First Semester of Grad School Recap

First Semester of Grad School Recap

Maybe you are interested in, or about to start grad school and wondering what it is like. Maybe you’ve heard stories of long hours and bad advisors and are wondering how true that is. This is exactly how I felt starting grad school. I distinctly remember sitting in a panel discussion about grad school and someone asked how to handle an advisor who has lab meetings on saturday night…WHAT? Fortunately, my experience has been anything but that, but I still want to clear the fog.

Going into the semester I had already met my advisor and 4 or 5 people from my lab group (our group is 13 people so that wasn’t even half) so I kind of knew what to expect. Overall it was slow for the first few months and then quickly picked up around November. I took 2 classes and averaged about 50 – 60 hours per week total with classes and research. I traveled for conferences and made a few friends while trying to keep my extracurricular engagement low.  

First Day

 The first day I went in was about 2 weeks before classes started. Some people come in earlier some come in right as classes start. I knew I didn’t want to spend my summer working, but I did want to have some time to settle in before classes so 2 weeks was perfect. My first day was a Monday when our lab group meetings are usually held so that was the first thing I did. We did introductions (I was one of 3 new students) and then quickly transitioned to talking about a lot of stuff I didn’t understand. After this the other 2 new students and I met with our advisor in his office. This was probably one of the most important meetings I’ve had because he took some time to talk about expectations and explain some non-technical terminology the group uses.

This included things like: 

  1. The “funnel” of knowledge: At the top of the funnel is the high level information, things a non-engineer could understand. A little further down is a little more technical, something an engineering student could grasp. Further down from that is the info you could find in a text book and at the bottom of the funnel is information so technical it takes a subject matter expert to understand it.
  2. Argument outlines: Argument outlines are something my advisor requires before we start a paper draft or a new project. The goal is to figure out what research claim you are making so that the projects are not just projects but are more like publishable research projects. The argument outlines consist of making a claim, backing it up with reasons and backing those up with evidence.
  3. Deliberate practice: Throughout the semester we do what is called deliberate practice. This is a chance for us to take a step back and look at why we are doing things the way we are doing them. 
  4. The learning curve: He drew a set of axis and asked what the “learning curve” looks like. The answer is it’s exponential and unfortunately, the early part before it takes off can be super slow and frustrating.
  5. The weekly report: I LOVE the weekly report. Every week we list what we actually accomplished that week in different areas and what we plan to do the next week. At the beginning this was an annoyance but now it is super motivating.
  6. The priority matrix: The priority matrix is a 2×2 matrix. Across the bottom, the left side is things that are due soon and the right side is things due later. The vertical axis has things that are important at the top and things that are not important at the bottom. The matrix plays out like this. In the top left you have something that is high priority and due soon. This is number 1. In the top right you have things that are important but due later. This is your 2nd priority. In the bottom left you have things that are not important but due now. He argued that you should essentially not worry about these things. The bottom right corner is things that are important and due later. These should take priority over the not important but due now taks. 

He then told us where to find the new student to-do list and tutorials. Though we have group meetings every week, I only meet with my advisor one on one once a month.

After this meeting I got my computer set up, talked to the other new girl for a little bit and started on the to-do list. It was mostly getting ID’s and permissions. It took almost 2 weeks for me to get server access so I did a lot of waiting. I went home early, didn’t come in on my 3rd day. I made sure to take advantage of this time while I was just waiting because I knew things would pick up once I got access to the servers and when classes started. 

Classes

I took 2 classes this semester which is pretty standard for grad students. I’ll take a total of ~36 credits and once I’m done with those I will spend all of my time on research. I took  Self-Powered Systems which was taught by my advisor, and Analog Integrated Circuits. I was really glad when classes started because I know how to take a class, it is a lot more comfortable than trying to learn something new on your own. 

One big difference between grad and undergrad classes is that your grades aren’t super important. When you graduate, your research and thesis will be a lot more important than grades. My advisor made it pretty clear that classes aren’t as important as research which was kind of ironic given the amount of work that went into his class. It was nice knowing that the difference between an A and a B wouldn’t really matter. I knew how to prioritize my time, something that was difficult for me in undergrad. 

Research

My group primarily does low-power integrated circuit design, something I had no experience with so learning the tools and trying to figure out what I even needed to learn was a little overwhelming. The other students in my group were super helpful but there was always a feeling of “I don’t want to bother that same person again” or “I don’t want them to think I’m dumb”. I got over this about 2 months in, but it did take some time.

It took a while to actually get started on something that contributed to our groups research. We met with different teams who told us what they were working on but it was hard to get a clear idea of what we should actually be doing.  We worked through a poorly put together tutorial but mostly just did a lot of reading Fortunately, one team gave me a more specific task, a block I could own on one of their chips. Because I hadn’t ever gone through the design process, I still spent a majority of my time reading about how to do it, too worried about wasting peoples time to actually ask them how to do it. This changed when I had a mid-semester meeting with my advisor and he told me to meet with every person on the team who had designed something similar and ask them to walk me through what they did. This sped up my progress from having nothing to being almost done in a matter of a week. 

Throughout the semester I slowly got involved in more and more projects and started developing my own ideas about what I wanted to do. In one of my one on one meetings with my advisor I was telling him all of the things I wanted to work on and he pointed me back to the prioritization matrix. He asked me to make a list of all of the projects. List out what was involved in each one and then rank them in order of priority. This went at the top of my weekly report so that when I looked at it every day I was reminded of what my priorities were. I think this is super important because there are so many interesting and potentially interesting projects out there and you have to make sure you and your advisor are on the same page about where you should spend your time. 

Takeaways

By the end of the semester, I made progress on my main project, outlined a paper that the other new student and I are planning to submit this summer and, thanks to a class project, learned the whole design flow for the tools we use. Being in a new space working with new people and different expectations was difficult because I felt like I didn’t know how to go about things and how to measure my progress or performance but all of these things got better as I got busier and started asking more questions. I don’t think anyone has a perfect or super productive first semester but I think you can use your first semester to set yourself up well or set yourself up for failure. These are my main takeaways for how to set yourself up well in your first semester

  1. Ask what the expectations are. Do this in your first week! Your advisor may have an idea of what you can reasonably accomplish in your first semester but they may not share it. Make sure you ask so you have some idea of where you stand. 
  2. Figure out who you should ask certain questions of. You may have one labmate who can help you with coding but isn’t the person to go to for hardware questions and vice versa. Make sure you ask your advisor and other labmates who the go-to person is for each thing.
  3. Ask questions early and often, but don’t waste anyone’s time. Rather than constantly turning to the person next to you and asking one question at a time, ask them when they can meet with you for 30 minutes, compile all of your questions and ask them during your meeting. Also, do your due diligence in figuring things out on your own before asking.
  4. Take every opportunity to talk with senior students. Whether its sitting in on more meetings or going out to lunch with them, the more you hear them talk about their work the better you will understand what the group as a whole is working on. This can also help you learn more about what your advisor expects of you and how they communicate.
  5. Figure out your advisors communication style. Use your first semester to really figure out how to talk to your advisor, express your interests or ask for more guidance if you need it. If you aren’t getting the direction you need, ask for it a few different ways and see what works. Figure out what you need to have prepared when you pitch a new idea. The more you communicate with your advisor the first semester, the smoother this communication will be further down the line.
  6. Do the biggest scariest thing first. Maybe this is a technical thing, maybe it is asking for help but whatever scares you the most, do that first.

I would say I had a really good first semester and im excited to apply what I learned to next semester. I had no real idea of what to expect going into the semster but now that I know I think next semester will be even better 🙂

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