Graduate Student Handbook
for Incoming Engineering Students


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Common Grad School Frustrations:

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Lack of communication with your advisor

Be proactive; don’t wait until your advisor contacts you. If you contact your advisor, or a person to be your advisor, and they don’t respond in a short time:

  • Try another communication mode one time (if you tried by email, stop by the office or telephone or leave a written note). Sometimes email gets “lost” (whether in transit or in an inbox) or advisors might be out of town.
  • If you’re looking for a project or advisor and one doesn’t reply then keep looking!
  • Keep some (but not too many) options open.
  • You might try asking for a short project so you and your advisor can see if you are professionally compatible.

Publishable material

The decision of whether your progress is publishable or not might be delayed if there is a lack of feedback on your progress with your advisor. Make sure you are receiving correct and timely advice for publishing. Your advisor should be a guide for your research so that you continue to make satisfactory progress toward the degree. Different faculty members have different styles of managing a PhD project (hands on or hands off). In either case, never hesitate to ask questions!

Expect things not to work the first time!

And don’t get frustrated. Discuss issues with your colleagues and try to avoid group competitiveness. It is important to decide when a certain path is not worthwhile pursuing as it is not/will not yield worthwhile results.

Keep your focus on the goal, which is to be ready to “wrap up” and graduate!  This means two things: 1. Getting a good project and working hard on it to get results and 2. Being aware of time and checking in regularly with your advisor as to expected completion dates and expected project results for a complete thesis.

Unexpected surprises

Things can happen to throw your progress off course.  For example, it is possible that your advisor might decide to leave the University for another job or that the funding for your project not be renewed, i.e. your funding gets cut.  The most important thing is not to panic nor to sink into depression, but rather to act logically and quickly. Check with your advisor as to his/her plans for you.  If that isn’t productive, check with the department chair as to possibilities.  If your funding is cut because the project funding isn’t renewed, you can also try to find resources and other departments on campus that might have funds for graduate positions (not only Research Assistants, but also Graduate Assistants).

For more information about types of admission and assistantships and fellowships, we strongly recommend you read the Graduate Catalog.

Details about the different types of assistantships can be found here.

Unexpected personal conflicts within the research group

If there is a problem within your group, it is up to you to decide when you need support or when the situation gets too personal. Get advice from someone else as to how to handle the situation.  In some cases, it is best to go to your advisor who is, after all, in charge of the group.  If for some reason that is not appropriate or not productive - for example, if you feel pressure to do something uncomfortable to you - then find someone else to talk it over with.   The College of Engineering and WIE have several faculty members and graduate student representatives who could help you judge the dilemma and who can guide you or suggest resources to help you resolve the situation.

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You are not alone

Graduate students often tend to take failure personally and tend not to be good judges of when they have done enough or when a result is important.  Don’t fall into these traps.  You are a graduate student (not already a faculty member/postdoc) because you are learning about these issues.  Again, don’t retreat into yourself, talk to others about your frustrations.  Most students, postdocs and faculty have been through similar experiences.

Being a TA

If you would like to pursue academia after graduation, pay special attention to possible opportunities to work as as a Teaching Assistant (TA) during graduate school. These will be your very first teaching experiences and you will want to get the most out of them!

The work as a TA might be very different from what you expected in grad school. Some good resources for Teaching Assistants can be found at the English Language Institute (ELI) and the Center for Teaching Effectiveness (CTE). If you are very interested in teaching, you should definitely check out the CTE for their teaching effectiveness program and events.


Next: Frequently Asked Questions >>

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