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Succeeding in Graduate School

If you experience problems that you are unable to solve on your own and do not know where to go for help, please come to the College of Graduate Studies for assistance.

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  •    Responsibility for Your Education

    • This section provides information to help you seek and obtain good mentoring throughout your student career. It is important that you take responsibility for your education in a proactive way and find experiences that will provide you with the breadth and depth of knowledge in your discipline and related disciplines.

      To obtain a well-rounded graduate student experience while at UCF, it is important to learn outside of your discipline, to participate in workshops and seminars offered by your department for your benefit, since these events are designed to help you grow professionally, to attend university seminars and workshops that seem interesting to you, and to participate in both teaching and research experiences as part of your education. Network with others in your discipline, offer to give seminars on your research at other universities, laboratories, etc. Present your work as often as you can and gain the experiences associated with communicating your ideas to others.

      If you are planning to become a professor, then you MUST engage in a teaching experience, so please seek this out as part of your education. The Faculty Center for Teaching and Learning will help you as a GTA learn to document your teaching experiences. They also have a Preparing Tomorrow's Faculty Program that can help you to become a more effective teacher. The Center for Distributed Learning can help you to learn how to teach online, an important skill for new faculty.

  •    Advisement and Mentoring of Students

    • Most of graduate school will be much easier if you have thought carefully about why you want a graduate degree. If it is necessary for career options after graduate school, such as working as a faculty member, in a research laboratory, or in a policy setting or if you are passionate about having a graduate degree, then graduate school is for you. The determination that graduate school takes requires that you have good, solid reasons for attending and good solid reasons to stay. Otherwise, particularly for the PhD program, you may drop out or not finish. 

      Please give this serious thought before you arrive, since graduate school will challenge you in ways that are unanticipated. Most graduate students say that the experience of graduate school enables them to find themselves and to identify their strengths and weaknesses. The doctoral graduate experience is a process that will change you – it is that intense and prolonged and requires a dedicated effort.

      The sections that follow address some of the problems that many doctoral students experience and the qualities that will enable you to get the advice you need and solve your problems.

  •    Learning Is Everywhere

    • Learning takes place everywhere. The best learning takes place in informal conversations with fellow colleagues and faculty members, outside of classes. These colleagues and faculty could be located at UCF or elsewhere, since communications now allow you to talk and correspond with research groups throughout the world. Learning also takes place from websites, libraries, experiments, and in journal clubs, discussion groups, seminars, coffee groups, etc.

      One of the most important lessons learned from nationwide retention studies is that events that bring faculty and students together, such as research seminars, coffees, discussion groups, etc., are not only important for what you learn but are also very important to your sense of belonging and this translates directly into your success in graduating. In numerous studies, the credentials of students who leave and those who stay in graduate programs are identical; students frequently leave because they do not feel valued or cared for by their program. Please attend the events that are designed for you so that you can get to know program faculty and other students, and these can become your support net as you progress through the program.

      You should rely heavily on your adviser for guidance in both degree requirements and in navigating the administrative structure of the university. Programs update their student handbooks on a regular basis and it is imperative that you read and follow the guidance in your handbook and the Graduate Catalog. Your program advisers will help guide you, but ultimately you are responsible for your education and following the policies of the university.

      Advisement and mentoring becomes even more critical if you are completing a thesis or dissertation. Often the most profound relationships are developed as a result of the research guidance offered by faculty mentors. It is important for you to let faculty know what your needs are in order for you to progress. It is very important that the first conversation you have with your faculty adviser is about mutual expectations for how the research will progress – what is expected of you, when it is expected, and what you need from the faculty member in order to progress.

      Please think about what you will need – do you need your adviser to spend time with you, in other words – a weekly appointment time? Do you need written expectations? Would you like to see a written plan that is mutually agreed upon for you to follow throughout your program of study?

  •    Taking the Long View

    • You may have unreasonably high expectations for your experiences at UCF, particularly if you are new to research and graduate work. You should expect to be challenged intellectually and to work harder in your graduate program than in your undergraduate program. Usually you will do well in your formal courses since you are long accustomed to structured lectures and tests.

