitly.
Otherwise, they might get it wrong, if they bother to finish reading the paper
at all. State the problem you’re addressing, why it’s important, how you’re
solving it, what results you have, how other researchers have addressed the
same or similar problems, and why your method is different or better.
Write for the audience that you expect to read the paper, just as you would
plan a talk. Give more background for general audiences, less background and
more technical detail for specialized audiences. Use a running example if possible, especially if your paper is dense with equations and algorithms.
Do not try to put every idea in your thesis into one conference paper.
Break it down into pieces, or write one or two longer journal articles.
As you refine your ideas, you can republish in new forms, but be sure
you’re adding new material, not just rehashing the same ideas. Some
papers start as short workshop papers, evolve into conference papers, and