Graduate Handbook 2

Graduate Student Handbook
for Incoming Engineering Students


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Relationship with Your Advisor:

Whether you are a MS student with thesis or a PhD student, your advisor is vital to your success. Thus, choose your advisor carefully and work towards a good relationship with your advisor and his/her group both while you are a student and after you graduate.  This way, you and your advisor will have a mutually beneficial, long lasting relationship!

Your thesis advisor:

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  • Is a source of funding!  He or she regularly writes proposals for funding to support graduate students and postdocs.  Additionally, he or she writes proposals to national agencies for equipment and travel funds.  Your advisor will already have equipment, or access to equipment, and secures office space and computers for graduate student usage.
  • Is a recognized national expert in his or her field of research.  Your advisor has experience with choosing good/doable problems, with determining when results are suitable for publication, with potential bureaucratic snafus that may arise, and with organizing and giving research presentations.
  • Knows other experts in your research area and thus will be an excellent resource for helping with finding jobs after your graduation.


The method of choosing an advisor/research group differs from department to department and you must check the culture of your specific department in that regard.  Given that caution, you should be sure to:

  • Meet with/talk with the potential advisors.  Research groups all have a different culture.  In some groups, there are required groups meetings each week, or required one-on-one meetings with the advisor.  In some groups, students are required to spend a certain amount of time in the lab.  Try to clarify for yourself what the potential advisor’s expectations would be of you and how often he/she would meet with you.
  • Talk with students from the potential advisor’s research group to get a different point of view on the points in the previous bullet.
  •  Visit the spatial location of the research group so that you will see the lab, the office space you would be working in, and observe interactions among current group members.
  •  You may be asked to attend research group social events.  These may be occasional “working” lunches, and/or maybe more formal events 1 or 2 times a year. Other than “working” lunches, you need not feel obligated to attend these events.  However, you should be aware that social events are part of the professional environment and consistently rejecting after hours events may affect your status in the group.

In any case, if there is an issue, talk and speak out. Find a solution as soon as possible!

This is YOUR work and YOUR future

  1. Take the initiative.
  2. Ask questions.
  3. Establish clear objectives with your advisor – both long and short term goals. The relationship with your advisor should be rewarding. This means that you should get something out of it. If you feel that your learning process or research progress is not moving forward, it is probably that things are unclear or uncomfortable – see points 1 and 2 above!

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Organize Your Time

Keep a time table, keep working AND be sure to keep your advisor posted on your progress. Time management is crucial; it also gives you more freedom. Keep daily and weekly schedules. It’s important to know what your advisor wants and when. Schedule daily and schedule weekly. Keep in mind that you should also allow time for and schedule free time to exercise, to have dinner with friends, etc.   Balancing life and work depends on time management. Although it is hard to find a perfect balance, try to make your lifestyle and work style fit together. A great advantage of graduate school is that usually there is more freedom to decide when during the day to run experiments and simulations, read research papers, go to the gym, etc. The best plan is to sort out your timetable within the research group schedule, so it fits in with the times that you work the best.


Always take notes when you talk with your advisor!  This is not a sign of weakness, it is a sign of interest. It is too easy to forget very quickly.  Also, it is not a good strategy to have to ask your advisor again to repeat what he/she said to you (unless it is for clarifications, of course).  After the meeting, it is a good idea to sit down for a short time and rewrite your notes while the ideas are fresh in your mind, and to put them in a format and place where you can regularly refer back to them.

If things don’t seem to be working, talk with your advisor SOONER rather than LATER.   Ask for help before the problem snowballs out of control.  Remember that the relationship between you and your advisor should be mutually beneficial.  If you are stuck, or if you don’t understand how to progress, that is not helping your advisor.  Talk with him or her and get support so that you can get work flowing again.  On the other hand, remember that your advisor is very busy.  He or she has other students to advise, proposals to write, courses to teach, as well as service duties to the department, the university and professionally.  So don’t “waste” his or her time.  Organize your thoughts and clearly state your problems and/or your progress.

Be aware that advisors usually respond especially well to positive work and results.  If you don’t show them results (whether positive or negative) they aren’t even aware that you are working.  So organize yourself to regularly summarize where you are, what you have accomplished and where you are stuck and need help.

Funding for graduate students

In Mechanical Engineering, we offer four types of funded positions for graduate students: College of Engineering Fellows, Teaching Fellows, Teaching Assistants and Research Assistants. The first three of these have the greatest flexibility for the incoming student, not committing him or her to work with any professor in the department and require either 0, 1 or 2 semesters of teaching in the first year, respectively.  Research Assistants are funded by a professor to work exclusively in his or her laboratory on a specified project and come with no teaching expectations.

Prof. Buchanan, Chair
Mechanical Engineering

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