      But most of you have never experienced "independent learning and exploration," which is a cornerstone of graduate education, and thus you may have little knowledge of the nature of solid research, whether it is library, field, or bench research. You may have never engaged in such a long-term project before and you may become discouraged and tend to procrastinate. There is a reason why Thomas Edison said that genius was “1% inspiration and 99% perspiration," since there may be many hours of study before you experience complete success. Especially in the middle of a research project, it may seem as if you will never get done (this is not true, it just seems that way), so it is important that you build a support structure to weather your disappointment so that you do not become discouraged.

      Often students tell us that they do not get enough positive reinforcement from their advisers and they hear what sounds like constant criticisms. University faculty members have been trained to think critically and they are evaluating your work with the goal of developing your skills to be equal to professionals in your discipline, since you will be the next generation of scholar in your field. Individual faculty advisers have different personalities and different abilities to encourage, but please find a support network (even if it is not your adviser) to keep you focused and motivated.

      Be sure and keep your adviser up to date on your progress and this will help your adviser understand where you are and what problems you may be facing at any given time. Ask your adviser how to communicate with him/her – sometimes they would appreciate a written e-mail detailing your progress to use in reports that they must prepare, sometimes they want oral reports that are succinct or more elaborate, etc. The better you communicate with your adviser, the better your relationship will be and the better the feedback will be. Be prepared when you meet with your adviser and be sure to have the following with you:

      • A summary of the current status of your research
      • A plan for activities that you will pursue before your next meeting
      • Questions that you would like to have your faculty adviser’s input on

      About 50%-60% of students in our doctoral programs have considered leaving at one time or another and some do. Many graduate students experience the same issues you do and you are not alone in your experiences. Some students do ultimately leave before they are successful because they had difficulty weathering the setbacks that are a normal part of conducting research, and these students are called ABDs (All But Dissertation).

      It is important that you put your work and your study in context and focus on your long-term professional growth and improvement rather than arbitrary expectations. You certainly have grown as a professional since arriving at UCF and when experiencing disappointment, please use this long-term view of your development. Your faculty adviser wants to see you succeed, so it is important to seek out guidance, be truthful in accepting criticism, and use criticism as a road map for improving your professional skills. Your accomplishments will clearly reflect on the quality of the training and education that we have provided.

  •    Work Independently

    • Another complaint that we hear from students is that they do not know what they can do and what they cannot do. Knowing how far you can go in your responsibilities comes with experience and is something often granted from your professor as you show maturity in your professional skills. Advisers have different ways of working with their students and different expectations. One of the first conversations you should have with your adviser is for him/her to define the expectations for you in working as a member of his/her research team. You may be asked to attend weekly lab meetings, to prepare reports, to work under the direction of a postdoc, to supervise undergraduate students, to order equipment and make it functional, to call vendors and gather information, etc., and you will want to be sure that whatever is required from your faculty adviser is something that you know about, plan for, and accomplish.

      Most faculty are looking for you to be relatively independent workers, meaning that you should most of the time go ahead and try to gather information and find solutions without too much faculty supervision, unless you have been told specifically not do something. Most faculty members would like to supervise you at a more general level and leave the details to you.

      The tasks that you are able to take on will increase over time as you gain experience and progress in your abilities. Remember that you are training to be a researcher or professor and that ultimately when you graduate you should be able to do what your faculty adviser is currently doing. This progression as you learn is important to your professional development.

  •    Setbacks and Delays

    • This is one of the most frustrating aspects of doing research. There are always delays – sometimes the funding agency cannot provide the funding when it was scheduled, sometimes the equipment does not work and has to be sent back, sometimes the experiment becomes contaminated and you have to start again, etc. This is normal and is a part of doing research. Flexibility in how you approach problems is the key to dealing with setbacks and delays.

