Andy's Brain Blog Advice Column: How to Make Yourself an Irresistible Applicant for Graduate School

In our modern times, obtaining an advanced degree is imperative for getting a good job. Whereas in the past merely completing the eighth grade qualified you for self-sustaining and socially acceptable jobs, such as crime boss, today those same academic credentials will probably shoehorn you into a crime boss chauffeur position at best. Nobody wants to graduate high school just to find that the only options available to them are menial, boring, "dead-end" jobs, such as chess grandmaster or porn star.

Because of this, increasing numbers of people are starting to attend graduate school to receive even more advanced training. For those of you who are not in graduate school - and you guys can trust me - I would describe this training as eerily similar to the kind of training that Luke Skywalker did on planet Dagobah in the Star Wars movies, including becoming fluent in pseudo-philosophical BSing, developing telekinetic powers to remove your car from snowdrifts, and carrying your adviser on your back whilst running through jungles and doing backflips. In fact, your adviser will even look and talk like Yoda, although there are important physical differences between the two, as shown here:

In addition to that, you will also become an expert in a specialized field, such as existential motifs in Russian literature, or the neural correlates of the ever-elusive default poop network. Paradoxically, however, even as one learns more abstruse and recondite information, many graduate school veterans have reported losing knowledge in such simple and rudimentary areas such as basic math, maintaining eye contact when talking to someone, and personal hygiene. Furthermore, for all of its emphasis on reading, graduate school can actually lead to the atrophy of normal reading skills, as one who reads nothing but scientific articles and technical manuals will, after a long period of immersion in his studies, find books dealing with actual human beings or fantastical creatures as bizarre and ridiculous, even hateful.

"I don't have time to read for pleasure anymore!" one of my colleagues once exclaimed. Partly this was a boast to bring attention to his laudable reading habits, at the expense of anything else that could possibly vie for his attention; partly to sound a note of despair, as I really believed that he hadn't read anything for pleasure in years, defined as something unrelated to his work or something that was, practically speaking, useless, but somehow pleasurable and, possibly, edifying. I once tested the strength of his claim by having him read the back of a Honey Nut Cheerios cereal box in order to use a series of clues to solve a riddle; after wrestling with this headbreaker for several hours, he finally gave up, utterly exhausted. (Although, to be honest, some of those puzzles can be pretty tough.)

But I digress. The fact is, there are legions of talented, motivated, eager young persons all applying to the same graduate programs that you desire, and there is simply no practical way to kill them all. To make yourself stand out, therefore, requires a superhuman amount of dedication, responsibility, work ethic, intelligence, charm, good looks, ruthlessness, and knowledge of advanced interrogation techniques - all qualities that you, quite frankly, don't have. Clearly, other methods are required. I'm not going to come right out and say things like "bribery," "blackmail," and "intimidation," but that's pretty much the gist of it. Perhaps you can even call in a favor or two from the local crime lord that you chauffeur around downtown Chicago.

However, if this kind of skullduggery just isn't to your taste, there are other ways to manipulate the thoughts and feelings of the admission committee to realize that you are, in fact, just the applicant that they are looking for. One underhanded way to worm yourself into their good graces is by working for several years or decades as a lab RA, which is an acronym that stands for "Indentured Servant." The way this works is that you literally beg a professor to work in their lab for free, for ten, twenty, even sixty hours a week. You need to make it clear that you absolutely, positively, swear-on-a-box-of-Honey-Nut-Cheerios need this position, and that you will kill for this professor, if necessary. Professors are used to getting these kinds of requests all the time, and in fact find it odd whenever somebody asks to work with them for something in return, such as money, recognition, or humane working conditions. By whatever means possible, do not fall into this "it's all about me" mindset! At this point remember that you are not even a graduate student yet, which, in the academia hierarchy, places you a couple of rungs below a Staph infection. If you are lucky, you will possibly get a letter of recommendation from the principal investigator, which you should expect to type yourself. Just remember to print your name correctly.

But, against all odds, let's assume that you have gained some experience, worked a few relevant jobs, carried out a few hits on your professor's enemies, and have finally been invited to a university for their graduate recruitment weekend. However, even after you have been invited to look around the campus and meet with the faculty, you will still need to have the street smarts to ace the interview.

