They thought I lied! 3 lessons graduate students learn the hard way

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Please Believe Me!
3 Lessons Graduate Students Learn the Hard Way

After a decade of coaching, you would think that my clients would believe me when I tell them something. Well, for the most part, they do. However, there are still times when students blow off what I have to say. Either they aren’t in a place to hear it, or they really don’t want it to be true. Unfortunately, when warnings go unheeded, they tend to come back and bite the student later. While no one student has done them all, these are the top three lessons that graduate students seem to need to learn the hard way.

Lesson 1. Writing letters of recommendation (LOR).

Many people writing LORs for graduate school admissions, grants, and fellowships, want you to provide them a draft letter to start with. This makes a lot of students uncomfortable. Not only are they unsure of how to write a LOR but it feels presumptuous, a bit like putting words in someone else’s mouth. However, for good or ill, that is just the way it is. One student insisted on learning this lesson the hard way. They were applying for a fellowship and didn’t ask their letter writer about it when I told them to. You can see where this is going. ONE DAY before the letter was due, the student received a note from a letter writer asking when the student was going to send the draft!

You do not want to be scrambling to get a LOR drafted and to your letter writer at the last moment, but there’s another reason to heed this lesson. Letter writers will write a better letter of recommendation when given a draft to work from. You are the one who has read the application criteria thoroughly and you are the one writing all the other supporting documentation. No one knows what to emphasize in your LORs better than you. Providing a draft LOR helps the letter writers know which skills and experiences to concentrate on and they will take what you’ve written and improve upon it.

Confession here, that student was not the only one who learned this lesson the hard way. When I was a graduate student, no one told me that this was expected. I learned it the hard way when my first grant application was rejected for weak letters of recommendation. When I discussed the disappointing results with my mentor, he asked to see the draft letters I had provided. My response was to stare at him blankly and say… “what?”

I have never made that mistake again and the following grant application cycle I was successful. These days I always ask if my LOR writers want a draft version and even if they don’t, I always provide a bulleted list of the skills and experiences that I think should be emphasized in the LOR.

Lesson 2. Analysis is slow.

Students consistently underestimate how long it takes to complete analyses. Quantitative analysis requires data cleaning and re-coding, statistical modeling, quality control review, and revision. Qualitative analysis requires transcription, repeated reading, coding, cross-validating, and consolidating results. No matter how simple you think it will be, analysis always takes longer than planned.

Numerous students have learned this lesson the hard way.

Primary data analysis? You’ve got data cleaning and recoding which requires a lot of care and thought; missing data evaluation, which will invariably turn up a problem; and periodic updates if you are analyzing while data collection is ongoing.

Think you’ll escape problems with secondary data analysis? A “few hours” stretch into days as you discover confusing data documentation or merging errors and that’s before you get to data cleaning and recoding. You might even discover a problem with the data which has to be reported to the data holder for correction. This has happened to two of my clients! Not only did they have to wait on the data holder, but they’d spent a ton of time thinking the problem was something they did before identifying the real cause.

That’s all before the analysis was even started! During analysis, you might find your code generates an unexpected error; the analysis uses too many system resources to complete; or it takes hours to run only to find forgot to specify an option or include a variable and have to do it again. After all that, you might learn the data violates some of the assumptions required for your statistical test and you’ll need to modify your analytic plan.

Don’t think you’ll have it any easier if you’re doing qualitative analyses either. You’ll learn just how long it takes to complete quality control checks on interview transcriptions, review interview responses for themes, create coding schemes and have them approved, get your coding cross-validated, and then review it again just to be thorough. All before you can write up any results.

As if all that’s not enough, passionate and curious committee members often ask for follow-up analyses, and the next thing you know, you have enough results to fill 10 journal articles!

Lesson 3: Your thesis/dissertation deadline is not the date of your defense

Alarm clock for motivation

Many students conflate, sometimes subconsciously, when they are defending with their thesis/dissertation due date. In reality, your thesis or dissertation is due around 6 to 8 weeks before your scheduled defense. Why? It’s customary to give your committee two weeks to read your draft prior to your defense. It’s also customary to provide your committee chair with the draft before it is approved to go to your committee, so that’s another two weeks. Usually, you will need to address your chair’s feedback before sending it to the full committee, so you will need time to make revisions. Two weeks is a standard estimate. It can be shorter if your chair has been providing regular feedback but longer if your chair has been largely hands-off. So, 2 + 2 + 2 is…6 weeks ahead of time.

You can imagine the stress and anxiety students experience when finally internalize this deadline and realize how little time they have left, despite my repeated warnings. My suggestion, create a countdown of days until your full draft must go to your advisor to help you internalize the real deadline.

I hope you take heed of the lessons I and others have learned the hard way and avoid the stress and pain that comes along with them. When you make mistakes, let them be your own, not ours. 😉

Wishing You All the Best in Your Academic Success.
Dr. Cristie Glasheen, Your Graduate Student Success Coach.