Celebrating a Decade of Coaching Graduate Students with a Special Invitation and Lessons Learned!

Image of people throwing multicolored confetti in the air, blanketing a stadium, celebrating a decade of coaching graduate students (okay, that's probably not what they were celebrating but that's how I feel).

Celebrating a Decade of Coaching Graduate Students with a Special Invitation and Lessons Learned!

I cannot believe I’ve been coaching graduate students for a decade now. Every day I celebrate how lucky I am to have worked with so many brilliant students to help you reach your dreams. Whatever wisdom I’ve imparted to you all, I want you to know that I’ve learned so much in return. I’ve been inspired by every single one of you and I want you to know how grateful I am.

A Decade Retrospective on Coaching Graduate Students

5 Lessons Learned

I truly believe that everyone has something to teach us and I never stop being surprised by the wisdom of my students but some things you can only see in patterns and experience. So let me share with you 5 lessons I’ve learned after 10 years of coaching graduate students.

“Every person I work with knows something better than me. My job is to listen long enough to find it and use it.”

Jack Nichols

Lesson 1. More hours working does not lead to faster graduation.

Closeup, cropped image of an analog watch face.

Having your butt parked at your desk with your work open in front of you is not the same as working. But, too many students (and faculty) think that by sitting there longer, you’ll get more done. It’s simply not true. In fact, the students that I’ve coached who were putting in the most working hours were the slowest to graduate.

More work hours don’t lead to higher productivity, they lead to inefficiency and fatigue. Your work will be slower, you’ll make more mistakes, your memory and problem-solving skills will be impaired, and everything will feel far more stressful. In general, knowledge workers have about 5 good hours for difficult tasks a day (e.g., learning new skills, concentrating on reading, or academic writing), after that, it is quickly diminishing returns.

My grad. student coaching clients quickly learn that I recommend no more than 10 scheduled hours in a day, only 5 of which are mentally challenging, and at least one day off a week. This is particularly challenging for graduate students who are also working, in which case focusing on efficiency during the hours they have is key.

Lesson 2. You have to ask for what you need.

Let’s get real. Advisors weren’t hired for their ability to help graduate students earn their degrees. They were hired to bring in money to the university. If they happen to be good advisors…well happy days.

However, getting what you need to succeed is partially your responsibility. Your advisor isn’t psychic, so you need to tell them what you need. If you do better under certain conditions then ask for them. Do you need to check in more often for better accountability? Ask for it. Struggle to estimate how long things should take? Ask your advisor or another student for their thoughts. Feeling overwhelmed by a project because you don’t know all the steps involved? Ask someone who has already done it what to expect.

And, if you’ve got an advisor that you can’t ask, for whatever reason, ask another professor you’re close to, ask another grad. student, join a support group or get a graduate student coach. I know that’s a shameless plug, but if all advisors were amazing we wouldn’t be here having this lovely chat.

Lesson 3. The fear of judgment will hold you back.

little boy on a couch hiding under the cushions.

Perfectionism, not asking for help, not reaching out to other researchers – all of them stem from the fear of not being seen as good enough. And all of them will stymie your progress. Do any of these sound familiar?

If everything I turn in isn’t perfect, they’ll realize I’m not as smart as they think I am. Well, there’s no such thing as perfection for most tasks in graduate school, so you’re wasting time aiming for the impossible.

I should already understand this, if I ask questions they’ll think I don’t belong here. Sitting there, acting like you understand something while falling behind isn’t very smart. Wasting days trying to find the answer to a question when it would have taken 5 minutes for your professor to hand you a reference or explain it to you is a waste of time. It’s important to take the initiative in your learning, but that includes learning when to ask for help.

I don’t want to present at that conference, my work’s not good enough. Putting your work out there is how you get good. Getting multiple perspectives and having a constructive dialog with other students and researchers is a vital part of maturing as a professional. We were all students once, we remember what it was like, we’re not there to tear you down. Not getting out there will reduce your networking opportunities, hinder staying on top of new developments in your field, and cause you to miss out on potential job prospects.

Lesson 4. Wishful thinking is not a time management plan.

Person stands holding up their hands with their fingers crossed and a hopeful expression on their face.

There are a few mistakes that nearly every graduate student makes. In my decade of coaching, the one that comes up the most is using wishful thinking in place of accurate time estimates. Almost every graduate student I’ve coached thinks they can and should be getting more done faster.

In reality, things invariably take longer than you expect, something unexpected comes up, you run into a snag, or there are more interruptions than you’d like. It’s Murphy’s law of time management.

Students remember the magical days that went better than expected, where they were more efficient than usual, more alert than usual, and the synapses were firing at an unprecedented rate to meet an intense deadline. Instead of realizing that that was a perfect day, they think it’s what their baseline should be. But, not every day is going to be perfect, most will be average and some will be bad. You can’t make a time management plan wishing that every day is going to be stellar, it sets you up to fail and leads to demoralization.

Lesson 5. Your fellow graduate students are faking it.

Image of a person holding up a paper smile in front of their mouth, hiding their true expression. The 5th lesson in coaching graduate students.

If you’re looking around thinking that all the other graduate students are so much more put together, confident, and capable than you are, let me share a secret. They’re not. Every graduate student has their own challenge; it may be different than yours, but there’s something they’re struggling with. No graduate student has everything under control, but they’re not going to tell you that! They’re getting through things one day at a time… just like you. They wonder if they’re smart enough and if their work is good enough… just like you. They wonder how everyone else is managing better than they are… just like you. Every graduate student is in fake it till you make it mode and the sooner you stop comparing your inner experience to other people’s outer appearance, the happier you’ll be.

So, those are 5 lessons I’ve learned after coaching graduate students for a decade!

When I started graduate student coaching all those years ago, I could not imagine how important my students would become to me. Every difficult project turned in, every proposal completed, and every successful defense, has warmed my heart. I know how amazing the future is going to be with all of you talented professionals taking up the reins of physicists, toxicologists, economists, healthcare providers, public health practitioners, researchers, educators, policymakers, business leaders, writers, and many many more. Thank you all!

Wishing You All the Best in Your Academic Success.
Dr. Cristie Glasheen, Your Graduate Student Success Coach.