Top Ten Things I Learned in Graduate School (TRIGGER WARNING: Includes Spiro Agnew)

"It is a duty incumbent on upright and creditable men of all ranks who have performed anything noble or praiseworthy to record in their own words the events of their lives. But they should not undertake this honorable task until they are past the age of forty."

-Benvenuto Cellini, opening sentence of his Autobiography (c. 1558)

  1. Date within your cohort! Or not. Either way, you'll have a great time! Maybe.
  2. If you have more than ten things to say, you can make a longer list.
  3. If you rearrange the letters in the name "Spiro Agnew," you can spell "Grow A Penis." Really? Really.
  4. Think of teaching a class as a PG-13 movie: to keep the class titillated and interested, you're allowed to make slightly crude references without being explicit; and, if you want, you're entitled to say the f-word ("fuck") once during the semester.
  5. When they say, "Don't date your students until the class is over," they mean when the semester is over, not just when classtime is over.
  6. Virtually everyone who throws around the word "sustainable" has no idea what they're talking about, unless it's that water situation in California. Things are seriously f-worded over there.
  7. If you come into graduate school not knowing how to code, teach yourself. Only after getting frustrated and making no headway, only after you have exhausted every avenue of educating yourself - only then is it acceptable to find someone else to do it for you, and then take credit for it. You gotta at least try!
  8. You know you've been doing neuroimaging analysis for a long time when you don't think twice about labeling a directory "anal." Ditto for "GroupAnal."
  9. You know you've been in graduate school too long when you can remember the deidentification codes for all of your subjects, but not necessarily the names of all of your children.
  10. When you first start a blog in graduate school, everything you write is very proper and low-key, in the fear that you may offend one of your colleagues or a potential employer. Then after a while you loosen up. Then you tighten up again when you're on the job market. Then you get some kind of employment and you loosen up again. And so on.
  11. When I first started blogging, I figured that people would take the most interest in essays that I had taken considerable pains over, usually for several days or weeks. Judging from the amount of hits for each post, readers seem to vastly prefer satirical writings about juvenile things such as "the default poop network," and humorous neuroimaging journal titles with double entendres - silly crap I dashed off in a few minutes. Think about that.
  12. The whole academic enterprise is more social than anything. It sounds obvious and you will hear it everywhere, but you never appreciate it until you realize that you can't just piss off people arbitrarily and not suffer any consequences somewhere down the line. Likewise, if you are good to people and write them helpful blog posts and make them helpful tutorial videos, they are good to you, usually. Kind of like with everything else in life.
  13. If you get a good adviser, do not take that for granted. Make every effort to make that man's life easier by doing your duties, and by not breaking equipment or needlessly stabbing his other graduate students. By "good adviser" I mean someone who is considerate, generous with his time and resources, and clear about what you need to do to get your own career off the ground while giving you enough space to develop on your own. I had such an adviser, and that is a big part of the reason that the past five years of my life have also been the best five years. That, and the fact that I can rent cars on my own now.

Have you finished graduate school and are now in a slightly higher paying but still menial and depressing job, and would like to share your wisdom with the newer generation of young graduate students? Can you rent a car on your own now? Did you try the Spiro Agnew Anagram Challenge (SAAC)? Share your experiences in the comments section!

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.

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.

Debussy: La Fille Aux Cheveux De Lin

FMRI analysis can be stressful; graduate school can be stressful; life and relationships can be stressful. Therefore, it can be salutary to take stock of everything once in a while, just to keep things in perspective; because all of those things listed above can, sometimes, if you pay attention - be very, very good.

Just kidding; you're probably going to have an extremely stressful week anyway. Regardless, here's some relaxing music to help you out.

Andy's Brain Blog Brain Food: Mom's Homemade Granola

You can really taste the vitamins

Back in the good old days, when I first started graduate school, I had a hard time coming up with a good snack for those long afternoon stretches between lunch at noon and going home around two-thirty. Fortunately, I recently rediscovered this classic recipe, which is sweet, delicious, nutritious, and packed with enough fiber to keep your hunger at bay for long periods of time.

You may ask, why is it called Mom's Homemade Granola? Maybe because it's my Mom's recipe, and because she makes it at home. If it were called Goathumper Bill's Granola, you would expect it to be made by some crazy guy out on a farm somewhere diddling livestock. Pay attention.

Anyway, the ingredients are:

  • 1 cup old-fashioned oats
  • 1/4 cup wheat germ (not toasted)
  • 1/4 cup sweetened flaked coconut
  • 1/4 cup coarsely broken cashews
  • 1/4 cup coarsely broken walnuts or pecans
  • 3 teaspoons sesame seeds (or sunflower seeds)
  • 1/4 cup pure maple syrup
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil
  • 1 tablespoon brown sugar
  • 1 tablespoon light molasses
  • 1/2 teaspoon ground cinnamon
  • 1/4 cup raisins
  • 1/4 cup chopped dried apricots

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees, and then mix the first six ingredients in a large bowl. Whisk the maple syrup and next four ingredient in a medium bowl. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients; stir to coat evenly. Transfer to a large rimmed baking sheet and spread out the mixture in an even layer. Bake for 8 minutes and then stir, bringing the bottom layer to the top. Bake for 8 minutes longer until golden brown, and then mix in the raisins and apricots. Bake until the fruit is heated through and the granola is slightly darker, and cool completely on the sheet.

