Create your own personal website

As masters/PhD students/data professionals you should have a website (personal website = modern business card). Luckily for you it is straightforward to make a professional website with little background knowledge (i.e. you don’t need to know HTML). There are many ways to create a website from very basic (e.g. WordPress) to more complex (e.g. code the whole thing in HTML/JavaScript yourself). A website is by no means required, but will benefit you for a variety of reasons (which I’m happy to discuss).

Here are two options for a happy medium that gets you a professional and customizable website with minimal technical skills (basic github, R Markdown, tiny amount of HTML).H ere are some examples of grad student websites:(a) (very basic HTML)
(b) (R Markdown)
(c) (WordPress)
(d) (HTML)
(e) (class website made with R Markdown)

Option 1 (made by grad students at Vanderbilt). Requires: R Markdown and github.

For an introduction to R Markdown see chapters 26-30 from R for Data science: (on a related note this textbook is the bible for R).

Option 2: steal the HTML template for Iain’s website (a) and modify it for yourself (find the code here: Requires: basic github (clone and push) and some basic HTML. Iain did not know HTML —  he simply borrowed this template from a friend and modified simple HTML files (e.g.

Option 3: Wait until you get to UNC and use WordPress. This is the easiest option (requires no coding, and this website is written in it), but we  suggest using options 1 or 2 (you will lose option 3 when you graduate and 1/2 give you more with only a little bit more work).

You can build any of these websites in one day (maybe a couple hours).


Adjusting to grad school

By the time you enter graduate school, you will likely have some set of study habits that worked for you in the past. However, you may find that the demands of being a Master’s or PhD student require you to evolve and refine your approach to studying and learning new material. Here are a few techniques you can adopt to make the most of your study time as a graduate student:

Prioritize deep work

There is a difference between time spent working with friends in a group and time spent working alone in your office with the internet turned off. Deep work is all about being recognizing this distinction and being intentional about how much of your work time is spent in a more focused state. The book “Deep Work” by Cal Newport lays out a great argument for deep work and gives many more details about how one can spend more time in deep work and get more accomplished as a result. Deeply connected to deep work is the idea of concentration. Your capacity to concentrate deeply for prolonged periods of time is strongly correlated to your productivity in a given day. You shouldn’t expect to be your most productive every day, but things like internet-free periods, turning off your phone while studying and meditation can really help boost your concentration.

Read with pencil and paper

In graduate school, you will have to sift through large amounts of very dense material. Especially in more mathematical disciplines, papers (and sometimes textbooks) will often make logical jumps where experts can easily connect the dots. As a graduate student, connecting these dots may prove more difficult. In order to really reinforce what you’ve already learned and develop your mathematical muscles, it is important to work through each relevant argument in whatever you’re reading. Doing this and forcing yourself to recall concepts that you have learned before will really help to solidify your understanding and highlight areas in which you may have overestimated your understanding.

Work out a schedule and stick to it

Everyone is built differently, especially when it comes to being productive. Some get more done in the mornings, while others do their best work after midnight. It can be very helpful to figure out what works best for you and continually optimize. Make a work schedule that you think suits you and stick to it for a time. You can track your hours with apps like Hours or Toggl. After a time, look at the data and adjust your schedule accordingly. This practice will give you a realistic view about how much time you are spending on different classes and projects and in different levels of focused work.

Impostor syndrome

At some point or another, many (perhaps even most) graduate students are struck by how seemingly little they know about the field, how difficult classes are, or how little time they have to complete the assigned tasks.  This can lead to something called impostor syndrome, where a student may doubt that they belong in the program, or that they’re a fraud. The first thing to note is that this feeling is very common in early graduate students. Another thing to note is that even knowing the first fact may not insulate you from the effects of impostor syndrome. You also may not realize that other people are feeling the same way you are. Graduate school is hard, and it’s hard in a way that most graduate students aren’t used to. It can sometimes help to think about how much you’ve actually learned in such a short period of time. All the while, it’s important to remember that you did, in fact, get into graduate school on your own merits, and you belong here.  As a matter of fact, the department is happy to have you here, and we want you to thrive here. Don’t hesitate to speak to other graduate students or professors about things you’re going through and reach out for help.

