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So you're thinking about graduate school in operations research, math, or engineering


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Are you thinking about going to graduate school in a STEM field? This is a presentation about how to get started.

Published in: Education
  • Hi, I came across your slide show while surfing the net, trying to find an answer to whether or not getting a PhD is something i should aim for. Your slides are very helpful, but i am still very lost.... I'm a junior already and I feel like I have nothing planned out for my future after I graduate. People tell me to just get a PhD, but i dont know if I am capable of that.
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So you're thinking about graduate school in operations research, math, or engineering

  1. 1. So,  you  are  thinking  about  graduate  school  in  the  sciences  Laura  McLay  Industrial  &  Systems  Engineering  University  of  Wisconsin-­‐Madison  @lauramclay  on  twiFer  
  2. 2. What  is  graduate  school  like?  
  3. 3. How  to  get  started  Here  are  a  few  simple  rules  for  geIng  started.    
  4. 4. Talk  to  professors  in  your  department  and  others  •  Talk  to  the  professors  that  are  known  for  doing  research.  •  Professors  like  talking  about  students  that  find  their  research  interesMng.  •  Talk  to  the  graduate  program  director.  •  Start  as  a  junior  (or  earlier)  •  Is  grad  school  the  right  choice  for  you?  •  Keep  in  mind  that  some  professors  are  constantly  asked  for  funding  by  students  who  may  or  may  not  be  interested  in  research.  •  Talk  to  grad  students  in  your  classes  who  work  or  have  worked  in  the  “real  world”  
  5. 5. Find  out  informaMon  about  the  programs  where  you  might  want  to  apply  There  is  a  list  of  math  PhD  programs  here:  h"p://    There  is  a  list  of  operaMons  research  programs  here:    h"p://    
  6. 6. Contact  the  graduate  program  director  of  the  programs  you  find  interesMng.  First  check  degree  requirements.  Then  ask  about:  •  ApplicaMon  and  admissions  process  •  Minimum  GRE  and  TOEFL  scores    •  When  they  make  assistantship  decisions.  •  If  assistantships  are  per  year  or  are  guaranteed  for  ~4  years.  •  How  long  it  takes  to  get  a  degree.  •  What  the  dropout  rate  is.  •  Where  the  graduates  get  jobs.  •  Differences  between  MS  and  PHD  programs.  •  What  the  comps/prelims/qualifying  exams  are  like  (every  program  has  a  weed-­‐out  process).  •  Whatever  else  you  can  think  of.    •  Let  your  interest  in  the  program  be  evident  in  your  emails.  
  7. 7. Keep  this  in  mind  when  exchanging  emails  with  professors  
  8. 8. Apply!  To  maximize  your  chance  of  geIng  funded:  •  Apply  for  PhD  programs,  not  MS  programs.  •  Apply  early  for  a  fall  start.  •  Get  three  outstanding  reference  leFers.  – Ask  professors  if  they  can  write  an  excellent  leFer  for  you.  Give  them  an  out.  •  Take  GREs  mulMple  Mmes  if  you  need  to.    Your  quanMtaMve  reasoning  score  should  be  ~800.  
  9. 9. Don’t  pay  for  graduate  school  •  Only  aFend  a  program  that  offers  you  funding.  •  Let  me  repeat  that:  don’t  pay  your  own  way  to  graduate  school.  –  You  will  have  to  pay  for  some  degrees,  like  an  MBA,  MD,  JD,  etc.  Don’t  pay  for  a  PhD  in  a  STEM  field!  •  Schools  will  either  offer  you  some  kind  of  assistantship  for  a  year  or  unMl  you  finish  your  degree.  •  Some  schools  use  their  MS  program  to  fund  their  PhD  program.  
  10. 10. Teaching  assistantship  vs.    Research  Assistantships  •  There  are  three  types  of  assistantships  –  Teaching  means  that  you  teach  a  class  (~20  hours  per  week)  –  Research  means  that  you  work  on  a  professor’s  research  project  (~20  hours  per  week)  –  PhD  fellowship  is  mainly  for  you  to  work  on  your  PhD  with  fewer  teaching  responsibiliMes  •  You  can  move  between  teaching  and  research  •  Which  is  beFer,  teaching  or  research  fellowships?  –  Research  assistantships,  unless  you  don’t  like  the  research.  –  Usually  you  need  to  get  to  know  the  professors  to  be  offered  a  research  assistantship.  –  It  is  good  to  have  teaching  experience  at  some  point.  
