Saul Greenberg

A Typical Graduate Program

The department will be your community for the next few years. As with all communities, you will get the most out of it if you contribute into it.

What is a Graduate Student?

  • In general, your undergraduate program has trained you as a person who can solve problems in computer science area. As a graduate student, you will be trained (mostly through an apprenticeship-like system) on how to define an interesting problem in a way that it can be solved.
  • At the end of your degree, you should know how to:
    • motivate a problem area i.e., why its interesting
    • redefine the problem as specific problem statements, goals and objectives
    • define a method for solving the problem
    • apply the method to the problem
    • evaluate your solution so you can show that you have solved the problem
    • disseminate your work through seminars, presentations, papers, etc.
    • write and defend a major research document (your thesis)

What are the Typical Goals of a Grad?

Primary goals

  • Acquire skills of a successful researcher (problem formation, writing, presenting, organization, thinking, etc.)
  • Complete and defend a research project worthy of an MSc or PhD
  • Complete all courses successfully
  • Disseminate your research if you can (papers, presentations)
  • Give a department seminar
  • Ideally complete within 2 (years (MSc) or 4 years (PhD).

Secondary goals

  • Do interesting side projects
  • Acquire knowledge beyond your research specialization
  • Be a competent teaching assistant
  • Get scholarships and other funding so you can live better
  • Get to know your peer research community (e.g., within department, or conferences, etc.)

Typical Schedule

Time MSc (thesis-based) PhD
1st fall/winter
  • do most courses
  • develop research proposal
  • start research (background readings, initial explorations)
  • do most courses
  • develop research proposal
  • start research (background readings, initial explorations)
1st summer
  • work on research project
  • work on research project
  • develop research proposal
  • develop reading list
  • continue research
2nd fall/winter
  • complete courses
  • complete major part of research
  • start writing thesis/papers
  • complete courses
  • do departmental exam
  • do candidacy exam (note: see rules about when you mustdo this)
2nd summer
  • complete thesis
  • give dept'l seminar
  • defend thesis
  • continue research
  • disseminate work (papers, talks, etc.)
3rd/4th year
  • continue research
  • disseminate work (papers, talks, etc.)
  • start writing thesis
  • defend thesis

If you take longer than the recommended times, you may run into funding concerns. Most departments do not guarantee funding beyond the recommended times. Many granting agencies (scholarship committee, e.g. NSERC) will limit PhD funding if you took longer than 2 years for an MSc. However, students who take longer usually do so because they want to publish their work.

Graduate Courses and Seminars

  • Be aware of course requirements! The PhD program has a breadth component, while the MSc recommends some breadth. Work with your supervisor to decide on the best courses for you.
  • Attend seminars. See what others are doing. Learn from them. Give a research seminar every opportunity you can (your lab, the department, conferences, workshops).
  • Drop in on courses of interest but unrelated to your work.
  • CPSC 699 is the course to kick-start you on your research. People who do degrees quickly tend to know what they want to do as soon as they get in. Don't think of it as the way that the regular time is for doing course work and the spare time is for doing research. It's better to integrate courses into your research.

Teaching Assistantships

  • Check with your supervisor about other funding possibilities i.e., grants, scholarships
  • If you have a scholarship or other funding, consider not teaching. Your job is to graduate, and the release time offered by these other funds will help you concentrate on your work. You will earn more money in the long run after your graduate!
  • Plan for the courses you want to teach. Talk to the course profs well ahead of time
  • Take your teaching seriously. You are expected to do a good job
  • If your TA service time becomes too high (12 hours/week average), talk to the course professor. If there is no satisfactory response, talk to Rob Kremer and/or Leonard Manzara


  • Why?
    • more money and prestige for you
    • releases you from TA-ing
    • eases pressure on the department
  • Which ones?
    • NSERC and Alberta Ingenuity are the best;
    • U Calgary has many individual awards that you can apply to via one application
    • AITF top-ups
    • read the grad mailings
  • Plan for it
    • profs need time to write letters of references
    • your application needs to be as perfect as it can be (highly competitive)
    • submit one even if you are doubtful of getting it
    • you do not need to have a definitive research proposal! A working one will do, even if you are uncertain if that is what you will actually do.

How to get into trouble

  • Ignore the advice of your supervisor. They can't possibly know more than you.
  • Do the minimal amount to get through your program, as what is important is the degree you (may) get at the end vs. the knowledge/experience you acquire. Profs won't notice anyways.
  • Delay working on a research proposal.
  • Don't discuss your research ideas with your supervisor and/or look at the literature. Your ideas are so original that no one could have possibly done it before.
  • Decide to change your supervisor without planning for it and/or thinking about the consequences. After all, you are so good that other supervisors will be jumping to get you, and they have lots of time to take on an additional student to their load.
  • Ignore your research because TA duties, courses, side projects are more immediate.
  • Go on a vacation for 2 months without talking to your supervisor about it. Nobody will know you are missing.
  • Don't show up for graduate courses, and/or miss lots of classes. After all, it worked for you in the undergraduate program.
  • Don't apply for scholarships, as its too much work and your prof and the department have unlimited funds.
  • Don't work on your areas of weaknesses.
    • if you are a poor presenter, avoid giving presentations
    • if you are a poor writer, avoid writing or leave it to the last minute
  • If you speak / write English as a second language, don't try to develop your loral or written language skills through courses and other means the University offers. Even thought English is the language of this University, they can't possibly mean it.
  • Plagiarize, where you copy other people's work without quoting or citing it. Its a good way to get out of the program early (well, you will be thrown out)
  • Don't take TAing seriously, even though the department may pull your TA funding because of it.
  • Stay much longer than the 2 years (MSc) or 4 years (PhD) recommended times.
  • Get a job before writing your thesis. You are likely one of the very few exceptional people who can do both a full time job and thesis research / writing at the same time.
  • Ignore or stay unaware of department or university regulations and/or paperwork and/or deadlines for they can't possibly apply to you. After all, big organization are very flexible and will be able to accommodate you no matter what.
  • Use the departmental facilities for your own means, i.e., for putting up a music site, for creating a porn site, for printing off 2000 copies of that newsletter for your social club, for bringing home with you without asking, etc. Nobody will notice or care.
  • Think that you will graduate no matter what. After all, you did pay your fees so it must be your right to pass courses and to pass your thesis defense.