I tend to put aluminum foil on the baking sheet and then spread the mixture on top of that; that way, it prevents any of the mixture from sticking to the pan, and you can pick up the foil and funnel the entire mixture easily into a container. Lastly, I also like to substitute agave nectar for the syrup; its viscosity is somewhere in between maple syrup and honey, and I think it tastes better after it is baked. In any case, whatever you do, don't tell Goathumper Bill, or his childhood friend, Melvin the Melon Mounter.

Top Ten Tips for Graduates Teaching Undergraduates

This past week I finished teaching a research methods class, a mandatory course for psychology majors. We covered a wide range of topics, including clinical treatments, the Stroop effect, and the Implicit Associations Test, with a focus on having the students design their own experiments, gather some data, and analyze the results. In all, it was a good experience, but it also presented several challenges, including four medium-length papers (about 10-14 pages on average for each one) spread across forty or so students. There might be a some English or Philosophy professors who will get a hearty guffaw out of this ("You think that's a lot of papers to read? Let me show you, boy!"), but for me, it was quite an adjustment.

Most graduate students will be called upon to teach at some point during their PhD career, and rightly so; in addition to inuring yourself to mindless drudgery and incessant complaints, teaching helps you to hone your public speaking skills and how you interact with an audience. Think of it as having benefits across a wide range of areas: Speaking, effectively dealing with complaints, and making yourself engaging and presentable. You will get far more out of it if you see it as an opportunity to improve your marketability.

That being said, teaching can be at times frustrating and challenging; however, there are several ways to make the experience less painful, more efficient, and maybe even enjoyable. The following is a list of rules and procedures I put in place to protect myself; some of them I got from previous teachers, while some of them I picked up along the way:

  1. Make your syllabus clear. Students are ingenious at finding loopholes and will exploit them if they can. (Just think back to when you were an undergraduate; wouldn't you do the same thing?) Think of your syllabus as a contract with the class; the more detailed and clearer you are, the less wiggle room there is to abuse the system.
  2. Set strict deadlines for turning in drafts of papers. My policy was to look at only one draft at least seventy-two hours before the paper deadline; likewise, students had only one week after receiving their grades to schedule a meeting to discuss their paper. One important policy I put in the syllabus was that, if students requested a meeting to contest their grade, I would regrade the entire paper; their final grade could go either way. Over the whole semester, not one student contested their paper grade. Then again, I am also an unstable and terrifying person.
  3. If you can, request electronic drafts and grade those. There may be some who like grading by hand, which is fine; however, grading electronic copies allows you to more easily store a copy of their graded papers (with comments) on a hard disk for future reference.
  4. Establish your superiority on the first day by asking a brainteaser, such as "What do you put into a toaster?" Most of the students will answer "Toast," when the answer is actually "Bread". This will severely demoralize them, and make them unwilling to challenge your authority.
  5. For God's sake, don't get your stones wound up too tight over grammatical errors like than/then and effect/affect. I can't tell you how many times I've heard a colleague say "Can you believe what this student wrote? It says here: 'My experimental manipulation effected the results'. How am I supposed to know what they mean?" It's pretty simple: They meant "affected". Most students are not clever enough to construct a sentence the other way around. I've seen some pretty horrific, sometimes humorous, butcherings of the English language, and this is a comparatively mild offense.
  6. Be patient. Sometimes you will be shocked by the kinds of mistakes the students make, and it will bewilder you how some of them appear to keep missing the point when you feel that you stated it so clearly. Sometimes they really just don't get it, and they might not still not get it even by the end of the semester. Sometimes it's because of you, and you really just don't explain some things very well, no matter what you think or what your colleagues tell you. You might think that if you were in their position, you would pick these things up quicker, because you're smarter, more motivated, and - dammit - you try! But, just to put things in perspective, you should also recall that there are some things that you are still laughably, ridiculously bad at - maybe mathematics, or music, or thawing food in the microwave - no matter how much work you put into it.
  7. Spend as much time as you need to grade, and no more. Honestly ask yourself: How many students will really look at the comments? Not many, and those that do, won't care that much. Use the comments more as an anchor for addressing concerns if students have questions about the grade they received; the comment will help you remember where they screwed up, and help you address it effectively. This is not a recommendation to slack off about grading; rather, realize that you can quickly enter a point of diminishing returns with the amount of detail in your feedback.
  8. Have fun. We all want our teachers to be fun and engaging; if you come in with a terrible attitude, the students will mentally check out. They might mentally check out no matter what, but as long as you're having fun, at least you don't have to suffer.
  9. Watch Saved by the Bell reruns. In addition to being an excellent TV show, Saved by the Bell will make you familiar with the archetypal students that you will encounter in your class: Zach, the preppy one; Slater, the jock; Screech, the nerd; and Kelly, the popular girl. The show will teach you how each one operates, and will allow you to deal with them accordingly. In addition, you will have a leg up on knowing all of the potential pranks and shenanigans they will try to pull on you, such as when Zack puts his clothes on the skeleton from anatomy class to hide his absence.
  10. Appreciate the good things that happen. Everyone complains about the bad things that happen to them that they don't deserve; few people take as much notice of the good things that happen to them that they also don't deserve. Some students will surprise you with their enthusiasm and insight, and genuinely want to learn more about the subject. Be grateful when you get students like this.
Those are my recommendations for how to approach a class, especially if you are teaching it for the first time. Above all, continually ask yourself whether this is something that you are interested in doing; some people find that they have a knack for it, and will find a teaching career a rewarding and enjoyable experience. Likewise, if you absolutely cannot stand it, also take note of that, and plan accordingly; there are few things more depressing than a man continuing to do a job he abominates.