Top ten tips to triumph at grad school

Why is it that some people seem to excel at grad school and others struggle? Some grad students seem to have it together. They enjoy coursework, ace their prelims/qualifying exams, write great dissertation proposals, have few (or no) mishaps with data collection or analysis, writing-up is a breeze, and they successfully defend within four years. For others, however, the journey is marked by constant twists, turns, and bumps along the way. While no two journeys through grad school are the same, there are some key strategies that you can employ to help you be successful.

  1. Begin with the end in mind: Why did you decide to come to grad school in the first place? This is a key question that you have to answer for yourself… and it has to be more than “to get a PhD”. To be successful you have to know where you are going. Every successful person begins with the end in mind. Once you know where you are heading you can begin to craft your pathway to success. If your plan is to secure a tenure-track faculty position when you graduate, go into the program knowing that. Perhaps you want a full-time research position? Or maybe a high-level executive/administrative job? Do you want to work in policy analysis and development? To maximize your chances of success you must know where you are heading. You’ll have lots of opportunities and you’ll need to decide what to say yes to and what to decline. Your benchmark for decision-making needs to be your long-term plan.
  2. Set goals: Once you know your long term plan, you’ll need to establish short-term goals that will help you get there. Of course, your university will have several goals set out for you already – complete x number of courses, prelims, and a dissertation – but grad school is much more than that and you will need to take ownership of your own journey. The goals for one grad student will be quite different from another. If you intend to secure a faculty position after you graduate you’re goals will need to include (a) publishing several papers during your time as a grad student, (b) presenting at conferences and (c) teaching a course. However, if you plan to secure a full time research position your goals will be slightly different. You’ll definitely want to publish work from your dissertation, but you’ll also want to get involved in collaborative research projects and co-publish research to show you can work as part of a research team.  If, however, you plan to work in policy analysis and development, summer internships are critical. Once you know what your long-term objective is set short term goals that will help you get there.
  3. Make a plan: Once you have a long-term objective and you have short-term goals think about how you will achieve them. Articles won’t write themselves, internships don’t just appear in your inbox. You’ll need to strategize exactly how to achieve your goals. I have met too many grad students who said “I really want to x but I never had the chance”. The reality that most grad students have to learn is that they need to hustle for most opportunities. If you want to join a research team, then start by making contacts with key researchers involved in the project. Second, establish yourself as someone thoughtful, critical, organized, and enthusiastic. Third, ask! You can’t just walk in and ask on day one. But you can make a plan on day one that you will ask in three months.
  4. Get organized: One of the key things that delay completion and limit development of grad students is organization. Most people enter a grad program thinking they are well organized…most realize in about year three (usually when they are writing their dissertation) that they were/are not! From the very beginning (although it is never too late to start) you’ll need to ensure you
    • have a plan to use your time wisely see my post on time management
    • keep excellent records of administrative issues (scholarship promises, funding agreements, admission letters, progress reports)  – when things “go wrong” (often with a supervisor) students who have accurate and detailed records are usually much more successfully in appealing than those who recycled letters from their university – see my post on managing your administrative commitments in grad school
    • know when your deadlines are…. And unless it is totally unavoidable meet them! – see my post Help! I’m running out of time: finishing grad school, the sprint to the end
    • develop a filing system for data, ideas, drafts of your work – see my blog I know I had some great thoughts on this last year
    • use a reference management software from the start of your program – see my post Tools for referencing wisely
  5. Select classes wisely: Think about your classes as structured and facilitated sessions to help you work through ideas for your own research. The sooner you can identify your specific area of research the better. Then you can tailor your readings, assignments etc. to help you prepare for your qualifying exams. You will be able to select classes that will help guide you towards your own contribution to knowledge.
  6. Diversify your experiences…. But not too much: Grad school is different to the undergraduate experience and that is why most advice tailored to undergrads just doesn’t make sense for grads. Grad students do need to develop a breadth of skills and experiences; but to maximize your chances of achieving your long-term objective, select opportunities that are within the parameters of your chosen career. If you want to work in high ed. administration for example get on committees at your university, if you want to be a faulty member ask to serve as the grad student representative when the department is hiring a new faculty member etc. Get out of the lab/library and engage. But be selective.
  7. Find mentors: Your dissertation adviser is a key mentor and nurturing that relationship is critical. However, they are only one mentor. You need others. Most successful grad students have 3-4 mentors with whom they meet fairly regularly. When thinking about individuals who might be great mentors you’ll need to go back to your long-term objective and short term goals. If you want to be a tenured faculty member, then find someone who recently secured tenure at your university in a field similar to yours and talk with them regularly. If you want to work in administration the same is true. Find someone who is 5-10 years ahead of you in your chosen career and talk with them. It’s also a good idea to have a personal mentor, someone who has similar experiences to you. I was married with two young children when I was a phd student and I had an excellent mentor to encouraged me and understood what it was like to be a women in a male dominated environment. Think about the different aspects of your life and find mentors that speak to each of them.
  8. Network early and often: Mentors can serve as great connectors to other networks and key contacts. You should start networking early. Networking well takes time. Nurturing networks is hard. To streamline the process think about your long-term objectives and short term goals. Focus your attention in building as robust a network as possible in your chosen area. Connect with people via email early in your program. Select conferences wisely. Think about how you position yourself as an emerging leader in your chosen field.
  9. Establish and maintain a digital footprint: It is critical you develop a digital footprint early in your program. It takes time to develop a robust website that can promote you and your work to leaders in your chosen field and so the earlier you begin the better. Your website is an excellent resource to promote yourself as an (emerging) leader in your field. Include the link at the bottom of your emails, on your business card (yes you should have business cards) and in all correspondence to networks and contacts.  Include information pertinent to your chosen career. Use it to chronicle each of the goals you set out in #2.
  10. Listen to advice and reject it when necessary: It is important to listen to advice from mentors, advisors, and other grad students. Critically engage with advice. Use it when the advice makes sense. Reject it when it doesn’t. It is also important to realize that this is your journey and it is unique. Enjoy it!

[Photo by Flickr user drosen7900 – used under Creative Commons licensing]

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Jennifer Massey

Jennifer Massey

Jennifer is a higher education administrator with experience at several universities in Canada and USA. She earned her BA in Geography from Kings College London, MA in Geography from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, and PhD in Geography from Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario.

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