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Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student's Guide to Earning a Master's or Ph.D.

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Is graduate school right for you?
Should you get a master's or a Ph.D.?
How can you choose the best possible school?

This classic guide helps students answer these vital questions and much more. It will also help graduate students finish in less time, for less money, and with less trouble.

Based on interviews with career counselors, graduate students, and professors, Getting What You Came For is packed with real-life experiences. It has all the advice a student will need not only to survive but to thrive in graduate school, including: instructions on applying to school and for financial aid; how to excel on qualifying exams; how to manage academic politics--including hostile professors; and how to write and defend a top-notch thesis. Most important, it shows you how to land a job when you graduate.

399 pages, Paperback

First published January 1, 1992

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Robert L. Peters

16 books1 follower

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5 stars
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57 (6%)
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Displaying 1 - 30 of 103 reviews
6 reviews
January 30, 2011
An excellent book for anyone considering or currently in grad school. The range of topics covers everything from deciding to go to getting a job afterwards.

It's hard to believe how much advice the author was able to gather with just one pass through grad school. His advice isn't limited to science majors either; he includes lots of advice for those in the humanities and social sciences. In addition to advice, there's also lots of stories from real graduate students.

The author writes informatively yet his style is easy to read. It's like asking a knowledgeable friend for advice about graduate school and getting a comprehensive and clear answer.

Because the author got his PhD in the early 90's, some parts of the book are outdated (for example, referring to slide projectors and giving basic advice on using PowerPoint). But given that grad school hasn't changed in decades, most of his advice is still applicable.

I got this book before applying to grad school, with the intention of reading different chapters at the appropriate times. Now that I've read through it, I've gained lots of perspective and have a better idea of what to expect in the years to come. This overview of grad school is invaluable to anyone intending to finish their master's or doctoral degree.
Profile Image for Catherine.
493 reviews58 followers
January 11, 2019
Profoundly unethical, and it cannot be blamed on anachronism. From boundary-crossing with advisers to dehumanizing expectations for work hours, this really covers the gamut in terms of revoltingly bad advice in grad school and beyond.
Profile Image for Jerzy.
467 reviews104 followers
August 15, 2013
I read this before my MS program and found it somewhat helpful. Re-reading it now before I start a PhD, it seems even more useful, especially the sections on time management, your thesis (choosing your adviser and committee and topic, then writing the damn thing), giving talks, stress management, and the job search. I may buy a copy to keep in our grad student office.

Amazingly, one of the useful web links (How to do Research At the MIT AI Lab) from this 1997 book is still working in 2013 :)

General advice:
* Don't go to grad school only because you don't know what else to do. Work (and earn real money!) until you're confident about what you want to study and why. Then go back to school, with the school chosen because you want to work with a specific adviser there and you click with the department, not on the basis of the school's general prestige.
* Choose your adviser well! They should have:
-Career maturity, to provide you with resources and help you out in case of academic politics.
-Tenure, so they don't leave halfway through your research.
-Vigor, enough energy to work with you and to be up-to-date in your field.
-Rigor, a reputation for solid work including well-designed experiments, deep knowledge & use of theory, etc.
(Also, choose a university with several potentially-good advisers, in case your top choice turns out to be too busy or a jerk or gets hit by a bus. Use a citation index to look up a list of prospective advisers' publications and how often they're cited by others. Also search by department to see their colleagues' work.)
* Ask a potential adviser's grad students:
-Do their students get good jobs?
-Does the adviser give students enough time?
-Do the students finish quickly?
-Is the adviser willing to give credit (authorship) for work?
-Are their demands consistent over time, and reasonable in scope?
-Do the students respect the adviser, intellectually and otherwise?
* Networking is hugely important. Make a good impression on, and keep contact with, your fellow grad students, your adviser and fellow faculty, experts in your field at other schools and elsewhere, etc. Likewise, practice oral presentations so that you become known as a good speaker. Social contact is good for you anyway, and it helps to be remembered as friendly and competent -- so many opportunities (for interesting research, good jobs, etc) are passed around informally.
* Make and maintain daily progress, and track it. Work a few hours on your thesis every day, or keep a regular weekly schedule, rather than sporadic bursts of activity. (See also How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing.) And keep an hourly log of accomplishments, and make monthly progress reports for yourself (including what you did this month and your plan for next month). Your adviser might appreciate seeing them too, but if nothing else they'll help you stay focused and organized.
* Get a good filing cabinet and use it. (Or, I guess, a good scanner, and file things on your computer with regular backups.) Bibliographic software like EndNote can help keep it organized. Some useful filing folder categories:
-Thesis ideas (with subfolders for the more-fleshed-out ideas)
-Thesis proposal
-Thesis chapters
-Interview notes (discussions with adviser, committee, contacts in your field, etc)
-Publications in progress and ideas for new papers
-Notes from grad student support meetings
-Conferences and seminar notes
-Past exam materials
-Old to-do lists and monthly progress reports
-Financial aid paperwork
-Job info (your TA or RA job, and applications for future jobs)
-Professional credentials (CV, research summaries, printouts of publications)
* Choose a thesis topic wisely. Don't sit around hoping a good idea will come to you: keep thinking about it actively from the start of school, and write down and rate potential topic ideas thoroughly. Some criteria:
-Can you get this research funded?
-Does the topic interest you?
-Could you extend this project into future research and/or publications after your PhD?
-Does the topic invite controversy? (It might be more sensible to choose a "safe" thesis topic and fight for controversial views later, once you already have PhD credentials.)
-Will the research inherently take a long time?
-Is it in a "hot" field with many open opportunities?
-Is your adviser enthusiastic about the topic?
-Does the research align with your adviser's, providing extra incentive for them to be helpful?
-Is there already enough related research for you to use as background work?
-Are you either duplicating existing work or being so unique that no-one has grounds to evaluate it?
-Is your research question focused narrowly enough to be answerable?
-Is it a tractable project given your current resources (lab & computing equipment, sample size needed, available population of study, etc)?


