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Everything I wanted to know about C.S. graduate school at the beginning but didn’t learn until later

Ronald T. Azuma

In February 1995, on a beautiful sunny day with clear Carolina blue skies, I turned in the final, signed copy of my dissertation. The graduate school staff member did some last-minute checks on the document and pronounced it acceptable. After six and a half years of toil and sweat, I was finally done! While walking back to the C.S. department building, I was sorely disappointed that the heavens didn’t part, with trumpet-playing angels descending to announce this monumental occasion. Upon hearing this observation, Dr. Fred Brooks (one of my committee members) commented, “And the sad fact is, you’re no smarter today than you were yesterday.” “That’s true,” I replied, “but the important thing is that I am smarter than I was six and a half years ago.”

That day was over two years ago, and since then I have had plenty of time to reflect upon my graduate student career. One thought that has repeatedly struck me is how much easier graduate school might have been if somehow, magically, some of the things I knew when I turned in my dissertation I could have known when I first entered graduate school. Instead, I had to learn those the hard way. Of course, for many topics this is impossible: the point of graduate school is to learn those by going through the experience. However, I believe other lessons can be taught ahead of time. Unfortunately, such guidance is rarely offered. While I had to learn everything the hard way, new graduate students might benefit from my experiences and what I learned. That is the purpose of this guide.

Very little of this guide discusses technical matters. Technical skills, intelligence and creativity are certainly strong factors for success in graduate school. For example, I doubt there is a C.S. graduate student who didn’t at one point wish he or she had a stronger mathematical background. However, it’s beyond the scope of this guide to tell you how to be technically brilliant, as the following joke implies:

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