January 13, 2005

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How to succeed at graduate school

The single most important maxim I can impress upon anyone considering graduate school is that the two keys to success are creativity and communication.

By Jennifer Gardy
Every so often (and by this I mean rarely, but it does begin a tale so much better than “Once in the last 4-odd years”), a younger student will come to me and ask for advice about how to succeed in graduate school.

I begin rather facetiously by telling them that if they want to survive grad school they must learn to consume twice their body weight in free food when the opportunity presents itself. They should also become well versed in the proper use of the semi-colon. A correctly placed semi-colon lends a certain noble air of grammatical propriety to any prose. And, of course, one mustn't forget that every good grad student must be able to doze off in awkward places, like under one's desk or in a seminar, eyes open.

After testing my young charge's ability to spot the phrase “Refreshments will be served” (or “Refreshments; will be; served”) in the university event listings, I move on to the more serious advice.

The single most important maxim I can impress upon anyone considering graduate school is that the two keys to success are creativity and communication. One of these days I ought to think of another C-word so that I can refer to these as The Three C's, but for the time being, two shall suffice.

Creativity. This is a tough one, as it's difficult to teach someone creativity. It's more of an inherent quality. Perhaps it is genetic in origin, or perhaps it arises mysteriously, maybe from falling out of a supermarket cart onto your head as a kid. Wherever it comes from, it serves you well in the research-oriented environment of grad school.

The creative researcher is able to spot new areas to explore and develop new questions to answer. They can merge two, three or even 10 disciplines, giving birth to entirely new fields and avenues of exploration. They can see the big picture, the big picture frame and they can see beyond the frame. The creative researcher is also able to think of new ways to answer these novel questions.

The traditional toolbox is not enough for them - they improve upon existing methods, cobble together multiple approaches into new meta-analytical techniques, and develop new resources that both drive their research forward and benefit the whole research community. To the creative researcher, a university is a playground.

Communication is a little simpler. I should point out now that when I say “effective communication,” I am going beyond basic concepts like being able to print legibly and string together a few words into a syntactically independent unit. Not that those are trifling notions by any means (physicians' handwriting, anyone?), but the true definition of “effective communication” in the world of graduate studies is being able to effortlessly and succinctly express your ideas to your supervisor, to your fellow researchers and to the public.

You have ideas, opinions, and hypotheses. These things do not just sprout wings and fly out of your nose and into the world like butterflies. Rather, you must use clear language, expressive metaphors and all types of media when communicating with others. Avoid using a hundred words to say what can be said in 10.

Think of analogies that put a complex academic idea into terms that your little brother can understand. Remember that not all people absorb information in the same way, and what it best understood in text by one person may be better understood as a graphic by another. Our old friend creativity comes in handy here, too. When presenting your work, try a new approach. Think outside the boundaries of traditional communication styles and bring something unique to the table.

Now to some people - perhaps the aforementioned kids who suffered some sort of shopping cart-induced head trauma - creativity and communication skills come naturally. To others, they are areas that need to be developed over time. To this crowd, I offer the following nuggets of advice: to be creative requires an open and a playful mind. Keep your ears and eyes open and take in everything that is happening in the world around you.

If you plant little seeds of notions in your mind and water them with exposure to different people, places and things, they will grow into big strong trees from which you can - and forgive me if this metaphor is getting a touch too florid - pluck tasty apples of ideas.

Do not be afraid to act like a kid. The world looks a lot different when you're hanging upside-down on the monkey bars or when you look at it through your space helmet, which is actually a colander on your head, but for this moment in time is a genuine NASA-issued bit of astronaut gear, complete with the shiny visor and all those cool antennae and even a tiny little flag.

To be a good communicator requires practice. Read voraciously, for it will help language and metaphor to come to you naturally. Practice speaking in front of a mirror, your parents, your cat, your stuffed toys - whatever you are comfortable with. Draw. Even if, like me, the extent of your artistic abilities is sketching out a stick animal that is only just recognizable as some sort of four-legged possible feline species, drawing will help you to express your ideas in a new way.

Developing your sense of creativity and honing your communication skills will help you at every stage of your graduate career. Just finished your bachelors? Have a crazy idea for a graduate project that you're not sure will fly with a supervisor? Don't worry about it. A good graduate supervisor values creativity and originality over the ability to memorize facts.

Approach a list of potential supervisors with your ideas and you'll be surprised how many will be just as excited as you about what you have in mind. Not sure which of many possible supervisors to go with? Choose one who will give you the flexibility to ask your own questions and test out your own approaches.

By reading up on earlier research in your area and bouncing ideas around with your co-workers, you'll be able to brainstorm new ideas, new questions and new techniques. Struggling with your classes and seminar series? If you're having trouble learning concepts, try out new ways of representing them.

Sitting passively and absorbing facts from a seemingly endless barrage of PowerPoint slides isn't conducive to many people's learning processes, but taking the time to turn those facts into diagrams, cartoons, or little poems not only reinforces the concepts, but ensures that you'll be able to access those memories instantly when needed. At test time, for example. Or when you want to show off your giant brain to impress your friends at a party.

Finally, when it comes time to wrap up your graduate work and present your findings to an audience, spend time carefully crafting your presentation. Use a variety of media - text slides, graphics, film - and be sure to inject some humour. Your examining committee will appreciate it, trust me.

Graduate school isn't about learning facts and developing a massive cranium. It's about learning how knowledge works and developing the skills that will bring you success in research, business, or artistic fields. At the end of the journey you likely won't be able to remember all those formulae or facts you thought so important at the outset, but you'll be capable of far greater things - like sniffing out free food from a mile away.

Jennifer Gardy is in her 4th year of a PhD in molecular biology and biochemistry.

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