Surya Sharma

Machine Learning Applications | Computer Vision

The noob guide on how to be a better Graduate Student

I wrote this guide for a different website a few years ago, but it is still relevant today (4/2018):

I’m a graduate student in my third year at Clemson. In the three years I’ve managed to

  1. Get a MS with thesis in Computer Engineering.
  2. TA for two semesters
  3. Be an instructor for an year and a half, teaching two courses: Freshman Programming and Basic Electrical Engineering
  4. Be sponsored for an RA.
  5. Assist incoming students with pick up from airports and help them get a general idea of what Clemson is like
  6. Lead teams to multiple robotics competitions.
  7. Been featured on the Clemson Students Website and news articles multiple times (humble brag).
  8. Paid for my parents to visit me on my graduation.

tl;dr: I know what I’m doing (But that’s just like, my opinion, man.)

Note: I write this from the opinion of someone who is into research, and have no interest in an all coursework option. If you want to do courses and get out without doing research, this guide may not work for you.

What’s the short answer to “How do I be a good graduate student?”

You communicate with professors. Often. And you do your homework before you communicate with them.

What? I can’t just email a professor and ask for money?

Well you can, but they will probably read the first few lines of your email and delete it afterwards. Most professors have been here a long time. Not only have they been a Masters student, but they’ve been a PhD student, then been a professor for a fairly good amount of time.

Read here on how to contact a professor correctly, if you are interested in their research. This is an article by Jacob Sorber, a professor in CPSC at Clemson :

I am always looking for smart, motivated students, but please read this first.

You should also read the link Jacob Sorber posts, regardless what major you’re planning to do a Masters in : Admissions to A CS program.

Though I don’t agree with all the points mentioned in “Admission to a CS program”, the link should give you a reality check on how competitive the situation is.

What this means is that they’ve seen pretty much every kind of student, good ones and bad ones, and they can figure out fairly quickly where you stand. Not only does a professor want a student who can work with him and his or her team of students, they also want someone who is interested in his research.

What kind of funding can I get?

A professor can only fund you if they have funds to give you. Sometimes they will recommend you to be a TA or a GA in their department (or another position). What does a an assistantship get you? It gets you a tuiton waiver, which will drop your fee to ~$1200 to $2000 per semester, along with the following (minimum) stipends:

Grading Assistant: $3600 per year

Teaching Assistant: $7500 per year

Research Assistant: Average ~23K / year

Knowing this, how do I be a better graduate student?

Start with…

You want to be a productive member of the society.

Learn how to sell your self.

You want to have good skills that your Masters / PhD requires, and you want to know that you have them. Being able to promote yourself in the right manner is as important as being good at something. If you can’t tell a professor / advisor how you will be useful to his team, you’re not really making a good talking point.

How do you deal with talking to a professor? I’d suggest using the Briefcase technique from this article:

Figure your priorities out.

Some of us don’t have the luxury of limitless finances. Some of us do. How important is an on campus job for you? How will it affect your grades? How important are grades to you? Have these answers ready and written down somewhere, so that whenever you find yourself confused on what you should be doing, you can read these and remind yourself.

Get your grades

Nothing is more important than this in your first year. You need a CGPA of 3.0 to be a Clemson student, and if this drops in the first year, you will spend the rest of your time trying to bring this score up. Some courses are designed in a way that they look easy in the start, and then the final will break you to bits. Do not be fooled. Your courses require consistent work, throughout the semester. This is nothing like Mumbai or Pune University where you can study in the last month and get good grades.

Once you have a decent grade in your first year, you could possibly get an F and still not have to worry about dropping below a 3.0 GPA.

I have frequently seen students who get excited by research or in trying to impress their advisor that they won’t complete their assignments on time. Guess what? No advisor wants a student who can’t manage his or her time well.

Get comfortable

Try and make life easier for you. Find good friends to hang around with. Hit the gym, or go hiking. You’re probably not being creative enough if you’re spending all the time in your office all the time. Find a nice place to study, and someone you can study with.

Don’t be a jerk

When you’re talking to professors about funding, a lot of students like to play hush and and play secret – secret with what they’re doing. Its not really helping anyone. If you are as good as you think you are, the professor will hire you. Hiding things from your new friends and class mates will only alienate you.

If your friend gets funded before you, make no mistake, its going to make you very very jealous. This isn’t him bagging a free prize in a mall, this is them getting their entire tuition fee of $9K refunded, and then getting some money to spend, while you’re still borrowing money to survive from your parents. Understand that this is a fairly natural reaction, and try not being mean to your friend just because he bagged funding.

If you get funding, and live with room mates who aren’t, don’t change your habits overnight. If you cooked once a week, or have a cleaning schedule, honour it. “I don’t have time to cook now” is a pretty lame ass excuse, because literally every American graduate student you know is cooking and cleaning their apartments regularly.

Do your homework

Being good at things gets you a better chance to be able to do those things more often. Improve your skills before you get to Clemson, and while you’re here too. Learn programming, or something that will help you join a research group. Figure out what a certain research group is working on, and learn those skills.

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1 Comment

  1. Vihang May 2, 2019


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