  11. 11. Visit  your  top  schools.  •  Visit  schools  and  get  to  know  the  faculty  •  They  someMmes  pay  for  you  to  visit  in  the  Spring  semester.  •  The  schools  may  use  these  visits  to  pick  who  gets  fellowship  and  assistantship  offers    •  The  faculty  idenMfy  new  students  that  would  fit  well  in  their  lab  
  12. 12. Picking  advisors  •  Pick  your  advisor  based  on:  –  The  research  project  –  Your  personaliMes  –  The  advisor’s  track  record  with  former  PhD  students  (publicaMons,  conference  travel,  awards,  job  placement,  etc.)  •  If  you  are  offered  a  research  assistantship,  that  professor  is  your  advisor.  –  You  can  have  co-­‐advisors,  work  on  another  project,  etc.  •  One  secret  on  advisors:  None  of  the  professors  is  obligated  to  work  with  you.  
  13. 13. Apply  for  fellowships  •  Most  fellowships  have  deadlines  within  or  prior  to  the  first  year  of  grad  school.  –  NSF  due  in  November  of  your  first  year  –  DOE  office  of  science  –  DOE  computaMonal  science  –  NASA  –  DHS  –  Others.  •  There  are  more  opportuniMes  for  American  ciMzens.  •  Fellowships  are  even  beFer  than  assistantships!  
  14. 14. A  note  on  the  dropout  rate  Council  of  Graduate  Schools  Ph.D.  CompleMon  Project,  hFp://  
  15. 15. Another  note  on  the  dropout  rate  CumulaMve  compleMon  rates  in  different  fields  Council  of  Graduate  Schools  Ph.D.  CompleMon  Project,  hFp://  
  16. 16. A  note  on  post-­‐graduaMon  employment  rates  ProporMon  of  PhD  graduaMons  with  immediate  commitments    AllLife  SciencesPhysical  SciencesSocial  SciencesEngin-­‐  eeringEdu-­‐  caMonHum-­‐aniMesOtherEmployed  (Total)71.1%   72.1%   73.8%   73.3%   67.7%   73.1%   61.6%   74.7%  Definite  postgraduaMon  study 29.1%   46.0%   43.8%   24.7%   29.4%   4.9%   9.4%   5.6%  Definite  employment 38.1%   19.3%   27.5%   46.0%   35.2%   64.7%   49.1%   66.3%  Seeking  employment  or  study 28.9%   27.9%   26.2%   26.7%   32.3%   26.9%   38.4%   25.3%  Other 3.8%   6.9%   2.5%   2.6%   3.0%   3.5%   3.2%   2.9%  From  the  NaMonal  Science  FoundaMon:  
  17. 17. A  note  on  post-­‐graduaMon  employment  rates  From  the  NaMonal  Science  FoundaMon  
  18. 18. How  to  turn  a  PhD  into  a  great  career  •  Ask  about  jobs:  – Placement  rates  – Where  PhDs  get  jobs,  – How  much  they  make  – (Note  that  data  is  from  a  biased  sample)  •  If  you  want  to  be  a  professor,  pedigree  maFers  
  19. 19. Start  a  twiFer  account  •  I’m  serious.  •  I  interact  with  many  students  on  twiFer  (and  also  Google+,  FaceBook  and  LinkedIn).  It  is  a  great  way  to  network.  •  TwiFer  keeps  me  up  to  date  on  conferences,  conference  deadlines,  papers,  and  other  news  in  my  field.  •  The  grad  students  also  help  me  feel  “normal”  auer  I’ve  been  programming  for  three  weeks  straight.  
  20. 20. It’s  a  big  decision.    However,      this  is  an  exaggeraMon.    
  21. 21. Advice  for  women  and  minoriMes  •  Professors  want  you  to  succeed.  –  Heck,  everyone  wants  you  to  succeed.  •  Check  out  resources  at  your  school  –  SWE,  NSBE,  SHPE,  etc.  –  Network!!  •  Back  in  the  day,  I  got  married  and  had  a  baby  in  graduate  school.    –  There  are  few  barriers  for  those  who  are  commiFed  to  succeed.  –  There  are  few  “official”  support  networks  for  women  grad  students  who  have  babies.  Consider  yourself  forewarned.  