Quotes:
* p.120: Tattoo this list somewhere you won't forget to look. (1) Publish academic papers. (2) Go to conferences. (3) Get on committees.
* p.130: The other benefit of the logbook is the Merit Badge Effect. People seem to have a chipmunk-like hoarding instinct, whereby once they start collecting something, whether it be Scout merit badges, bottle caps, or hours worked on a thesis, they want more and more. The secret is to turn your hours into a collection. ... After you've been collecting hours for a few days, you'll start thinking, "I earned ten hours yesterday. Wonder if I can get eleven today?" [Hmm, maybe I should make myself Steam-like achievement badges...]
* p.131: I suggest that once a month you write a one- or two-page report that (1) summarizes your accomplishments during the month, (2) relates them to your long-term schedule, and (3) describes the steps to be taken during the following month. Note not only successes but also problems you encounter, particularly places where you are stuck and need help. You should also give a copy of each month's report to your thesis adviser.
* p.139: Set a definite agenda ahead of time for each meeting. Be tough about keeping your meeting focused on business---you can socialize afterward.
* p.150: Reed Noss, an ecologist, had an amazing number of review papers published on a wide variety of topics before he graduated. Whenever he took a course that required a term paper, he planned each paper specifically with publication in mind. He consulted with the professor and did the quality library research and writing necessary for publication. He was getting A's, impressing his professors, and publishing papers.
* p.175: My friend Mary started out looking for a topic the wrong way. Her primary technique was to worry a lot, mulling over one poorly researched possibility after another. ... Roy Martin has called this common search method "dreaming in a vacuum." He points out that those who search for topics by backpacking through the mountains or sitting on park benches in quiet contemplation of their topics are likely to learn a lot about mountains and parks but little else. ... To find a topic you must dive into research, discuss the ideas that interest you with as many people as possible, and write about the subjects as much as you can. ... Start as soon as you begin school.
* p.181: Don't worry if before you start actively searching for a topic nothing seems to interest you. If you are still standing back thinking about topics in a vacuum, I would be surprised if anything did, because interest develops from immersion and activity. Luckily, people have an amazing ability to become interested in almost anything once they are working on it.
* p.264: If you let someone drone on and on, it will annoy the rest of the audience and make it seem as though you aren't in control. ...break in and say, "It seems as though you are asking several questions. Let me answer the first one." Or... "It seems to me you are asking why Napoleon was short. That's a very good question and here is the answer." If someone still continues hogging the floor, you can nicely say, "Because time is short, let's move on to the next questioner to give everyone a chance."
Profile Image for Julie Shuff.
334 reviews6 followers
March 10, 2016
Ok, I'll share the negatives first just to get them out of the way. This book was last updated in 1997, when I was 6 years old. I'm now 24, so you can imagine how outdated all of the technology he discusses is-floppy disks, high end computers with 1 or 2 gigabytes of memory, fax machines, Rolodex, and probably many other references I didn't even understand. It would be helpful to have an expert opinion on cloud storage, Zotero, JSTOR, or other current tools.

