Random Basic Skills I recommend for Students looking for research jobs in the US (in no particular order of importance)
Learn how to touch type on an American keyboard
This is a basic skill that most US students are taught in secondary school.
However if you don't know it (and many foreign students do not) you
should take a course in touch typing. It is not hard to learn, especially
if you have ever played a keyboard instrument. Your ability to communicate electronically, write manuscripts, and edit things online will be
much faster if you learn how to touch type. By touch type I mean
typing on a keyboard without looking at the keys while you type.
This involves correct body position and posture and the ability to watch
the screen for typos as you move your fingers around the keyboard.
The correct body position will also save you potential problems with
carpal tunnel and other repetitive stress injuries.
There is a standard way to touchtype on a QWERTY keyboard which involves
basing the four fingers of each hand on the asdf (left) and jkl; (right)
keys and moving from there with the thumbs working the space bar.
In reality I think we all look the the keys occasionally especially for the
far away symbols and such but to be able to type text
without looking is really very valuable on a day to day level.
For example, it allowed me to type this webpage in a very short time, off
the top of my head.
Learn how to drive a car and get a drivers license.
Even if you live in a big city with good public transportation, you
will likely get invited to a conference that is in a small college town, two
hours drive from the nearest major airport with only inconvenient shuttle
service. Most conferences like this assume people will just rent a car
and drive there. Moreover, if you can drive, your access to things
in the US will be an order of magnitude better. It is also important
to practice safe driving so that you do not get in an accident during
Given the above, learn how to change a tire with a manual
jack. And make sure you car has a good spare, a jack that fits
the car, and jumper cables.
When I bought my first car, a four year old Plymouth Reliant, back
in 1987, I had to borrow money from my father until I got my first
graduate student paycheck. My father lent me the money on the contingent
that I rotated all the tires myself (no help) with the jack and the spare.
It took some time, especially since I did it in his driveway which has a slope,
but it was the best lesson for a new car owner. Four years later when
I went for a job interview at a leading research university, my host
got a flat tire on the way back from picking me up at the airport.
I showed him how to change the tire (in my suit and stockings, on the side
of the road in the winter) and I later got the job. Not sure if
it had anything to do with the tire, but it could not have hurt.
Seriously though, I've also been stranded myself on the side of a highway
with no cell phone and no AAA and changed the tire. You have to
be careful with oncoming traffic and not to do anything stupid, but this
is a skill everyone should know if they own a car. Even if you have AAA
and a cell phone. Even if you don't like to get your hands dirty (and
they will get dirty if you change a tire, so it's good to keep
a spare role of paper towels or some old rags in the car).
The jumper cables are not for changing the tire but for charging the battery
if it goes dead. You need another car or a special battery to use jumper
cables (i.e. you need a charge from somewhere). AAA, if you can afford
it, is also quite useful as they will come and do these things for you free
of charge provided you can get a hold of them (hence cell phone).
Learn how to write scientific papers
This means, first of all, knowing correct English grammar and
appropriate style. But also how much detail to include depending on
the audience. Courses offered to foreign students in technical writing
often fall far short of training them on how to write their first article.
Practice writing up your work early and often and get it critiqued by your
advisor or someone you know. Even if you are not a foreign student, you
still may need work on writing, especially if your undergraduate training
was purely in technical areas (e.g. as in an engineering school or degree).
If you have not been taught how to write well, assume that you will
have to learn it from experience and practice. The quicker you master
this the sooner you will be able to publish your work independently.
It is my experience as editor on several applied math journals that a
significant number of scientific manuscripts are returned to the authors
without review because they are written so poorly as not to
convey clearly the value of the paper.
Learn to read both current and historical scientific literature
Many students make the mistake of following through on a project
assigned to them without learning the scientific literature.
Then when it comes time to publish their work, they discover a portion
of it has already been done. Worst of all, this discovery could
come in the form of a referee report (rejecting the manuscript)
which has wasted a lot of time of the student and also serves to
degrade the scientific reputation of the student and all
other authors. It also serves to annoy the authors of the published paper
in question and can make enemies.
If your advisor gives you a project to work on that is supposed to be new
research, ask what are the most relevant papers in the literature
an do a literature search yourself to determine the state of the art
for your problem. Go and discuss the other papers with your advisor
so you get their perspective on the literature. Since there is a vast
literature out there, this means that you need to learn to read
papers for overall content without going through all the details.
Then pick and choose which ones require a more detailed reading.
Make sure you do not overlook the literature that is not in print online,
some excellent and relevant papers published just 10-15 years ago
are not online and require you to physically walk to the library
and read the papers in the journal (or make a photocopy and bring it back).
I have seen manuscripts written by younger authors rejected because
they duplicated material that was published in the older printed literature.
When I wrote my PhD thesis, latex had just been invented an essentially
none of the journals were publishing online (the internet was in its infancy
and had not yet gone commercial). So I know how it is to go to the library
and photocopy. It's not all that time consuming if you do it efficiently
and copy several articles at once. I have one paper that needed
a sharp estimate from a paper of Nagy written in the first half of the 20th
century. We had to go to the library and look it up in print.
