Friday, February 8, 2008


Graddatical : a short period of study-related travel taken by a graduate student.

During the long and winding course of graduate school, I've been lucky to have the opportunity to take two graddaticals - the second of which is just finishing up today.  As I've defined it above, a graddatical is an opportunity for a graduate student to, in increasing order of importance:
  1. take advantage of the main perk of student life - the relative freedom from strict time and location constraints (which is typically discussed in relation to the lack of money with which to frivolously enjoy that freedom)
  2. take a break from your current surroundings which, particularly in the Nth years, may start to have the look and feel of a prison chamber regardless of the beauty of the campus or the character of your associates
  3. spend time working closely with experts in your field who you would normally only ever interact with over email (if they bothered to respond to you)
The value of this last attribute of the graddatical really can't be overstated.  Though my personal path through the PhD jungle has probably been even more meandering than most, I think its safe to say that many students may find that their research takes them in many unexpected directions that can end up leaving them feeling somewhat, shall we say, intellectually lonely.  For example, you may come into and even select your graduate program thinking that you are going to be working on computational vaccine design, then follow a trail that leads you through machine learning through the semantic Web into classification theory; and from there wind up working on things that only people who manage libraries for a living actually care or know anything about.  Needless to say, its likely that you are now the only one in your lab and possibly your department and possibly even your city that cares about the semantic underpinnings of the Dewey Decimal system and thus find yourself with no one to talk to about your work.  A graddatical is what you need.

To have a successful graddatical:
  1. identify some one who seems to be interested in what you are interested in and seems to know a lot more about it than you do
  2. find a way to get to know them - ideally through a strong network connection like your supervisor
  3. ask if you can come visit their lab/office for a week (most people will be happy to let you come hang out - if they aren't, you don't want to waste your graddatical on them)
  4. make cheap travel arrangements..  this may be tricky but can almost always be done.  Keys for getting there are to either a) pick  somewhere that isn't too far or b) pick somewhere that is not too far from a conference you can get funded to attend somehow.  Another financial and fun related consideration is to request lodging on the couch of graduate students in the lab you are visiting.  Again, you will be amazed how welcoming people can be and it will make your experience both cheaper and more enjoyable.
Now, students of the world, go forth and get graddatical!