The second BIG negative of the book is the chapter called "Swimming with the mainstream." The author' s intentions are good, as he is trying to prepare women, POC, and international students for a system set up by old, white, [heterosexual] English speaking men. However, there is no mention of challenges for LGBTQIA grad students, and his advice on racism and sexism is sort of to tolerate it (at least until the person has graduated and is then in a position of power). While he does offer small suggestions, ex. Writing a letter asking someone to desist and very gently calling people out, his responses to these problems seemed tepid. I understand his point that to get ahead in academia it is important to keep cordial relations with everyone, however that's clearly not heathy. Again, a somewhat dated view.

Apart from the above reservations, the book is amazing, and has advice that everyone can use on successfully navigating all parts of the grad school process. I have recently applied to grad school and am beginning to receive acceptances. Before I commit to any one place (or even going) I want to be sure that I can make an informed decision as to what will be involved and how to maximize my job prospects after. As neither of my parents went to grad school and I am the oldest child, this book was like having an expert sibling or best friend who could offer me concrete, unbiased insight into what to expect.

Furthermore, I have already found 3 or 4 or books that the author references that I want to read. The bibliography at the end is a great resource.

While the book is intense, I finished it and felt empowered rather than fearful or inadequate, which is sometimes the case with academic books. The style is very accessible, and I have already recommended it to multiple friends. A must read and one that I know I am going to keep and reference as I am at different stages of grad school.
Profile Image for Chelsea.
239 reviews3 followers
November 2, 2014
While this book contained helpful information about the culture and history of graduate programs, and I'm sure would be helpful once I am applying to grad school and seeking jobs after getting a degree, it was written in 1992, revised in 1997, and warned first time computer owners to back up all their work on floppy disks. Since my decisions revolve around whether to obtain a degree it doesn't reference in an online program (which was unheard of in 1997), this was not as helpful an experience as I had hoped.
Profile Image for Vishvas.
37 reviews6 followers
June 14, 2018
I read this when I was about to go to grad school. I hoped that it would help me thrive in the PhD program - I failed anyway - but this helped me get some confidence at the time.
Profile Image for Rick.
14 reviews
February 21, 2012
This is the first general how-to book about grad school that I have read. With that in mind, I CANNOT recommend it enough - especially to people interested in academics. It may be THE book I wish I had read much earlier. It should be required reading for the summer before college - better yet, the summer before senior year of high school.

Peters (a PhD'd biologist) does a fantastic job of covering the gambut of issues that students encounter in graduate school: everything from managing the unrulely advisors, finishing your thesis on time, preparing for your comp's, and even how to prepare for the job you want before graduation. He very fairly covers nearly all areas of study as well (including MBA students.

I will admit that the book needs a new edition: he makes references to writing papers with Microsoft Word for Windows 95! However, the great majority of the subject material has not changed in 20 years. Given the rapid obsolescence of today's non-fiction, the fact that it is still popular speaks for itself.

He makes a very good point: if you are going to commit at least two years of your life (it might be closer to 10 for PhD students) to graduate study, why not plan as well ahead as possible to get the most out of your efforts?
Profile Image for Patience Shyu.
27 reviews26 followers
March 15, 2017
I only read the chapters I was interested in (i.e. the "before you go" sections). Lots of really good information, Peters doesn't sugarcoat anything. I found this bit insane:

"[A study] found that on a standardized scale where 100 equaled the amount of stress experienced by someone whose spouse had just died, doctoral students in their first year scored an average of 313 points."

Luckily the grad students in my lab seem a bit happier than that. In all seriousness, Peters says you really have to be going for the right reasons. Grad school has a huge opportunity and financial cost, especially in computer science where a PhD could cost you upwards of $500,000 (and that's a conservative estimate). Really useful information on how to pick advisors (good thing I have some great ones) and maximizing your chances.

This book is dated, and it's meant for graduate students in pretty much all disciplines which is nice but there's not much information specific to CS. There's also lots of stuff not necessarily applicable to international applicants/universities (particularly on financial aid, etc, I skipped that anyway). Overall useful but there's more current and helpful information often on certain professors' websites.
Profile Image for K.
266 reviews3 followers
November 20, 2007
I read this book the month before I started my M.A. program and boy was it a great read; I could easily blame all of my progress and relatively speedy progress on it. Some of the technical advice isn't all that helpful or difficult to figure out on your own (i.e. buy a computer), but overall it gives the aspiring academic-in-training practical advice on how to make the most of the grad school experience without letting the B.S. of the process (hoops like exams, departmental politics, etc.) get in the way. This is an excellent resource that spells out many things that most grad students struggle to learn on their own.
Profile Image for Slay Belle.
10 reviews21 followers
July 19, 2018
An updated version of this book would be very helpful - many of the references are very dated and there's nothing at all about social media . While that can be overlooked, it does make one wonder what else might be not current advice.