Let us say, for example, that you have been invited to visit the Dwayne T. Fensterwhacker University of Fine Arts, Sciences, and Advanced Interrogation Techniques, and in particular that you are keen on working with distinguished professor Earl W. Gropeswanker. During the interview, you should be ready for curveball questions, such as the following:

DR. GROPESWANKER: Who is your favorite scientist?
YOU: That is a tough question, but a fair one, to which I reply, entirely of my own volition: Earl Gropeswanker.
DR. GROPESWANKER: Excellent answer. But surely, aren't there any other scientists whom you admire?
YOU: Well, let's see...Walter White, he was a scientist, wasn't he? He was pretty good. Same with Albert Einstein. The rest of them are scum.
DR. GROPESWANKER: You are hired on the spot.

Obviously you should be ready for tough questions on other topics, such as: How much do you respect, love, and admire the professor you are currently interviewing? Would you be willing to chauffeur this person around campus to meet with the heads of the other departmental families? How would you rate your capabilities as bodyguard, trafficker, and yegg? Once you have determined whether you can beneficially work with this person, you should be prepared to work with them for a long time, and to develop other talents and skills so numerous, that I suppose not all the books in the world could contain them. But that is another topic for another day.

How to Write a Dissertation Prospectus

Before beginning work on a dissertation, one has to put together and submit a prospectus, which is from the ancient Greek pro, meaning "Stuff," and spectus, meaning "One who writes." A prospectus is, in condensed form, what you will be writing about in your dissertation. This provides your dissertation committee, over a period of roughly two presidential administrations, a chance to read a brief, concise, single-spaced 50-page report about whether they should take the trouble to read a future dissertation that, for practical purposes, is measured not in pages but metric tons. Some students, knowing that a picture is worth a thousand words, merely substitute a diagram to helpfully outline what will be covered in their dissertation:

For those of us who aren't savvy enough with Google Images to produce an informative picture, however, we will need to rely on good, old-fashioned scientific prose. But first, let's cover the basic structure of your prospectus. Remember, by following these time-tested principles and recommendations, you will at least somewhat entertain your committee before they reject your dissertation proposal as completely ridiculous and holding about as much scientific merit as a can of Cheez-Whiz.

1. The Cover Page

A strong prospectus starts out with a cover page, containing the title of your dissertation, the names of the members of your dissertation committee, and possibly a dedication to someone who has had an immense and positive influence on your life, such as your parents, your girlfriend, or Tony Soprano. Feel free to embellish your cover page with depictions of cherubs and muses.

Example cover page from Edward Grieg's dissertation prospectus.

2. Personal Photo

Even after four years of working with your adviser, you shouldn't make any rash assumptions, such as that he or she will know what you look like. In order to help out your adviser, you should attach a professionally done personal photo showing you looking as serious and scientific as possible. This can score you major points with your committee, as they will now have a mental image of you as a serious, cultured individual, unlike all the other hirsute weirdos wandering around the department:

Source: Calvin Klein

3. Body of the Prospectus

Once you have successfully completed your cover page and personal photo, you're now ready for the most important and weightiest section of your prospectus - by which I mean, of course, that you actually have to write something related to the work that you have been doing over the past several years. A good prospectus should start out with something that immediately entices and intrigues the reader, such as the following:

Most honorable, sovereign, and magnificent lords,

I herewith enclose the following enclosements; a prospectus designed to please both one's innate curiosity and satisfy his critical faculties, by expounding upon the work of my graduate career, which has definitely involved reading only scientific articles and books, and not bootlegged copies of Humungo Garbanzo BOLD Responses. It is my utmost belief, penetrating my entire being and reaching even so far as the pyloric sphincter, that this prospectus will contribute to the PUBLIC WEAL and common good of academia and the scientific committee, viz., all of you, etc., et al, ora pro nobis.

The dissertation which I hereafter propose is that, in order to determine the neural mechanisms and correlates of prospective model-free decision-making, one must bring to bear several unique methodologies, such as functional and structural connectivity, multivoxel pattern analysis, univariate mastication, seed-based cortical peristalsis, dynamic CSF segmentation and haustral movements, computational modeling region of interest corrected thresholding bread milk Astroglide tortillas refried beans.

