Advice to the new chemical engineering grad student

I am getting close to graduating, so I figured I would write some advice I wish I had given me when I was a beginning chemical engineering graduate student. As the page turns on this chapter of my life, I can only look back in regret at many of the mistakes I made during my time doing this doctorate. If I had known then what I know now, the end result would have been ten times better. This might be a depressing read, but hey – its lessons from the school of hard knocks. I’m telling you this to AVOID my mistakes.

1. Avoid reading everything at the depth you had to as an undergrad. During undergrad, you had to read in-depth mathematics and become proficient at it to pass a difficult examination. But such a method of study will lead you to the brink of madness when reading the scientific journals. A policy of “gradual escalation” is good here; you devote more effort into understanding an article the more it proves important to your work/research question.

2. Get good at taking notes. When you take good notes, half the battle is won already. Do not write down everything; read a source at a reasonable pace, then shelve it. Then come back to it after a day or two days. THEN take your notes. This is VASTLY more efficient than note taking while reading. Whenever I note take while reading, I end up with completely highlighted pages, or completely underlined whole paragaphs. This is ineffective note taking.

3. Record metadata for your notes to make them easier to organize. The time, date, and place you wrote the note down. Put all bibliographic information near the note, or a short abbreviation for it.

4. Whenever you download a scientific article off of sciencedirect, the resulting file name is something like “100000fghi00018-sdgh.pdf” In other words – complete gibberish. I have found it totally useless to rename downloaded articles after the article title for three reasons:

i. The titles all start to bleed together after a while.

ii. Many article titles contain special characters which won’t copy into a filename

iii. Many article titles are way too big to be a file name.

So instead, I name my saved articles in this way. Let’s use an example article:

R. Singh, D. Barrasso, A. Chaudhury, M. Sen, M. Ierapetritou, and R. Ramachandran, “Closed-Loop Feedback Control of a Continuous Pharmaceutical Tablet Manufacturing Process via Wet Granulation,” J Pharm Innov, vol. 9, no. 1, pp. 16–37, Mar. 2014.
This article has multiple authors. My naming system is:
<first author’s last name> et al and <corresponding author’s full name> <journal abbreviation> <year>
Which in this case, the file name would be:
Singh et al and R Ramachandran J Pharm Innov 2014
5. Become ruthless about organizing your files on the computer. EVERYTHING has a place. PERIOD.
6. Organizing your articles and research can be daunting. Google Scholar makes it easy to tag articles of interest. If it ends up being useless, dump it.
7. Before diving head first into mentally taxing research articles, use an abstract service (SciFinder) to identify articles which are most relevant. Read only the abstracts first. Its not unreasonable to read 30 or 40 in one sitting, and wind up with perhaps 4 or 5 (or less) articles worth reading further.
8. When generating data files, make a companion text file with it that records the time, date, place, circumstances of creation, and any other useful identifying info. Metadata is data about the data. This will make life IMMENSELY easier should you ever need to find that particular data set again 6 months down the road. You will not remember what was in it without metadata to help you.
9. Write up your notes once a week, perhaps on a Saturday morning. This is processed material that can be incorporated into a review article or your thesis.
10. One of my biggest single regrets is not learning LaTeX in college. EVERYONE uses it. My advisor demands I use MSWord because he is old school like that, but LaTeX is trounces it for scientific publishing. Learn it early in your program and your writing tasks will be much easier. All you have to do is download the journal’s latex template, and away you go. Writing equations is easier. Files don’t get corrupted. References are easy to manage. Latex is your friend. Word is not. And when you go to write your thesis, guess what? It will be a snap, because your university probably has a latex template ready-to-go for the thesis.
11. Another regret is not learning more Python. I am fed up with MATLAB and its sluggish performance, and poor text handling capabilities. Python is a superior tool for scientific research imho (and of course, its free). Also, Python is what employers want to see; MATLAB is not. Had I been wiser, I would have stuck with Python over MATLAB.
12. Get enough sleep. It will drive you insane. I’m on the anti-depressants to prove it.
13. If you are having signs of major depression, or other mental illness, go see the school psychiatrist and get some medication. I went through a bout of major depression and it cost me a good 18 months of my time in school. Progress was extremely slow during those months. Now that I am on medication, my productivity has gone through the roof.
14. An actual wise move I made – ditch facebook. Its a time waster, and you are just giving people rope to hang you with.
15. Invest in productivity-enhancing tools, like a good smart phone. I wish I had gotten a smart phone my first month at school; easily one of the dumbest moves I ever made. They are worth the money for extremely busy people – and YOU will be an extremely busy person. It will become impossible to manage “where I need to be and when” with all of the things you will need to be managing without some kind of help. Professors have secretaries. You don’t. That phone IS your secretary.
16. Hang out with friends once in a while. If they flake out on you, get new friends. Always have a group of people you can do stuff with every so often, like go to the park, go to a movie and dinner together. Lack of social contact is damaging to the mind. I know from bitter personal experience. I wish I had not been so shut-in while doing my PhD. I should have hung out more with my grad school colleagues.
17. Get a car. Seriously.
18. If possible, invest in your own home during grad school. This of course, depends on the stipend you receive from the school. I deeply regret not having bought a home, which would have let me keep the equity I put in. I’ve shoveled tens of thousands of dollars in rent over to landlords – I’ll never see that money again.
19. When being a teaching assistant, avoid the temptation to help the undergrads with everything. I have noticed the less I do for them, the more they do for themselves. YOU only step in when things are getting completely out of control.
20. Dating is very difficult to do in grad school. I am 29 now, and I have been single for the entirety of my 20’s. I just do not have time. Women are extremely demanding creatures in terms of time and loyalty, and will resent all of the time and effort you put into your PhD instead of her. The only girls I liked were other grad students – and they are too busy for dating. Undergraduate women are usually very immature (with noble but insufficient exception). Either come to grad school married with an understanding spouse, or just grin and bear singlehood for the next four or five years.
21. I’ve gained alot of weight in grad school. 50 pounds to be exact, and its going to be a bitch to lose. Keep your sleep schedule on track, get regular exercise, and avoid eating as a form of stress relief. It just makes things worse and worse.
I’ve said my peace. Hopefully you will have better luck than me.

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