      Finding alternatives to what you were planning will help immensely in getting your activities restarted. If the funding agency does not provide the funds, it may be possible to apply for a teaching assistantship instead for a few months and gain the teaching experience that you eventually need. If the equipment does not work, maybe you can borrow or use someone else’s or maybe you can reorder your experiments so that another one can be done that does not require the equipment. If your work becomes contaminated and you have to start over, thinking that it will go faster the second time around is a good strategy because usually it does since you learned so much from the first round.

      Eventually the setbacks and delays will work themselves out as long as you work at your research every day and use your problem-solving skills to find alternatives.

  •    What If Someone Scoops You?

    • A common fear that many doctoral students have is what happens if someone else publishes their work before you do. Sometimes this happens, but it is important to be able to reformulate your project when necessary and there are always many reasons why this could happen. Sometimes a particular piece of equipment cannot be bought or does not arrive in time or you cannot get access to it. Sometimes your adviser leaves the university with the only expertise in the department on that topic. Whatever the reason, frequently the project can be reformulated or restructured to save much of what has already been done.

      Often you can find work-arounds. Maybe a university nearby has the equipment that you need. Maybe the work that was published elsewhere only addresses a small part of the overall problem and there is still work that can be done that will build on this problem. Maybe you can accompany your adviser to wherever he/she is moving or maybe your adviser can continue to supervise you from afar for a short time with someone in your department to assist in making sure you meet requirements. There are usually work-arounds and if any of these types of situations happen to you, be sure and talk with your adviser, your program director, or the Graduate College (please see Dr. Max Poole, the Senior Associate Dean in the Graduate College).

  •    Communications Skills Are Important

    • The ability to get along with others and to work in teams is critical to your success. If this is not a personal strength, please work hard to develop it. Most science and engineering achievements now are made by teams, sometimes working from different laboratories and different countries, working together on a highly interdisciplinary project. Even in non-science fields, the work is now often done in teams.

      Teamwork is essential to tackling large, complex, and interdisciplinary projects. These interactions are important to your professional development since teams can bring more skills to the task than is possible by individuals alone. It is important that you learn to work effectively with others in teams, listen and learn from them about other disciplinary approaches, and learn enough about your own strengths and weaknesses to identify what you can best bring to the team.

  •    Professionalism

    • The difference between outstanding performances and more modest achievements in graduate school is often the way that you work within the university policies and with people and units. Being aware of policies and following them without argument will help you progress more quickly. Take care of transfer work early, establish a program of study, take your exams when you should, do not ask for exceptions to policies unless essential, show up for work on time and do what you say you will do and what your professor asks of you and your time at UCF will be much smoother for all involved.

      It is important to take care of those people who give you access or maintain equipment or help you prepare paperwork; they should be treated with respect and gratitude and thanked often for what they do for you.

  •    Be Determined

    • The most important qualities in eventually succeeding are to be determined, tenacious, not easily discouraged, and unstoppable. These qualities are the most important and are derived from your own absolute surety that you want a PhD. That is why it is important to know why you wanted the PhD to begin with. If what you want to do later is dependent upon the PhD, then you can look for inspiration beyond graduate school to the life that you will have once you have graduated. It is also important to realize that actually the PhD is probably the beginning of your involvement in your chosen professional field for the rest of your working lifetime, so that once the PhD is granted you now have access to the benefits of having a PhD and a new beginning doing what you enjoy.

      The best way to keep going is to do something every day that will get you closer to graduation, seemingly no matter how small. It could be taking data, writing up your literature, or talking with someone or arranging for a piece of equipment. If you are now in the writing stage, it could be assigning yourself to writing a certain number of pages per day. It is important to do this no matter what else is going on in your life. It is also important to do this to fight the tendency to procrastinate that grips many graduate students in the middle and final stages of their dissertation work.

      Visualizing the end in sight is often a good way to keep you working each and every day. Imagine that your adviser is hooding you at commencement and shaking your hand and saying congratulations to you for successfully completing your quest and for the new life that you will begin.