But this prior paper allowed us to prove a sharp estimate in our work
that matched results from asymptotics and simulation.
I can not stress how important it is to take into consideration
the full scientific literature when writing your own research papers.
Another reason to follow the scientific literature is that it gives
you a broader perspective about what has been done and what are the active
areas of research. You will have to pick your own problems at some
point in time and you will need to know this by that time.
Learn to compute
This is a bit vague, but it means that you should become comfortable
with using the computer, not just for latex (see below) but also
for scientific computing. What this means depends on your career
choice in mathematics. In my area it means numerical analysis and scientific computing, including mastery of some basic computational languages
and packages like C++ and Matlab. Learn the abilities and shortcomings
of the computer, the latter includes things like floating point arithmetic,
binary arithmetic, and round off error.
Not only will this be useful to you but it will also help you in critiquing
work of others that makes heavy use of computing.
Most mathematical papers are typeset in latex so you should learn
it early and master such things as bibtex for bibliographic references.
A PhD thesis often involves over 100 pages of written material, typeset,
and you will not want to be doing cross referencing by hand.
Moreover, if you learn bibtex you do not even have to alphabetize your
bib references yourself, it will be done for you.
Some people prefer to use packages when using latex, however since it
is source code driven, and packages typically only run on specific platforms,
I suggest everyone learn how to use latex starting from source code.
It is similar to using a programming language and it is easy if you
can start with a template from someone else's paper.
The hardest part of latex is learning how to "debug" your sourcecode
based on the cryptic error messages that latex spits back at you (and
it will do so, quickly and often). Getting advice from peers
is a good way to start with such problems.
Learn powerpoint, etc
At some point you will have to give presentations in front of an audience.
It is helpful if you know how to use powerpoint and can give presentations
in this format. It will allow you to incorporate movies and pictures
seamlessly into your talk. Moreover it is easier on the arm than writing
on the chalk board.
Learn how to lecture at the blackboard
If you are a TA you will get practice, however even the TAs may not
actually have lecturing experience.
Everyone should learn how to lecture at the blackboard if they
are in an academic profession. This turns out to be easier than you
might think, if instead of thinking about it from the point of
you looking out at the audience, you think in terms of what
the people at the back of the room are seeing at the front.
Evernthing that I will now say is complete common sense based
on the above premise, nevertheless most people do not
take these details into consideration when they start lecturing.
I had the advantage of taking courses in college from some
outstanding lecturers (one professor could have photographed
his lectures and published the pictures of the board) and I think this
helped to put blackboard lecturing in perspective.
Everyone should practice their first lecture by writing it out
on a board and then going to the back of the room and seeing what
it looks like. Correct your presentation until it looks really
good from the back of the room. Next, make sure that if you
expect the audience (e.g. students) to take notes, that you
write at a pace they can keep up with.
There is a sure-fire way to gauge pace. After you
write a paragraph on the board, look at the audience
and stop talking/writing until most of them have finished taking
notes. Then continue. The silence is a lot shorter
than you might think. Make sure you write everything
you want in their notes, on the board. A Typical student will copy
what you write and not embellish, even if you say more than what
you actually write. This can be tiring for your arm but it is necessary
if you want to deliver a good blackboard lecture.
In addition bring a friend to listen to your delivery and see if they
can hear you from the back of the room. If you aim for the back
of the room when you lecture, everyone in between should be
able to hear and see you. If you aim for the front, you will almost
surely miss the people in the back.
If you have trouble speaking loudly, consider getting
a voice coach (just temporarily) or practice
breathing deeply to your diaphram and pushing with
your stomach and back muscles when you talk. It may feel
like yelling but remember that you are a performer when you
give a lecture. You are not having an intimate conversation
with the person in the front. Therefore, act like
a peformer and speak to the back of the room as if you were acting
in a play.
If you have ever sung in a choir it is similar only
speaking instead of singing. Asking questions is also good
and keep the whole group in mind when you do so.
There is an aspect to giving public lectures that has elements
of improvisational acting. If you have done that you should
be great at giving lectures. If not (and most of us have not,
myself included), after giving a number of
lectures you will get more comfortable talking off the top of your
head in front of a crowd and having them enjoy the experience.
For the most part, they are there to learn and are expecting to
enjoy the experience so if you don't do anything to shatter that
expectation, you will do just fine (i.e. it is the `innocent until
proven guilty' rule that applies to university teaching, unlike
some other types of teaching). This last idea is important
to keep in mind if you tend towards stage fright.
If you do not teach and tend towards stage fright and have to
give a presentation, then consider powerpoint, see above,
as it gives you some physical material to hide behind and
saves the problem of writing well on the chalk board.
When delivering a research lecture at the board, you can take
some liberties with the above (in particular the note taking)
but it should be only so that you can deliver additional
information to the group. Moreover, the `back of the room' rule still applies.
Perhaps most importantly, always try to guage the knowledge level
of your audience when giving a lecture. You want them to walk away
with new information that connects well to what they already know.
This rule applies whether giving a calculus lecture or a research colloquium.