Deign, most honourable, magnificent and sovereign lords, to receive, and with equal goodness, this respectful testimony of the interest I take in whatever it is I have been studying the past several years. And, if I have been so unhappy as to be guilty of any indiscreet transport in this glowing effusion of my heart, I beseech you to pardon me, and to attribute it to the tender affection of a true student, and to the ardent and legitimate zeal of a man, who can imagine for himself no greater felicity than to see you happy.

Also, if somehow one of you manages to come across one of my old issues of Humungo Garbanzo stuffed in the back of the lowest drawer of my filing cabinet, I know nothing about that.

Most honourable, magnificent and sovereign lords, I am, with the most profound respect,

Your most humble and obedient servant and fellow-citizen,

Don't worry if you have a difficult time coming up with anything that sounds remotely plausible or scientific; if you've written a prospectus like the one above, odds are that your committee, satisfied that you are fluent in academic bullshit, will stop reading somewhere around the second paragraph, and fail to note that once you ran out of buzzwords you started supplying items from your grocery shopping list.

Andy's Brain Blog Advice Column: Should You Go to Graduate School?

Around this time of year legions of students will submit their graduate school applications; and, if I close my eyes, I can almost hear the click of the mouse buttons, the plastic staccato of keyboards filling in address information and reflective essays, the soft, almost inaudible squelching of eyeball saccades in their sockets as they gather information about potential laboratories to toil in and advisors to meet. So vivid is the imagination of these sounds, so powerful are the memories of my experience, that part of me can't help but feel a rill of nostalgia flutter down my spine, and possibly, somewhere, deep down, even a twinge of envy. I remember, as a young man, the heady experience of the application process: The shivers of expectation; the slow-burning, months-long buildup of excitement; the thrill of embarking upon an adventure of continuing to do work that you loved, but with new people to meet, new places to discover, and new worlds to conquer. For those about to undertake this journey, I say - Good fortune to you.

However, even in these times of expectation and excitement, I cannot refrain from advising caution; for I once knew a man in a similar situation, who, at the height of his powers, tried his hand at graduate studies; but, rather than augmenting his already considerable gifts, led to the most horrific of decays. So great a man was he, that to think of him is to think of an empire falling. This may smack of hyperbole; but the great promise of his early years, followed by the precipitous decline upon his entry to graduate school, do suggest the tragic dimensions of which I speak.

In his youth he was a hot-blooded hedonist, snatching at all pleasures as he could, carelessly, almost impulsively, like a shipwrecked sailor grasping at driftwood. During these years his life was one of wild debauch, filled with wagers and duels, wine-soaked bacchanalias and abducted women. Endowed with Herculean stamina and the unchained libido of a thousand-and-three Don Juans, every muscle, every sinew, every fiber of his being, was directed at vaulting his pleasure to its highest pinnacle and beyond. A dark aura of raw sexuality exuded from his being; the wellsprings were perennial which fueled his twisted desires. He wouldn't have known an excess if he saw one - his lusts were of such depravity they would have eclipsed even de Sade's darkest fantasies.

The nonstop orgies of his early years eventually petered out, however, and one morning he awoke to find himself in extreme want. Abandoned by his mistress, his fortune squandered, he eventually decided that applying to graduate school would be the best option; after all, styling himself a freethinker and an intellectual, the pursuits of business and politics seemed inadequate, even vulgar. A life of the mind, he concluded, was the only one for him, and thus did he eschew the red and the black in favor of the white labcoat of the researcher.

Among any other trade this man would have been happy, motivated and fulfilled, perfectly at home among the elegant rakes of any other era; but ambition denied withered him; his incessant studies dried up the springs of his energy; and melancholy marked him for her own. Instead of a life of health, vigor, and adventure, now he whittled away his days in a dreary, windowless room performing the most perfunctory and mind-numbing of tasks. Instead of using his masculine touch to awaken hundreds of young maidens into womanhood, now he could only practice a crippled eros that repeatedly failed to take wing. Poverty, alcoholism, and overwork became the staples of his life; his last years were clouded by religious mania; and, misunderstood and forgotten, he spent his final days in utter squalor, dying much as he foresaw - like a poisoned rat in a hole.

Limerick Intermezzo

There was a young man from Stamboul,
Who soliloquized thus to his tool:
"You took all my wealth
And you ruined my health,
And now you won't pee, you old fool."