  22. 22. Advice  from  twiFer  •  From  @ksphil:  –  Before  anything  else,  one  should  think  about  ones  [career]  goal  and  whether  going  grad  school  is  the  right  thing  for  him  or  her.    –  Without  confidence  on  the  decision/objecMve,  it  will  be  hard  to  finish  the  degree,  especially  for  PhD.  •  do  not  be  afraid  of  being  discouraged,  and  to  see  past  the  iniMal  courses/exams  (@techstepper)  •  Weigh  how  much  you  get  along/click  with  a  few  faculty  members  when  selecMng  a  school.  (@dianam)  •  From  @tdhopper  (1)  Do  campus  visits  for  your  top  schools.    (2)  Talk  to  faculty  you  have  similar  interests  with  (3)  Give  thought  to  where  you  want  to  be  geographically  and  campus  environment.    (4)  Apply  early.  Apply  ouen.  (5)  if  students  arent  sure  what  research  direcMon  they  want  to  go,  a  big  department  might  be  preferable.  
  23. 23. Tough  love:  an  insensiMve  guide  to  thriving  in  your  PhD  in  a  STEM  field*  •  PhDs  are  for  the  truly  curious.  It  is  not  a  job.  It  does  not  end  with  graduaMon.  –  If  you  want  to  get  a  PhD  for  the  sake  of  geIng  a  PhD,  you  can  buy  one  online.  –  Don’t  view  being  a  PhD  student  as  a  9  to  5  job.  •  Give  a  potenMal  adviser  a  test  drive  before  a  commitment  •  Get  started  with  research  fast.  The  longer  you  wait,  the  more  anxious  you  will  get.  The  anxiety  can  be  crippling.  •  Don’t  be  a  perfecMonist.  Leading  scienMsts  are  generally  not  perfecMonists.  •  Don’t  take  vacaMons  as  though  you  have  a  paying  job.  Only  take  a  break  when  you  achieve  a  major  goal.  •  Publish  as  you  go.  Nothing  counts  more  than  publicaMons.  •  If  the  first  major  thing  you  write  is  your  dissertaMon,  then  you  are  doing  it  wrong.  •  Don’t  expect  your  adviser  to  rewrite  all  of  your  papers.  •  Don’t  procrasMnate.  Don’t  expect  good  reference  leFers  if  you  do.  •  Buy  noise  cancelling  headphones  if  you  share  an  office.  •  Don’t  be  a  schmo:  learn  a  programming  language  and  automate  your  analyses.  *  From  Chris  Chambers:  hFp://­‐love-­‐insensiMve-­‐guide-­‐to.html  
  24. 24. Gentle  advice  for  becoming  a  producMve  PhD  student  •  Work  hard!  •  Find  your  “fire”  –  If  you’re  not  reading  about  cool  things  happening  in  your  field  in  your  spare  Mme,  geIng  a  PhD  might  not  be  for  you.  •  Follow  direcMons  from  your  advisor.  •  Be  polite.  •  Be  a  great  finisher.  –  When  you  think  youre  80%  done  with  a  paper,  youre  more  like  20%  done.  –  Each  research  contribuMon  is  a  marathon,  not  a  sprint.  Good  research  manners  +  hard  work  +  persistence  is  your  best  formula  for  long-­‐term  success.  
  25. 25. Gentle  advice  for  becoming  a  producMve  PhD  student,  Part  II  •  Research  will  take  twice  as  much  Mme  as  your  classes.  •  Be  on  Mme  for  all  meeMngs  with  your  advisor.  •  Be  prepared  –  bring  code,  tables,  and  figures  with  you  to  meeMngs.  –  Don’t  be  embarrassed  to  bring  in  unpolished  work.  •  Be  communicaMve:  let  your  advisor  know  if  you’ll  be  late  or  need  to  cancel  a  meeMng  •  Research  is    iteraMve,  and  our  first  ideas  are  rarely  our  best.    But  they  are  necessary  to  figure  out  how  to  succeed.  New  things  are  hard  before  they  are  easy.  Hang  in  there.  
  26. 26. For  more  informaMon  •  Visit  my  blog  Punk  Rock  OperaMons  Research  hFp://    Look  at  the  other  blogs  listed  under  the  blogroll.  Start  reading  some  of  them.    •  hFp://  is  another  great  place  to  find  math  and  OR  blogs.  •  Interact  with  me  on  twiFer  (@lauramclay).  •  Talk  to  me  in  real  life.  •  Talk  to  other  professors  outside  of  class.