10 Things You Need to Know if You’re a Computer Science Graduate Student

In 2019, a friend of mine thought I might enjoy being President of our department’s Graduate Student Association (GSA), so he nominated me without telling me.

When I first saw my name on the ballot, my internal reaction was something like, “Awwwwwwww HELL no. Who did this?” When I was subsequently elected, my second internal reaction was all, “Oh jeez, I do NOT have time for this.” 

The funny thing about time is that there’s never enough. A common problem I’ve noticed among graduate students is that many become so overwhelmed with coursework and research that our brains begin to resist rather than support us. Raise your hand if you’ve ever had the thought, “If I just focus harder and work more, I’ll be good enough.” 

Reality Check: 

There absolutely are times when you do need to lock down and make things happen. (Trust me, I’ve been there. We all have.) But I want to let you in on a little secret: working too hard on research and coursework ALL the time will burn you out, make you feel awful, and cause you to miss out on important relationships and opportunities that would benefit your life and career.

Giving your mind a break from your regular work to branch out and explore many different aspects of your experience during grad school will serve you better in the long run. I promise. It took me until my 3rd year to figure this out, when things got…well, not pretty for a while. I managed to graduate at the end of 2020 regardless, but I hope to save you some of the pain that I put myself through. 

So here are 10 things I think you should know if you’re a grad student in CS:

1. Making friends is important. But it’s not always easy. Everyone reading this has, at some point in their life, been in a room full of people where no one knew what to say. And if I’m honest, computer scientists can sometimes be, well…slightly more difficult to talk to. You will keep walking into different versions of that same room all throughout your life, and it will never get any easier without practice. It especially won’t be any easier during those high stakes career moments like conferences, meet-and-greets at your dream job interview, or meetings with new collaborators. It can be less stressful and anxiety-provoking to handle critical career moments if you get used to it in the more quotidian contexts of academic life.

2. To get started, people love it when you ask thoughtful questions about their research. Don’t just ask about their topic, nod your head, and move on. Listen closely, make eye contact, try to understand what they’re working on, think critically about it, and ask thought-provoking questions. It’s an awesome way to break the ice and practice intellectual discourse. This can and often does segue into more casual and friendly conversations, as well. (Don’t undervalue casual, friendly relationships! A kind word from a random grad school acquaintance working at your dream company or university just might be what lands you the job someday.)

3. You D.E.S.E.R.V.E. to spend time on things that improve your happiness and well-being, even if that means defying unhealthy expectations. This includes: being with friends, working or playing at your hobbies, being active, eating well, and sleeping enough. Please do these things for yourselves. Evidence suggests that being happy improves your productivity. It’s not the other way around. Watch this TED talk if you don’t believe me. I don’t know about you, but for me, my friends and passions, both related to and apart from my research, drive a lot of my feelings of happiness, and my sense of purpose in life.

4. Doing research in grad school can feel terrifically lonely if you never collaborate. There are often people at your institution who are doing interesting things that are related to your interesting things. Collaborating makes it easier to form friendships and to make good progress in your work. Believe it or not, I have had real, actual fun with real, actual friends while working on research. Be intentional about fostering light-hearted and enjoyable working relationships. It will pay off!

5. Academic service is expected if you want to get an academic job. You’ll need a “Service” section on your CV; it is expected that you will have completed some service for your university and/or academic discipline. For example, you can volunteer in student governance as an officer in your Grad Student Association. Or you can pick up various roles related to conferences and journals, e.g. reviewing papers, “student volunteering” (SVing), organizing a conference workshop, or coordinating conference logistics.

6. If you’re leaning towards industry, getting involved in student governance is an excellent opportunity to develop “business savvy” skills. You can learn a lot about—and practice(!)—how to navigate financial, political, and social situations in your department. These tricky navigation skills often translate nicely to a business environment. I have learned so much in my one year as president, I couldn’t possibly write it all down, and I know this experience has made me an even better leader.

7. Working in student governance makes a huge difference in your program. In just the past year, our GSA proposed a major remodel of our Graduate Student Lounge. The department responded and got it done. We launched our own Slack channel, which is now providing everyone with a new way to stay connected and support each other. We hosted coffee hours, game nights, events out in the community, and silly Slacktivities online—all of these events lead to a sense of community and camaraderie. Sometimes, student governance is about solving problems. Other times, it’s really just an excuse to have a lot of fun. Either way, it matters and it will help you grow.

8. Seeing the fruits of your leadership is empowering AF. I’m kind of a loud mouth. When I have thoughts or concerns, I express them honestly. The thing is, I also try to express solutions. If you advocate for your peers, I have learned that people are often willing to listen only if you can also express actionable solutions in a convincing manner. Give it a try and see how far you can go!

9. You don’t know how much you don’t know. Working and interacting with other brilliant people in your department to solve your problems helps you become a more knowledgeable and well-rounded member of your research community. 

10. You are the only one who knows what’s best for you. Pay close attention to your intuition and to your emotions. Do not ignore them. They will tell you important things and guide you. Grad school can be one hell of a crazy ride for many of us. There are times when you are ready to dive in, and there are times when you will need to slow down, reflect, and miss a deadline. It’s OK. Everything will all be OK. Just take care of yourself and keep putting one foot in front of the other. That’s how you will make it to the finish line.

Ok, so that subtly morphed into a pitch to get involved in student governance (…and you should. It’s awesome.  Go nominate yourself and your friends). But really, the bigger point is, be kind to yourself, make good friends inside AND outside of your institution, have fun, and celebrate every little achievement. It is 97% possible to make it through grad school on the lone wolf route, but it’s 194% possible to make it through while prioritizing your wellbeing (most of the time).

Best of luck on your grad school journey, and be well!

[Image credit: https://unsplash.com/photos/Jztmx9yqjBw]

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