My friend's story, though extreme, represents the experience of no small number of graduate students. It is not uncommon for the typical graduate to spend the prime of life in an environment he detests, doing work he abominates, with the energy that should go into the flower instead remaining in the leaves and stem. Frustration, disappointment, and monotony become his bywords. The great expectations he begins with, the intoxicating freedom of his new schedule, are all too quickly transformed into feelings of ennui and despair; the hot blood that once coursed through his veins gradually congeals into cold slime. He criticizes his program, his field, his advisors, all the while oblivious to the fact that he is a willing coauthor of his own misery. He manages to project a certain nonchalance, he gets along agreeably enough with his friends, but his most private moments - if not spent in a haze of wine or the arms of some debauched wench - are torture.

And yet - I have known a few individuals who persevere even under the most sordid of circumstances, who, even in the face of the most formidable of challenges, manage to live bravely, even joyfully. They are impervious to the most depressing of environments and the most hateful of colleagues. For these resilient few, their passion lifts them above the waves that would drown the merely indifferent; the iron in their souls allows them to withstand blows that would crush the weaker-willed. (I do not count myself among their number, but then again, I have never had the desire; I have been more than able to make up for any defects of personality or intelligence though flattery, intimidation, bribery, and blackmail.)

Let he who is considering graduate school, therefore, take stock of his weaknesses, and of his strengths; let him calculate the risks; let him understand that persisting in anything that leaves him feeling enervated and worthless is not the sign of some tragic hero, but the mark of a fool - it is the first step on the path to spiritual suicide.

If, by chance, he does have many years of happiness, let him rejoice in them all; yet let him remember the days of darkness, for they shall be many.

Andy's Brain Blog Advice Column: Should You Date In Graduate School?

Dear Andy's Brain Blog,

I am midway through the second year of my graduate program, and over the past couple of months I have gotten to know a girl in my cohort very well. At first we started just by hanging out a lot, but one night we both got pretty jacked on some Nutella spiked with Smirnoff Ice and before I knew it things got out of control. It quickly escalated into kissing, necking, holding hands, and heavy petting, although we kept it PG (-13). Although I had the time of my life that night, and although I have had this same scenario happen with several girls before, something feels different about this one; it doesn't feel like just another fling, but possibly the prelude to a full-on relationship. 

However, I am conflicted: How much should a man dedicate himself to a relationship, if at all, when there are the pressing concerns of classes, teaching, writing, and research? Would it be best to break it off before it becomes too serious? Or, if it is to be pursued, how should it be approached?



Dear Brad,

Let me begin by stating it is perfectly normal, and not weird at all, for a manboy of your age to begin experimenting with odd cocktails of sugary products. But first let me address an unasked question: Why should you trust me with relationship advice? Well, not to brag or anything, but I have run a (half) marathon, I have no major diseases, and I have read over a dozen novels, including the complete oeuvre of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Beverly Cleary. The depth and breadth of my reading, combined with extensive travels throughout the upper American Midwest and two provinces of Canada, has granted me unique insight into prepubescent sororal relationships, the finer points of horse trading, and how to recover from crop damage following a hail storm. Most important, I have become an observant scholar of relationships between the sexes - as Tolstoy would put it, the tragedy of the bedroom - and this endeavor has granted me an eagle-eye view over the landscape of your squalid desires.

To illustrate the deleterious effects of falling in love, a peculiar phenomenon of which you seem to be at risk, I share with you a letter - ladies and gentlemen, an honest-to-god, handwritten letter! As though you need any more evidence of the madness wrought by such primitive emotions - recently received from one of my colleagues at a neighboring university which described his sinking into the turbid ocean of his own lust, the unfortunate result of a series of trysts and resulting hanky-panky with a post-doctoral student working in another lab, which, instead of draining the cisterns of his lust, whipped him into a frenzied passion. Besides the irritation provoked by the omission of any question as to how I was doing - the letter was, in a sense, one prolonged, histrionic soliloquy directed toward an uninterested audience - I was shocked to hear of the level of absorption and mindless passion to which he had fallen (he would have said risen). He enumerated, in painstaking detail, the features and mien of his lover; the slender, supple, opalescent skin of her bare arm; those vermilion, pillowy, textured lips rising to meet his upon awakening from a fitful, sleepless night; and above all, serving as two bright nodes in a trinity of passion, a pair of milky peaks bedighted with brilliant orbs; incarnadine, inexhaustible wellsprings of his bliss, the very thought of which was enough to send a rill of excitement down his spine and terminate in a limpid jet of love.