Ask questions (students and professors)

Even though you’ll be busy trying to solve problems, and even though impostor syndrome may make you think that asking questions will make you look stupid, nobody else will perceive it that way. The material is difficult, and many people struggle with a lot of the same issues year after year. Asking questions can save you a ton of trouble, so you don’t need to reinvent the wheel every time. It’s also important to develop a broader perspective on your field of study, so you can get a lot of new ideas just from asking people what they’re working on, or what challenges they’re trying to tackle. The department is made up of its people, so you should try to get as much information as you possibly can out of the wisdom surrounding you. Professors can guide you on how to solve many of the academic problems you can dream up, and students can steer you towards the best way of succeeding within the department, how to set realistic expectations, and how to avoid the mistakes they made. Don’t squander these precious resources!


The homeworks are hard. There is a lot of information in the first year that is thrown at you very quickly. Different people come into the program with different backgrounds, and so have different strengths. Two heads are better than one. For all these reasons, it’s extremely encouraged that students collaborate with one another on homeworks and studying.  A recommended strategy is to re-read your notes from class and try to fully understand them, then try to do the homework problems on your own but don’t spend a ton of time fixating on a single problem if you’re getting nowhere. Then meet with other students to work on the problems you haven’t gotten, and try to understand what you missed, and work together to figure out things everyone missed.


How to learn at colloquia

You will not understand every idea at every colloquium. Nobody does. It’s cutting edge research on a topic you may know little about, being presented to you in an hour.  So while you may not be able to explain the methodology of the colloquium and prove every convergence, it’s important to try to get something out of these sessions. Maybe it’s a topic you never realized you could study. Maybe you see certain methods get used over and over again, so you may want to learn about it. Maybe it’s a limitation of our current tools that need to be adjusted for a new kind of problem. Maybe it’s something we don’t talk about much in our department. Maybe it’s an effective communication technique, or a great way of presenting results. There are a lot of things happening in each colloquium, and while you may not understand everything, you should try to learn a thing or two from each speaker. Furthermore, you never know where inspiration may strike, and an unrelated idea may allow you to step back and look at your own work from a new perspective.

Don’t make school your whole life

If you let it, graduate school can easily take over your life. At certain points in the semester, it may seem like there is more work assigned than you can possibly get done. If not managed well, the stress of this can lead to burnout and generally reduce your quality of life. That is why it is important to make sure that there is time for other activities that take your mind off of school. Activities like exercise are especially helpful because they improve both your mental and physical health. Some find it helpful to schedule these activities to make sure that homework and other academic responsibilities don’t get in the way. In general, you may still find it difficult to make time for these other pursuits, but as you optimize your other study habits, you may find a bit of extra time.

You can explore the triangle, searching for food, arts, activities, hikes, or whatever you want to see. Or you can take advantage of some of the resources UNC offers its students, like sports facilities, lectures, fitness classes, or makerspaces. There are a ton of possibilities, and it’s encouraged that you pursue your interests even outside the purview of your program.

For international students: learning English  

International students don’t need to prioritize learning English over their school work and research in graduate school. Obviously, English is very important for international students for academic survival and success in the United States, but it is not the reason we came to this country. Your English will gradually improve over the years, with or without significant efforts, as you are surrounded by an English speaking environment, and you will begin working on academic writing for your thesis, etc. Communicating with native speakers usually is not a big issue. People won’t find it too hard to understand your ideas (even when you make a few grammatical mistakes), and you can chat with them on a lot of topics: sports, art, food, news and (of course!) research. If there are ever issues that lead to minor misunderstandings, those are more due to cultural differences (with high probability). I personally think that the culture barrier is unavoidable. To overcome this, while you should embrace your own culture, it is important to also be open to this brand new culture in the US and enjoy it. For example, you can go to some local art performance concerts, watch sports games or talk shows etc. As we stay here, we also gain more knowledge about American culture, which helps to reduce friction in our conversations with native speakers.

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