  •    Early in the Graduate Program

    • This section addresses those specific events that are most likely to surface during the first year of graduate school. Most graduate students will experience a transition to graduate school that may prove unsettling, particularly the first semester or first year. This is perfectly normal. One large change that occurs immediately is that most graduate students were highly regarded undergraduate students, often the best in their graduating classes. Therefore, in graduate school, the new norm is outstanding and this can be unsettling to those used to being near the top of the class. Also, if you have moved here from elsewhere and do not know where services are or who to go to, there is a natural learning curve involved in finding your way around. This is normal and best dealt with by arriving somewhat early (for international students there are restrictions on how early) and walking around, visiting the locations, applying for parking, finding housing, getting your computer accounts, books, finding your classrooms, etc. Also, we have provided the university resource section of this handbook to give you contact information for important services on campus.

      The first year is generally the easiest in some respects because it is mostly about coursework. Since most of you have been very successful in previous coursework as part of an undergraduate degree program, this year will seem very familiar – although harder and more challenging. The pace will be faster and the expectations will be higher and your ability to manage your time and stress will be tested. The university offers courses in both time management and stress management and faculty tell us that most new students to graduate school should take them.

      One of the most common mistakes in the first year is not getting started on research quickly. This slowness in the beginning to start research, more than anything else, will delay your graduation. Whether you are a master’s thesis student or doctoral student, it is important to find your disciplinary interests and find individuals who share them early on.

      If you are from a science discipline and you have a graduate research assistantship starting the first year, it is important to realize that you are being paid from faculty research grants. Faculty members must seek funding from federal and other sources to obtain funds in order to conduct their research; they are willing to spend some of their funds to support you on a graduate research assistantship stipend in order for you to help them conduct this research. Therefore, if you are being supported in this way, it is important to realize that the adviser must show progress on the research in order to continue to receive funding. What you do in the lab is important to that progress. You will be expected to be present and work steadily on this research so that the faculty member can continue funding you. If you fail to show up, procrastinate, or do not have the skills to assist the faculty member, the faculty member will likely withdraw the assistantship and this usually results in having no funding to continue with graduate school. So it is important to realize that a graduate research assistantship is a professional learning activity that comes with responsibilities and deliverables.

  •    Resolving Conflicts

    • If conflicts arise that are related to discrimination, drug or alcohol use, research misconduct, sexual harassment, please consult the Golden Rule Student Handbook or contact the College of Graduate Studies.

      For other conflicts, an interest-based approach as described in Fisher and Ury (1991) may prove helpful. Their guidance suggests:

      • Separating the people from the issue or conflict. This focuses on the problem to be solved.
      • Focus on the interests of the primary people to identify options for solving the problem.
      • Brainstorm options and possible solutions that promote both individual interests and the common interests.
      • Establish ongoing discussions so that the conflict can continue to be worked on.

      Other references that you may find useful are:

      • Barbara E. Lovitts, 2007. Making the Implicit Explicit: Creating Performance Expectations for the Dissertation. Stylus Publishing.
      • Ronald T. Azuma, So Long and Thanks for the Ph.D., www.cs.virginia.edu/~robins/PhD.html .
      • Paul Gray and David E. Drew, 2008. What They Didn’t Teach You in Graduate School: 199 Helpful Hints for New and Future Faculty on How to Succeed in Academe. Stylus Publishing.
      • Anna L. Green and LeKita V. Scott, eds., 2003. Journey to the Ph.D.: How to Navigate the Process as African Americans. Stylus Publishing.
      • Carolyn Lieberg, Teaching Your First College Class: A Practical Guide for New Faculty and Graduate Student Instructors.
      • Roger Fisher and William Ury, 1991. Getting to Yes: Negotiating Agreement Without Giving In. Peguin Books.

 

The University of Central Florida is accredited by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC) to award degrees at the associate, baccalaureate, master’s, specialist, and doctoral levels. Contact the Commission on Colleges at 1866 Southern Lane, Decatur, Georgia 30033-4097 or call (404) 679-4500 for questions about the accreditation of the University of Central Florida.

Please note the commission's expectation that contact occur only if there is evidence to support significant non-compliance with a requirement or standard. For other information about UCF’s SACSCOC accreditation, please contact the university's SACSCOC liaison in UCF's Office of Academic Affairs.

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