Exhibit two has no ocular evidence, but rather rests on a memory; old, but still intolerably vivid. An acquaintance of mine in college, living in an adjacent room, once let down his guard and fell completely, hopelessly, stupidly in love with one of the first girls that he met. He once had the gall to stop me on my way out the door to a morning class merely to tell me of his first kiss shared with the object of his desire; he described how, as they talked one night, he had gradually pulled her closer to him, as if by the force of God, and how she began to talk more rapidly and at a higher pitch the closer they were drawn together, before a brief and pregnant silence; and then - a thousand comparisons between the expectation and the reality, a bubble of ecstasy bursting in slow motion - their lips met.

After that, he was a changed man; his grades went to pot, he claimed to see the world in a different light, and he began to go so far as to read and write poetry under her intoxicating influence. It was, from my perspective, a silly and infantile episode in his life; and lest the reader think that this was some innocent, puppy-love affair, let him know that I was, on several occasions, rudely awakened early in the morning by the sounds of strenuous intercourse. After they broke up - as inevitably happens under the demands and expectations of such powerful emotions - he was a wreck for months. His personal hygiene fell into desuetude, his appearance became slovenly and repulsive, and one could see, at a glance, that where he was once brimming with untamed eros, he was now spiritually detumescent. I hardly talked to him since that catastrophic episode, although one time he did manage to corner me and, still under the influence of a fevered mind, tell me that what had transpired - kiss, relationship, breakup, all - was one of the best things that happened to him. To this day, I cannot help reflecting on that puerile outpouring without a feeling of contempt.

As has been shown, love can lead to such dangerous feelings as inklings of the Eternal or the Infinite, along with all of their concomitant inspirations to do simultaneously heroic and stupid things; feelings that there might be, in fact, a deeper and greater reality beyond the pale of the daily grey. All of this, of course, is pernicious nonsense, and should be avoided accordingly. And, lest anyone forget, falling in love also leads to a pathological form of self-forgetfulness, spawning powerful and conflicting emotions such as a deep concern for someone other than the self, painful feelings of both tenderness and possessiveness, and the stirrings of insensate jealousy. How is it, I ask, that any serious student is supposed to concentrate on their work with all of these inchoate feelings spurring them to blind insanity?

However, if you have already crossed the Rubicon and find yourself increasingly enthralled to another, there is still hope to break the emotional ties before they become so entwined with your own being that to sever them would be, in effect, an amputation of the soul. After all, what the composers and poets and painters seldom mention is that, in the beginning at least, one can fall out of love as quickly as they fall into it; and I therefore recommend that, during one of your more lucid moments of reasoning - perhaps when the clouds of your mind have been dispelled after a particularly vigorous congress - it would be both fitting and proper to bring up a sensitive topic likely to introduce divisions between you and your lover; politics and religion being the two examples that most readily come to mind, although I am sure you can find others. It is best to exploit these divisions early on, as I have observed several miscarriages of the natural order of relationships in which two individuals, having known and cared for each other for several years, no longer find these differences to be grounds for breaking up, nor do they even find these differences to be of much importance at all; instead, these differences are seen petty and trivial compared to the emotional and physical well-being of their partner.

By all means, do not let this happen to you. Reader, I have seen men and women worked up into a passion - literally, a sensuous passion, far more intense than that effected by the most possessive jealousy or the most animal lust - over differences such as those described above. For maximum effect, of course, it is helpful to have an entire group of people, and instead of a difference per se, have them all hold more or less the same opinion in solidarity against an invisible opponent; as I have observed such groups, with their perceived moral superiority and righteous indignation serving as a highly volatile fuel, require only the faintest of sparks to overthrow their vaunted reason and ignite a general conflagration of directionless emotion. I once read somewhere a dull intellectual describe such events, in which each individual has a similar opinion, lightly adopted but firmly held, as arising from a combination of ignorance, dishonesty, and a pusillanimous desire for social acceptance; but in any case, the point here is to tap into that same atavistic, tribal mentality, in order to alienate and distance yourself from another, lest you find yourself so emotionally involved with this person that you are unable to easily assign them to a category.