Definitely geared to students headed into grad school with little or no professional life experience - lots of solid advice about how to be professional, that a career would have already prepped you for (hopefully).
12 reviews1 follower
Currently reading
September 5, 2008
Slightly outdated, but here's hoping it helps me organize my time!
Profile Image for Jared.
280 reviews1 follower
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July 29, 2021
Pros: I’m no longer confused about graduate school
Cons: I now am overwhelmed about graduate school
Profile Image for Patrick Ashe.
Author 3 books7 followers
August 27, 2020
(I wrote the first part of this review in 2007): I'm a current master's applicant, and I purchased this book due to recommendations and some of the reviews I've read on this site, and I must say, it's somewhat disappointing. Ostensibly, it's a "one size fits all" masters/PhD book, but (as others have mentioned) it's a little biased towards PhDs, and seems rather Ivy League-oriented. Oftentimes, Peters focuses on the ideal response (mitigating factors be damned) to the cold realities of academia, and it just leaves me with more questions than answers.

I graduated from a US News top tier state university in the top 10% of my class and an above average GRE, and published an honors thesis and along with other research. But since graduation, I've had to work full-time to stay financially afloat (primarily due to medical expenses). Thus, I don't have all of the time in the world to stay abreast of all of the current research in my field (try as I may), nor to be in close contact with all of the potential advisers at all of the schools in which I'm interested, both of which are heavily emphasized by Peters. I kept thinking, "Well, that's not my situation, so what can I do about it?" (e.g., he offers pointers for a high GRE and so-so GPA, but not for the inverse aside save retaking and so on) and didn't find many answers. This, along with many "shoulda-dones" in regards to undergrad activities, left me feeling a bit frustrated.

Although, Peters does address some of the underlying personal issues that confound the application process/graduate experience (which seemed cursory at times). There are also a few useful pointers and bits of information, as well as helpful anecdotes from professors. Overall, it is helpful, but I wish the author had a higher appreciation of the myriad backgrounds of grad school applicants, as I know I'm not alone on many of my concerns.

(I wrote THIS part in 2019): In retrospect, years later, this book honestly deserves a bottom-tier ranking. I followed its advice on waiting until getting a high GRE score and professor recommendations etc., got in everywhere, realized I WAY overdid it in waiting and all that effort was unnecessary, and still lament the wasted years almost a decade later. I made bad life decisions because of this book. Allow me to correct it: insofar as professional degrees (e.g. MBA, MPA, etc.) go, most places really don't care if you graduated from a top ranked program (some employers said those exact words), and even those top ranked programs don't expected "top 10% or bust" on your GRE scores. That this book is recommended by the GRE Chair speaks volumes. It's a crock for people who obsess about standardized tests that are poor predictors of performance. Don't let the perfect be the enemy of the good. Do your best and move on. Because I did the elite route, and it made no difference other than wasted time, effort, and money. Eff this book.
Profile Image for Yannick Roy.
23 reviews5 followers
November 2, 2020
I wish I had read it when I started my PhD as there are a bunch of great insights! The book is quite old, so I wouldn't recommend it as the only book on the topic. Mentalities have changed, technologies have changed, etc. But academia is still academia, so most of it is totally relevant. (the technology section talks about buying a computer... with Windows 95...)

Not a small book, so be ready to spend a few hours reading it! But if you are in academia, reading probably doesn't scare you...

I skimmed through it and read about half of it and I can totally see why a new grad student or an undergrad about to make the jump would read it and get lots of value out of it.

If you are a go-getter, high-pace individual with a few years of experience in academia, I wouldn't recommend the book as you would know most of what's talked about in the book.
Profile Image for Brigid.
85 reviews
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December 31, 2021
Really glad I read this. I feel like I read it at an ideal time, being in the first semester of a Master's program and constantly thinking about whether or not to pursue a Ph.D. Turns out this book is helpful for that! It's realistic, informative, easy to read, and thought-provoking. Sure there's some outdated information about computers etc, but it's easy to translate that into modern advice. And anyway, the book is most useful (imo) in its abstract moments. Just reflecting on what I want to get out of grad school and what I'd like to do long-term was a helpful exercise. It has a lot of good practical advice too, though. The sections on writing, especially long-term projects like a thesis, are really solid.

