6 January 2012

Graduate School Advice: Part 1 – Classes and Teaching

Posted by Ryan Anderson

To follow up on my last post about my science resolutions for the new year, based on lessons learned during grad school, I thought it might be worth posting more generally some advice based on my graduate school experience.  As I jotted down notes on what bits of advice I might want to share, it rapidly became clear that it was too much for a single post. So, consider this the first of several. For all of these, I should emphasize that this is all based on my experience and your mileage may vary significantly depending on all sort of factors (field, school, adviser, luck, etc.).

In the beginning, graduate school feels a lot like undergrad: you will be taking a bunch of classes, mostly in your area of interest, and unless you are some sort of evil genius, you will spend many long nights with your classmates struggling through evil problem sets, writing papers, or whatever mode of torture is most common in your field’s upper level classes. The big difference is that, at least for most physical sciences and engineering, you get paid to do this stuff, rather than the other way around!

In grad school your grades in classes are not as important as they were in undergrad. You’re already in. As long as you don’t completely bomb your classes, it doesn’t matter so much whether you get all A’s. Of course, since you are the sort of person who got into grad school, you will still try to get all A’s anyway, and that’s fine.

Some departments have a required set of classes that all grad students must take, while others are very flexible. In either case, it’s best to talk to older grad students to get an idea of what you’re in for, when to take sporadically offered classes, and, if your school is flexible, find out which classes are really necessary. For example, Cornell used to require all astro students to take electrodynamics and grad-level quantum mechanics – notoriously nasty classes that are almost useless for someone like me who is interested in the geology of rock planets. But starting with my year, they relaxed the requirements and so I took mineralogy instead of electrodynamics, and quantum from the chemistry department instead of the physics department. (For the record, those classes also sucked, but for different reasons than the physics classes.)

This book has made countless graduate students cry. I took mineralogy and played with blocks instead...



Keep an eye out for seminars in your department, which are usually more narrowly focused and taught my a prof who specializes in the seminar’s topic. These can be hit or miss, but when they’re good, they are extremely useful classes. Also, if your department is flexible about what classes you take, and if you’re interested, try venturing outside of your department. I took a science communications class that led to the founding of this blog, and an English class on medieval romances (e.g. King Arthur, Gawain and the Green Night, Culwch and Olwen, etc.) just for kicks. My officemates even took a wine and beer-tasting class!

Get used to seeing a lot of PhD comics in this series of posts...


As an early grad student you are also likely to be a teaching assistant (TA). In my experience, whether TAing sucks or not  depends a lot on the class you are teaching, the professor who is teaching it, and your own attitude. One of the most frustrating things about TAing is that you have little control over the overall direction of the course and the delivery of most of the information (a.k.a. lectures). One of the semesters when I was a TA, I could barely stand watching the lectures because the prof was using old, crappy slides, and would then try to implement modern teaching techniques like clickers, but did it so poorly that it was worse than just plain lecturing. The next semester in intro astronomy a different prof was in charge and things worked much differently, and everyone was much happier. In any case, you really should try to go into TAing with a positive attitude. Chances are, if you’re in grad school, a career in academia is a distinct possibility, and you are going to need to know how to teach.

Of course, TAing will not automatically make you a good teacher. I very strongly recommend taking any teaching training available are your school. Just after I finished TAing, I attended the Center for Astronomy Education teaching workshop and my mind was blown with just how poorly I had done at teaching my sections, and how much better astronomy can be taught. There are people out there who study how people learn and how to most effectively teach. Do yourself and your students a favor and listen to these people. (I also happened to marry a physics teacher, so I am constantly learning more about teaching, and about how poorly I did it when I was a TA.)

Be prepared to teach labs too. You mileage will certainly vary, but the astronomy labs that I had to teach were terrible. Full of typos, outdated, and sometimes incomprehensible. Also, I had to occasionally run observing nights with a giant clockwork telescope built a hundred years ago, with almost no training. All I can really say about teaching lab is: good luck!

If you teach a discussion section (or lecture!), try to take some time and really figure out what you want students to learn from everything you do before you decide to do it. For example, looking back I can see that I spent way too much time making my students do calculations and not enough time on the concepts (without all the scary math). A little bit of planning and thought will go a long way in improving your section, especially if you also look for good resources developed by educators for your particular topic rather than reinventing the wheel.

My TA experience was relatively brief (I only taught for 2 semesters), so I don’t have much more to add. If you’re reading and you have more teaching-related advice, feel free to share it in the comments!