Monday, December 17, 2012

An End-of-Semester (Check) List for Graduate Students

Greetings from Tel Aviv, where I am attending the exciting Exoplanets and Binaries Workshop hosted by the Raymond and Beverly Sackler Tel Aviv University - Harvard/ITC Astronomy Program!

One element that I particularly enjoy about the business of exoplanets is the relative prominence of young researchers: It is a commonplace for the first author of an important new paper to be a graduate student or postdoctoral fellow.  So, that got me thinking that it might be helpful to share some straightforward professional development advice for graduate students.

Of course, given the subject of this blog I have my eye here particularly on advising women on how they might leverage their exciting research results toward broader professional success: At conferences I frequently encounter graduate student women who have stunning research promise but who could do more to increase the visibility of their work. Regardless, I hope this advice is of general use for all.

Most of the hours of the workday for a typical graduate student might be spent on the labor of research, namely the gathering and analysis of data, and the writing of papers.  This post isn't about how to tackle this core task of graduate school: Instead, I wanted to share a quick check list of 3 professional development tips, particularly aimed a students in their first 3 years of graduate school:

First, you need a professional webpage. It can be simple!  (Really, check out mine: I made it in a few hours.) This does not need to be a massive set of nested pages: It may suffice to have a single page presenting (1) your name and professional affiliation, (2) your CV and list of papers (if any yet), (3) a one paragraph statement of your research interests, and a statement of any education or outreach activities in which you might have been engaged, if any, (4) one figure related to your work, and (5) your contact information. Why a webpage? Because when you attend a conference and chat about your research, your fellow scientists may want to follow up with questions or even collaborations. Moreover, faculty are constantly on the lookout for up and coming researchers for future hires. As long as you have a webpage and the person looking for you can recall some part of your name/affiliation/research, they can track you down and send you and email.  The same goes for when you post your first paper on the arxiv: Others will read it and may wonder what career stage you are at, and how to contact you. You might also consider including a headshot, so that someone looking for you after that conference will know they have indeed found the right person.  I also advise you keep the webpage content career related, and leave personal photos and hobbies to other venues.

Second, you need to go to conferences. At a minimum, attend 2 a year, and ideally 3 or 4. You should start this immediately upon beginning graduate school and avoid the temptation to think you need to have results to present. Don't let someone (even your advisor) dissuade you from attending lots and lots of conferences. The purpose of conferences is to hear ideas and be inspired for future research directions.  Even if you don't yet have results to share, attending conferences during your first year of graduate school is a great way to get a feeling for whether a field is vibrant, what are the current pressing questions, and whom might you speak with to find out more. Of course, you may need to do some fundraising to cover the travel costs if your advisor is short on funds, but there are options for this, and many conferences will assist graduate students in need. And, finally, once you have results to share, you must ALWAYS present them. Talks are much higher impact than posters, but talks are frequently oversubscribed so if you don't get a spot (you should request one!), posters are still a great option.

Third, you need to write proposals. Successful proposals are the life blood of professional scientists, so the sooner you start writing the sooner you will build this track record. Of course, as an observer what I have in mind here primarily are observing proposals: Analyzing data gathered by your advisor is not nearly as interesting as analyzing data for which you won the time through a competitively reviewed proposal that your wrote yourself. Most time allocation committees look on graduate-student led proposals favorably, and in the past few years students in my group have led proposals to Hubble, Spitzer, and oodles of ground-based telescopes. But beyond observing proposals, there are many other opportunities to propose for resources, whether they be cycles on a computer cluster, travel funding, or research fellowships. During your time in graduate school, you will surely hear the complaints of more senior scientists about the proposal writing process. But in my experience the process of having to argue for your ideas to a group of your peers in the careful, quantitative, and (generally) brief written format of a proposal is enormously helpful is sharpening your thinking on the problem you want to address. And showing that as a graduate student you were the PI of a proposal can carry a lot of weight in job applications (whether in academic or not) down the road.

So, now that the semester has ended, I encourage you to find some time over the next few weeks to create a professional webpage, peruse the list of upcoming conferences and register for one or more, and identify the proposal that you are going to write in the spring.