One weird trick for improving the outcome of your PhD defense.

Feed your committee.

At the very least, make sure your committee is fed. A hungry committee is a grumpy committee. A grumpy committee is just a little bit less likely to let you pass your defense. Sure, you can prep, polish your thesis to perfection, run through a half-dozen practice defenses. You can even invest in some serious snake-fighting lessons. But all of those solutions are practical, pragmatic, and belie a commitment to success that suggests a work ethic, expertise, and discipline. All of which you need, but don’t ignore the obvious, easy stuff, either.

Wait, Andrew, you’re serious?

If you’ve learned anything from reading this blog for the last 9 years, it’s that I am always serious. Humor is anathema to me. Let’s talk about the science.

In a 2011 paper, Danziger and friends looked at extraneous factors in judicial decisions. In short, they looked at how often judges granted parole to inmates as a function of when the decision was made. Parole judges often hear dozens of cases in a day with few breaks. What Danziger and friends found was that, immediately after a judge had eaten, favorable parole outcomes were much more frequent and that, as parolees got further and further from mealtime, their chance of getting out plummeted. Those whose hearings fell right before a meal break had a 0% chance of parole. The pattern was clear: never appear before a hungry judge.

Proportion of rulings in favor of the prisoners by ordinal position. Circled points indicate the first decision in each of the three decision sessions; tick marks on x axis denote every third case; dotted line denotes food break. Because unequal session lengths resulted in a low number of cases for some of the later ordinal positions, the graph is based on the first 95% of the data from each session. Danziger and friends, 2011.


Well, not quite.

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Surviving Grad School: Credit Cards, Reimbursement, and International Travel

headshot-thalerSMALLReimbursements and International Travel

Graduate school comes with several financial challenges that require planning and careful attention to details. Chief among these challenges are the two big wallet busters: university reimbursements and international travel. Often these two combine to form a deadly, money sucking hydra. You will inevitably need to pay for something – airline tickets, hotels, fuel, equipment, contractors – out of your personal funds, and then file for reimbursement with your university. Depending on how efficient your finance office is, it could take anywhere from four days to several months for your reimbursement to be issued. If you paid with a credit card, during this time you’re paying interest on those charges.

International travel adds another layer to the mix.  Most credit card companies will charge a foreign transaction fee (often 3%), there’s a high degree of variability regarding which networks are accepted where, and many nations have adopted EMV chips (a feature few US cards have) for added security. Whether it’s for a field season or a major scientific conference, you will probably have to make at least one big international trip. If you haven’t planned ahead, you may find yourself stuck with little or no functional currency, and end up leaning heavily on cash advances, travelers checks, or other high fee alternatives.

You should use a credit card to pay for reimbursable expenses, especially travel, if for no other reason than you need money in your bank account for things like food and shelter. If you’ve read my previous post–Credit, why it matters, how to build it, and how to use it–then this should seem familiar. I’m talking about your tank, with some particular caveats for international travel. If you’ve planned ahead and paid attention to the details, you can carry an extra balance for several months without incurring any additional fees.

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Surviving Grad School: Credit, why it matters, how to build it, and how to use it

headshot-thalerSMALLGraduate school can be a financially volatile time. Grad students, often living on a low, fixed income, may find that they are required to shoulder unexpected expenses–new computers, travel for research, professional attire, not to mention the cost of relocating to a new area. Many graduate students arrive straight out of university, having never needed to manage a household’s finances. In this situation, credit seems like an appealing solution. If used conservatively, a few reasonable lines of  credit can help the struggling graduate student get the most out of their financial situation. If used carelessly, credit can saddle you with massive debt that will follow you for years after graduate school. As we’ve argued in our previous posts about surviving grad school, beyond student loans, earning an advanced degree shouldn’t put you into debt.

But there is another reason to maintain a few active lines of credit. Your credit score is how banks decide whether or not to give you a loan. If you want to buy a house or a car, most people will need to finance that purchase, and for that you need a decent credit score. Having a good credit score will result in lower interest rates and save you money. Many landlords, especially in big cities, require credit checks just to rent an apartment. Credit can also help you out in an emergency. If the transmission drops out of your truck or you have to make a last minute cross-country trip to visit a sick relative, credit will allow you to pay off that expense over a few months, rather than taking a major hit to your savings all at once.

Relying too heavily on credit, and failing to pay of the bills in a timely manner, will crush you with increasingly growing debt. Learning to manage credit is an important life skill, especially in countries like the United States, where credit is king.

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Surviving Grad School: A Practical Guide to an Impractical Lifestyle

Andrew Thumb

Ah, graduate school. For approximately 5 years you will live awash in the intellectual stimulation that comes with the pursuit of knowledge. You will learn more than you ever have before. Now at the forefront of the human data engine, you are not just being taught, but pushing the limits of human understanding imperceptibly, but significantly, further. In the immortal words of my own Ph.D. advisor: “Andrew, get a life.”

And that’s the problem. Because, while you’re doing all this discovering at the brink of discovery, you also have a life, and lives need to be maintained by a steady influx of cash, food, sleep, recreation, and numerous other non-thesis-related distractions. These “distractions” are actually essential to your well-being and contribute meaningfully to your productivity. But, while there are many guides to how to manage a dissertation, there are relatively few that discuss how to survive the graduate student lifestyle.

I’m here to help. The arc of my graduate school career is pretty well documented in this blog. Suffice to say, it has been a bumpy ride, with plenty of highs and lows.

So, for 2013, I’m launching “Surviving Grad School: A Practical Guide to an Impractical Lifestyle”, a series about the other half of a graduate student career. I’ll focus on some of the gorier details, including managing your finances, what to expect from a student contract, how to take care of yourself, and how to navigate towards that mysterious island known as the Work-Life Balance.

Obviously my advice is based on my own experience and will not universally apply to all grad students. It is necessarily biased towards life science in the United States with a strong field component, and it is a male view of the world from a fairly privileged background. Still, I hope you’ll find something of value in these posts.

First up on the docket is perhaps the most important and most difficult challenge facing graduate students — dealing with your finances. Check back this month for advice on what to expect from your stipend, managing your finances, building credit, dealing with travel and field expenses, and taking care of taxes.