Posted by: gcarkner | September 4, 2012

Advice to Young Scholars

I am Martin Ester,  a computer science professor at SFU. I have supervised graduate students for more than ten years. I am also a Christian who is convinced that my faith is relevant to all aspects of my and our world. I continue to enjoy this part of my job very much and have the impression that my students also do enjoy their studies, at least once in a while. Sometimes current or prospective students ask me for advice on how to succeed, and I have tried to distill the following short advice, which will hopefully be useful not only for computer science students.

1) Make sure to know why you are doing this:
Make sure that you know why you are going to grad school. The monetary benefit of earning a higher salary with a graduate degree may be smaller than you think. And the reputation of your degree may also not be worth investing several years of your life (you have only one!). You may waste part of your life and will not even succeed with your graduate studies if you do not have a better answer. I believe that you need to have a passion for your thesis topic, an inner motivation to explore that helps you to overcome the inevitable hard times during grad school. On the other hand, your studies need a purpose that goes beyond your own interests, and you should have a realistic understanding of how your studies will help you to better serve “humanity”. Keep in mind that, e.g., not every PhD can have an academic career.

2) Be hungry to learn and be teachable:
I have often noticed that super smart grad students with a somewhat arrogant attitude have the feeling that “they have arrived already” and are neither working hard enough nor willing to accept guidance from their supervisor. As a consequence, they tend to be less successful than grad students who may be a tick less intelligent but are really hungry to learn and willing to accept both encouragement and correction from their supervisor or from other people such as reviewers of their scientific papers. Read as many good books and papers as possible. Discuss your research with your supervisor, with other professors, with your fellow students. Apply and test the results of your research in industry, government or where possible. Finally, ask the deep questions and try to come up with solid, new answers.

3) Maintain your balance:
This advice may surprise you the most. Do not get me wrong, you must work hard, really hard to succeed in grad school. However, while grad school is very important, realize that there is more to life. Take care of your body by feeding it properly and exercising enough. Do not neglect your social life, but cultivate meaningful friendships at school and outside. And pay attention to the spiritual dimension of your life which connects you to God. As Jesus summarized when asked for the greatest commandment: “Love God with all of your heart, mind, soul, and body. And love your neighbor as yourself.” Do not postpone the seeking of balance in your life until after grad school, when “things will get better”. Things will not get better, but worse: you will get only busier in the course of your life. Therefore, start finding and maintaining your balance now!

~Dr. Martin Ester, Computer Science, Simon Fraser University

Join us at the Grad Student Reception on Sept 13 at 6 pm 1828 Western Parkway (UBC)

Related article by Stanley Hauerwas in First Things: “Go With God” November 2010:  


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