I borrowed this from the library but I'm not gonna lie, I kind of want a copy for myself!
Profile Image for E.
43 reviews46 followers
May 7, 2020
Ya so this is just a really solid read for anyone considering higher Ed. If you have no idea what your signing up for I super recommend this. That said, it’s old and in BAD need of an update. First off, why the hell are we still getting PhD’s? There is a massive oversupply of us! Don’t expect to get paid and if you are getting paid, do the math because you put in a LOT of time to make the same you woulda made elsewhere if you are a competitive individual. My boyfriend bought me the book, and again it’s a solid read for anyone who needs intro advice. I did not find it very useful personally, and the fact that it was gifted was almost a little patronizing, but to each their own! He loved it and clearly had no idea what he was signing up for when he read it (also a PhD). Study on students 😊 but don’t stop after this book. Do your homework and ask everyone you know or ever meet why they got a PhD and if they loved or regretted it. These advice chats were super helpful in preparing me for mine and I still remember the looks of war-torn malice (insert long stair up and to the left for long periods of time before responding - as though PTSD from wartime) at my question. One man actually told me it was the, “most miserable time,” — insert dramatic pause of 1-2 minute length — ,“yes, the most miserable time of my entire adult life.” He was probably pushing 70 so that struck the fear of God into me. Another man told me he was living in candy land for 6 or 7 years and that if I loved what I love, I’d be very happy in a program. Someone needs to either re-write this book, or provide a better one though, for I dunno, students NOW TWENTY YEARS LATER. A LOT has changed in academia since that time. The book has lost “some” albeit not all of it’s relevance.
Profile Image for Michael Sanchez.
80 reviews9 followers
September 9, 2019
Helped demystify the pursuit of master's and doctorate degrees. The text is a bit dated, however, as the text lacks both multicultural awareness and recent relevant information, considering the proliferation of technology and internet usage since the latest edition (1997) was published. All in all, it was worth my time to read it. I have taken helpful advice from the text and will incorporate it into my plans as I navigate graduate school.
Profile Image for Zining.
11 reviews
May 6, 2018
A lot of practical advices, told in an interesting tone. Several sentences: "If your paper is rejected like it will never get accepted, you can still shoot for the record for time of getting rejected.", "Your manuscript is both good and original -- the good part is not original and the original part is not good".
Profile Image for Katherine.
35 reviews20 followers
June 12, 2019
AMAZING book. I wish I had taken it seriously the first time I briefly skimmed it before tossing it aside as "outdated". Two years into my PhD program, I'm already regretting not taking his advice for newbies and looking forward to implementing his strategies for success. His voice shines through the writing, and I will be the first to admit there were some genuinely laugh-out-loud moments.
Profile Image for Morgane Golan.
189 reviews
December 25, 2020
I appreciated the anecdotes and humor sprinkled throughout this book, and parts of it were quite interesting, but on the whole, it is simply so old and outdated that I can't actually recommend it to anyone. Lesson learned: any "guidebook" written before I was born is probably not going to be super helpful.
Profile Image for Jordan H.
15 reviews2 followers
January 1, 2018
A quality guide to preparing oneself for graduate school, although it has a somewhat unstated emphasis on the experience of graduate study in the sciences, which makes it somewhat less useful for prospective humanities and arts grad students.
8 reviews
June 22, 2018
A pretty good reference book for those considering graduate school. Well written and gives good advice. Some of the information is a little dated (my edition was from 1997), but still worth the read.
Profile Image for Rob Williams.
46 reviews1 follower
January 28, 2019
Interesting. Seems to have decent advice. Just dated is all. I didn’t realize how old it was (22 years old now) when I bought it. Perhaps a sign I need to learn to vet sources better before attempting anything outlined in this book.
3 reviews
June 10, 2020
I don't really find it useful. The content is too outdated. Getting a PhD today is very different from getting one in 1997 (which is the year this book was published). It does contain some useful bits of information, but these were mostly very general tips and tricks.
Profile Image for Gabriella Bugge.
32 reviews1 follower
September 9, 2021
Largely outdated now, particularly in light of modern technology and pandemic-era changes. The bare bones/basics of the book are still useful for someone with zero idea about the structure and differences between master's and doctoral graduate programs.
95 reviews
October 2, 2022
You know what, this was pretty solid. Now obviously SOME of it is outdated at this point, since the revised edition came out in 1997, but a lot of this info still holds up. Good things to think about, solid life advice, and a pretty helpful book as a whole.
1 review
February 10, 2018
Very, very helpful book full of brutally honest and sage advice. A must-read for anyone considering grad school.
Profile Image for Shane.
11 reviews1 follower
February 5, 2019
Practical advice. I'd reccomend reading when you are considering Graduate school soon after college, as some of the chapters will prove more useful.
Profile Image for Sammi.
978 reviews35 followers
June 14, 2020
I read this during my first semester of grad school and while it may be useful for different programs I found that it really wasn't relevant to my experience. Never hurts to be over-informed though.
Displaying 1 - 30 of 103 reviews

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