Sept/Oct 2010

Student Life

Challenges in the graduate program: Tips for surmounting the hurdles

By Juliana Parreira

On a week-long visit to BHP Billiton’s Mount Keith Mine, Parreira got to familiarize herself with the mine site and collect data for her research project | Photo courtesy of Juliana Parreira

To obtain better job opportunities, many graduates are returning to university for advanced study. Graduate programs open doors to expanding knowledge, new ways of seeing the world, and improving skills such as writing, public speaking and teaching. However, while studying, students face special challenges.

I had an opportunity to work on two projects in the oil industry, and although they were challenging, my academic research project is much more difficult. An academic research project can quickly change; if you are not focused and aware of these sensitive changes, you may experience a lack of motivation — for me, motivation is the key to success. In industry, you are required to produce results in a very short time since your colleagues are waiting for these results to do their jobs — you are part of a team. However, in a graduate program, your team is usually you and your supervisor; your common goal is to make a new contribution in your field in order to earn your degree. This is a lot of responsibility for a new graduate student. As a consequence, frustration can arise when an experiment does not work.

Students often complain that they do not know where and/or how to begin their academic projects. An approach that I found very helpful is to develop a detailed schedule to analyze activity sequences, durations and schedule constraints. Such a schedule can be created using any project management software, such as Microsoft Project, and it allows better management of the research project. Project management software reports improve communication between student and supervisor, and progress can be measured by tracking the different project activities. This strategy has kept me organized and motivated.

Using English is another challenge for some foreign students. TOEFL certification does not always prepare students for the reality of using English at university. Although the first semester can be very challenging, it is not impossible. Students should not be too hard on themselves; they need time to adapt. An approach that worked for me during my first term was to study the subject one or two days before class. This gave me an opportunity to learn new vocabulary, which helped me better understand the professor’s lecture.

Some students still complain about challenges with English, even after two terms. “I wish I could give my presentation in my own language.” I do not share the same thinking. If English is not your first language, try to improve it. There are many good courses that can help, such as workshops on how to write theses. For me, a teaching-skills workshop helped improve my public speaking ability. Keep in mind that the more you practice, the more you improve. To this end, participate in poster competitions and present papers at conferences, and always talk about your project when you have the opportunity.

Presenting your work at a conference is a good learning experience and an opportunity to receive feedback and eventually to publish your work. I presented a paper at the 2010 CIM Conference and Exhibition and also participated in the CIM Student Poster Competition. It was very interesting to see how people in the industry responded to my research — many questions were raised and I was exposed to many new ideas and viewpoints. I was also able to obtain important data for my research. Overall, I would say that attending industry-led conferences is very rewarding.

To summarize, the best way to avoid future problems is to be honest with yourself, make sure that you like the topic, the institution, and your supervisor, and be ready to do what it takes to succeed. Keep in mind that you will spend a great deal of time and effort on this. Also, be aware of the opportunities that conferences present, write papers related to your project and participate in poster competitions.

Juliana Parreira is a first-year PhD student in automation applied to the mining industry at the University of British Columbia under the supervision of John Meech. She graduated in industrial electrical engineering (Brazil) and has worked as a planning engineer at Petrobras, the largest oil company in Brazil, and for a provincial power company in Brazil.

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