From my interaction with those outside of academia and even undergraduates, it is clear that the prevailing view regarding graduate studies is somewhat romanticized. This image is a byproduct of hearsay from acquaintances and things seen through popular media outlets/television. While some of the images portrayed by these sources are grounded in fact, the majority are firmly rooted in fiction.
Preparing for grad school:
I hope I am an anomaly in having started my graduate studies with a rose-tinted outlook. Though admittedly, I asked a friend in the prospective lab prior to joining and was given assurance, surely the experiences of a single individual should not have been the deciding factor in such a life altering decision. I urge students to clearly communicate their level of commitment and goals with their supervisor to be. To this end, students would most benefit from time in the lab: as a volunteer, for directed studies/honours projects, or as a paid coop/research assistant. In this time they can observe nuances they would otherwise not see. It may also be suggested to familiarize oneself with the supervisor; their personality, publication history, collaborators in research and industry, and most importantly their funding record. Foresight in these regards may help avoid future headaches arising from a lack of compatibility and having to drop-out/switch supervisors during your studies (which is more common than you would think). As a note: funding agencies post both the amount and duration of successful grant applications; ensuring your supervisor has funding for the duration of your studies is prudent. I also strongly urge supervisors to increase transparency regarding the responsibilities of a graduate student prior to their commitment to a multi-year program.
What you should expect:
It is important to understand that graduate school is a transaction, in return for your valuable time, you receive a degree and learning which may allow for you to grow as an individual; in short you amass experiences. Often (30-60% of the time), the work you do in the lab is pro bono, whereby you support yourself through TAing. Your department and your supervisor have the obligation to provide opportunities that will enrich your life as a student and leave you in good standing for your future. These opportunities include the guidance to publish your research, the support to present your work at conferences, and facilitating the establishment of collaborations with other researchers and industry contacts.
Progress in this environment:
The “self-directed” graduate program is a myth. That is to say, you have only marginal control over your progress in the program and are often at the mercy of numerous external factors. A fairly obvious but nonetheless hard to believe point is that things will not be prepared for you, unlike the lab component of an undergraduate course; i.e. you will have to do most of the leg work. Most outsiders assume that more work leads to faster progress and more rapid graduation. However, it is often acknowledged within research circles that productive students are kept around longer. Moreover, the amount of work completed during your studies may not correlate with your future success, which is more dependent on personal characteristics.
Progress is often very slow and iterative, with long periods of time during which you must wait for things to happen. This is a reason why being involved with multiple projects in the lab and other things (such as TAing, volunteering, various committees) outside the lab is highly recommended. While fulfilling numerous responsibilities will be challenging, inherent in this is a sense of achievement associated with successful performance of said duties. Moreover, in times of slow progress in your research, these other tasks will offer a valuable escape.
Assuming you have heeded these warning and know what you are getting into… In the next column, I will discuss the characteristic a good student possesses (imho). And make no mistake, many good undergraduates struggle greatly upon transitioning to grad school. Proof in point that the skill-sets necessary to succeed in each setting are for the most part mutually exclusive, with the exception of diligence and a certain minimum of academic inclination.