In all, best to nip this in the bud straightaway, and immerse yourself in your readings, research, and teaching, lest you lose sight of what is really important. Relationships, love, marriage, et al. is for saps, as is self-evident to any reasonable observer; and if any of this is to be engaged in at all, it should only be for health purposes, without any resulting attachment, similar to a day at the spa. One of my friends recently sent me a copy of a book called The Red and the Black, by a man named Stendahl, saying that it would help me understand such trivialities; but in my hands, it was merely a lump of valuable matter. I hear that several young readers entering college are beginning to 'discover' Stendahl; I wish them joy.

Tips for Graduate Students: Preparing for Qualification Exams

Having recently completed my candidacy exam (or qualification exam, or "quals"), I now feel compelled to share with everyone what I have learned about how to have a smooth, successful exam experience. This is relevant mainly to the exams here at Indiana University, although I hope it will generalize to candidacy exams in other places. This is written with the first or second year student in mind, who has already begun to think about their candidacy exam, but has heard several different opinions on what to expect from it. I implore the reader to purge from his mind everything he has heard, and to start over with a fresh perspective; for his ship will be buffeted to and fro by the crosswinds of contrary opinions, preventing him from reaching the safer shores of conviction and instead leave him to founder and ultimately drown in the sea of uncertainty. (I am a professional blogger; don't try metaphors like this on your own.)

Some background on the IU exams: After completing the second year of the PhD program, students are expected to begin their qualification exams; this is usually during the summer between their second and third years of graduate school, although it can be taken during other semesters in certain circumstances. The exam consists of two portions: A written exam, which in turn consists of three or four papers, with no set standard for length (although the norm is usually from 25-35 pages of text, excluding references); and an oral exam, during which the student defends his or her position in the written papers, and can be asked questions which expand upon material discussed in the papers. Students are usually given three months to complete the written portion, and about three or four weeks after that to prepare for the oral exam.

Given all of this, students may well ask how they should best budget their time. The following tips will help guide the young academic scrote on his hazardous journey:

1) Start Early. As in, start as soon as you get to graduate school. This does not mean you should be formulating your questions years in advance; rather, you should be setting a regular reading schedule for yourself as part of your academic routine. People differ on how many papers is sufficient to read in one week, but it is better to err on the side of depth than of breadth. Some may find the time and willingness to read, on average, one or two papers every day; others may benefit more from focusing on only one or two papers a week. The emphasis is less on cramming as much information as possible into your puny human brain as it is to allow yourself enough time to digest high-quality, relevant articles and review papers which are of interest to you. The ancient Greeks had a term for individuals who read widely but possessed only superficial knowledge; they were called sophomores.

2) Mark Up Your Papers. There is probably some study out there, somewhere, written by some guy with a name like Brad or Troy, which has shown that interacting with your reading material helps you to retain information better. In any case, writing down your thoughts, or merely trying to summarize what the main points of the paper are, is an excellent way to comprehend and remember what you read. It also will help you immensely come qualification exam time, as you will have annotations for key studies that you will be discussing in your papers.

3) Get a Reference Manager Program. The best one I have been able to find so far is Mendeley. It allows you to categorize and organize every single paper you download, as well as open it up in another window as a PDF for annotating. In addition, you can use it to easily insert references into your papers, and change the formatting with only a couple of clicks.

4) Don't Listen to Debbie Downers. These people are usually either depressed, or they despise themselves so much that the only way they can get their rocks off is by infecting you with worry, anxiety, and doubt. Separate the wheat from the chaff - identify those who can give you useful advice about the mechanics about the qualification exam process, and who have success stories that you can emulate. There will generally only be a few of these people who can give you truly useful advice; the rest will bitch about how they never saw the light of day for the entire summer they were doing their candidacy exams, or how they handed everything in at the last minute, and expect you to be impressed.

For God's sake, do not humor them; mock them for their sloppy work ethic, box their ears for presuming that you care about their pathetic life, and pour rage like oil upon their heads for spreading such pernicious nonsense. A full three months is more than enough time to write one hundred pages of summary dressed up in your own personal insight, and should inspire curiosity and eagerness, not fear and dread. If you find yourself unable to make any progress and feel as though you are grinding out pages at a torturous pace, you may want to reconsider why you are doing this in the first place. The writing process should be a natural extension of everything you have observed, felt, and studied during your first two years of graduate school, and possibly even what you learned during your undergraduate years; it should not be seen as a test of your patience. The first way will lead to growth, inspiration, and confidence in your work; the second way lies stagnation, decay, and death.

