Professors share tips to excel during graduate school

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Getting his or her Ph.D. may have more significance to a student than simply being the smartest person at the party.

Although Dixie State University is not a research institution, students thinking about pursuing graduate school can find guidance and inspiration from their professors. Graduate school can be a slippery slope, but with the right tools, DSU professors say the struggle is ultimately worth it.


What are graduate schools looking for?

A more important aspect than looking good on paper is having the right mentality to endure graduate school, associate math professor Costel Ionita said.

“[Graduate schools] are looking for students who have the drive, energy and passion to spend four years doing very, very difficult work,” he said. “Show the school that you are more than just a regular student.”

Hosok O, assistant professor of history and political science, said a graduate student is a true scholar.

“It’s something you’re constantly working on,” O said. “It’s not just getting the diploma and that’s (the) end of (the) story.”

Biology Department Chair David Jones said because of the close-knit community DSU embodies, students are able to work directly with their mentors. Jones said that’s one of the main reasons why DSU students who pursue graduate degrees are so successful.

“One of the most common traits of our students is how independent they are,” Jones said. “They can function very well on their own, and I think that’s a testament to the experience they got before they left [DSU].”


Where do I start?

Ionita said students who are thinking about getting their Ph. D. should get in touch with a faculty member they trust as soon as possible.

“Students need to make sure they impress their professors, (but) not just by going to class and getting an A, but actually getting in the professor’s face and making [himself or herself] known,” Ionita said.

Because so much work and energy go into crafting a Ph. D., assistant psychology professor Michael Rahilly said graduate school is not the time to be in the exploratory stage.

“You have to be definite this is the career you want,” he said.

Rahilly also said another important thing students should begin to do is to study professors at the universities they want to go to.

“Look at the type of research [the professors] are doing,” Rahilly said. “You want to think about the professors you will be working with.”

Communication professor Randal Chase said one of the most important things students can do now is work on a research project for their senior capstone. He said recruiters from graduate schools will think that is the most impressive.

Jones said students should get involved in internships over the summer and engage in research projects.

“In those internships students find themselves essentially in a mini-graduate school experience,” Jones said. “They’re in the lab for goodness knows — 19 hours a day — and they’re immersed in it.”

Standardized tests like the Medical College Admission Test and the Graduate Record Examination are also key to a student’s success.

“These days most graduate schools give a lot of weight to [the standardized tests],” Ionita said. “They give very little weight to your grade point average. Make sure you have as good of grades as you can, but (what is) more important than the grades is [making] sure you can get three or four excellent letters of recommendation from your professors.” 


What can I expect while attending graduate school?

Students pursuing graduate school need to realistically think about how many hours will be spent on the degree, Rahilly said.

“The hardest thing is realistically adjusting to the long hours and the never-ending work load that you start to experience,” he said. “I would say the easiest thing is really the classes (because) they’re interesting and challenging in your field.”

Because students are spending so much time on their schoolwork, Ionita said limiting distractions becomes very important. He said the only other thing he had on his plate outside of school was family, and if he would have had to have a job, it wouldn’t have worked out for him.

O said the difficult thing is when students find themselves dealing with distractions.

“If you’re a single student with no distractions, it will be a breeze,” O said. “Typically, if you’re dedicated enough, it’s not going to be too hard.”

Although graduate school may be intimidating at first, O said the hardest part is undergraduate study.

“Once you are in the program, you are more focused,” he said.

Jones said students can expect to be surrounded by the most knowledgeable people in the world.

“When you’re there, you’re surrounded by brilliant people all the time and you’ll know if you want to engage in research long term pretty much on the first day,” Jones said. 


What’s the value in a Ph.D.?

Ionita said better jobs and getting paid more is merely a side effect of obtaining a Ph.D.

“I didn’t go to graduate school to get a better job or any of the financial reasons,” Ionita said. “It was my dream to get a Ph.D. in mathematics. The side effects of that are (that) you can get a better job. What I learned in graduate school, I don’t think I could have learned any other way.”

The professors you interact with on a day-to-day basis will become your best friends, O said.

“When you are an undergraduate student, you feel like you have more distance between your professors, but in a graduate program you will notice that these people will be your best friends,” he said. “With similar interests we become much more closer.”

Jones said obtaining a Ph.D. is a huge personal accomplishment.

“Other than being bona fide as being one of the smartest people on the planet, the purpose of getting the doctorate, ideally, is that you’ve contributed to human knowledge,” Jones said. “You have described something about the universe nobody knew before. It’s one little piece of information that humanity as a whole just didn’t know before. There’s the value.”