What’s hard about grad school?

Part of what’s hard about grad school is that things are undirected. In undergrad, you have well delimited homework assignments, maybe a project or two. But in grad school everything is open ended, and you’re lost at sea!

And that broad scope—confronting the unknown and feeling stupid—really is part of what’s hard. But in this lecture about writing, Larry McEnerney makes the point that there’s something even harder about grad school than its broad scope. Grad school is hard because it’s about adopting new values.


Undergrad is really all about skills. You’re paying money to get a guided tour through certain skills, with an experienced master paying attention to you, i.e., observing, helping, grading, mentoring, and so on. As Larry says (with perhaps a little too much glee), you’re paying for faculty to pay attention—your work product is not something they want, but rather they are paid to evaluate it and help you improve.

Graduate school teaches you skills, too. In a more intense way—you’re one of a few apprentices at the foot of a master. At least in CS, or at least the way I’ve seen it work best.

Beyond skills

But graduate school isn’t just skills. Graduate school is also the more complex process of joining a community—getting your “union card”. To be successful, grad students must learn and adopt the unwritten codes of their new community. It is hard work to discover and understand what the community values, and early grad students often confuse “novel and difficult application of a tool or technique” for “valuable contribution to the community”.

For example, in programming languages (PL) it’s common for early grad students to revel in complicated notation, subtle formalism, and the details of proofs. Many choose grad school for the novelty—to be the first to know something! And, to be sure, formal notation and novel proofs are fun things. And they are important things! If you get these things wrong, you’re sunk. But caring about these things most is missing the point, and will lead to a frustrating experience writing the paper, reading reviews, writing the response, figuring out what to do next, and so on.

Larry’s point of view is a realist one. Disturbingly realist: he says he’s accused of ‘fascism’ for asking you to identify powerful stakeholders in the community and to cater to them. But he is right: you can only publish papers that reviewers think are valuable, and you will have to cater to their needs to get them to feel that way.

For a PL-specific take, Laurie Tratt’s essay on “What Makes a Good Research Proposal?” uses a value-oriented framework:

…a good proposal must address three fundamental questions:

1. What is the problem being tackled?
2. Why is the problem worth being tackled?
3. What is the insight that makes tackling the problem plausible?

Although the third of these is by far the most important, the first two set up the necessary context to understand the third.

First, note that (2) asks, “Why is it valuable?”. I would go further and say that (2) and (3) are equally important. A plausible approach on a pointless problem doesn’t get you very far.

As someone who recoiled in disgust at even the notion of applied research in grad school, I’ve come completely around to Larry McEnerney’s point of view. None of the formalism matters if it doesn’t do something. Proofs aren’t worth the wildly overengineered LaTeX macros they’re written in if the properties they ensure don’t matter to anyone. I hated this kind of talk as a graduate student, and yet here I am. (In related news, I tell my undergraduate students to take notes… and I didn’t take a single note in class in undergrad. If I had a lawn, I would be asking people to get off it.)

Good news

The good news is that it is within your power to move the field. You have to accommodate the community where it is, but you have a say in where it’s going. In 2017, I told Benjamin Pierce that I was planning to work on the POSIX shell. He laughed, saying he thought it was “irredeemably bad”. At an OBT talk at POPL that year, Phil Wadler said most of my planned work wasn’t even PL. In 2020, I published Smoosh at POPL; in 2021, we had a paper and a panel at HotOS on the shell; in 2022, we have a paper at OSDI.

You don’t have to give up your vision or your voice. In fact, I think my own voice is a key asset in moving the community. Compelling writing and presentations are persuasive! And writing is exactly where Larry picks up.

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