5) Invest in an ETF. Anyone who tells you to stay out of the stock market is either a charlatan or a fool. These are the best years of your life to begin saving, and you should get on it with a quickness. I will be blunt and say that this will require some measure of self-control and austerity, such as reducing the number of outings to Kilroy's and Night Moves. Furthermore, since you are in academia, do not delude yourself into thinking that you have the ability to research stocks individually. You are suited only for discussion of abstract theories that nobody cares about; you are useless when it comes to practical matters, such as personal finance, or operating a food processor.

Fortunately, brokerage firms have already thought about pathetic creatures like you, and will give you access to trading instruments known as Exchange-Traded Funds (ETFs), which are essentially baskets of stocks chosen to represent a certain sector of the market, such as the manufacturing industry or Nutella & Nutella accessories; at the far end, they can be tailored to closely track entire index funds, such as the S&P 500. Some firms, such as Scottrade, will allow commission-free trading of ETFs, which is a good deal.

However, for those pigheaded enough to assume that their natural brilliance in their field somehow endows them with the temperament to pick individual winners and losers in the stock market, the best piece of advice I can give is to read the book The Intelligent Investor by Benjamin Graham, edited by Jason Zweig. It covers all of the fundamentals of investing, and is an excellent primer for getting up to speed on the terminology and strategies for different types of investors. It also contains this revealing quote:

"If you are not willing to go through the minimal effort of reading the proxy and making basic comparisons of financial health across five years' worth of annual reports, then you are too defensive to be buying individual stocks at all. Get yourself out of the stock-picking business and into an index fund, where you belong."

And that's real talk, bitch.

6) Know Your Audience. The point of qualification exams, as I understand them, is to both educate yourself  and deepen your understanding by focusing on a few topics of interest to you; however, you must also take your committee's views and prejudices into consideration as well. After all, they are expecting to learn something too, and not only through concise reviews and distillations of entire oceans of studies, but rather by seeing how this information is filtered through your own insight, and, consequently, how your opinions and views will add a dimension to the existing literature.

That being said, choose your committee wisely, should you have the option to do so. Furthermore, anticipate how they will react to certain experiments you discuss, and plan how you will address questions that will likely come up. Do not be afraid to cite members of your committee in your papers, given the fact that, since they are on your committee in the first place, they will probably have already published something out there that is relevant to what you are writing about. After all, like Carnegie said, the sweetest sound in the English language is the sound of a person's own name. Also, I am willing to bet that people get a little aroused whenever they see themselves cited by another.

7) Check the Freezer for HotPockets. When was the last time you ate? HotPockets are an excellent way to maintain a consistently high level of energy and provide a compact, delicious source of fuel which will help you to write for long stretches at a time. The bread of the HotPockets can be used by your muscles to help lift entire desks off the ground and slam doors shut; the pizza sauce will lead to longer, more intense, and more satisfying fits of rage; and the protein in the pepperoni will dramatically increase libido and dampen all of your inhibitory mechanisms. I base this on absolutely nothing.

8) Be Confident. Even if you are not naturally confident, fake it. Often people will not care if you trip up on small details, as long as you have a clear idea of where you are headed with your arguments and really believe in your conclusions. Those who exude an aura of confidence, both through the written and oral components of their exam, will elicit a greater measure of respect from their committee and their colleagues than those who timidly venture forth only through a series of half measures and minced steps; and this in turn will lead to a smoother, more productive conversation with your committee when discussing what you wrote.

This is a problem I have observed much more in girls than in guys in an academic setting. During public speaking events, for example, girls, for whatever reason, are more likely to preface what they say with namby-pamby phrases like "Now, I really don't know much about this, but...". This enrages me to no end, and if anything, instead of making listeners back off and cut the speaker some slack, encourages them to pile it on and try to trip up the speaker even more. Play pussy, get fucked.

Summary: Qualification exams are a source of much fear and stress, but it need not be so. By starting early and thinking critically about the papers you read and how they fit into your interests, you can stay ahead of the curve and build up an impressive library of fully annotated and organized papers before you even start writing. Tailoring your writing to your audience, as well as making wise investment decisions and satisfying your nutritional needs through HotPockets, will turn you into an unstoppable force of nature.