Preparing for Graduate School: An Academic Coach’s Guide

Preparing for Graduate School: An Academic Coach’s Guide

Congratulations, You’ve Been Accepted to Graduate School!

A black man stands looking quizzically at a paper he is holding while standing in front of a whiteboard. The image represents a graduate student wondering what to do to prepare for graduate school.

Now what?

You’ve spent all of your time focusing and stressing about GPAs and GREs, letters of recommendation, and personal statements, and it’s paid off. You’ve gotten your acceptance letter, told all your family and friends, and had a celebratory dinner. Now it’s time to prepare for graduate school and get into graduate student mode. So, let me give you my tips and suggestions to prepare for graduate school to make the transition easier.

Academic Preparations for Graduate School

Time Management

A problem that a lot of my clients struggle with in the transition to becoming a graduate student is the ability to plan for and manage large projects with competing priorities. While it’s true that many undergraduate students have to balance multiple responsibilities with competing deadlines (e.g., two different classes have papers due at the same time), the scale is much longer and much larger in graduate school. In graduate school, you might be responsible not only for your class deadlines, but your research deadlines, and responsibilities related to a research assistant or teaching assistant position.

Developing a time management and organizational system that works for you will save you stress. There’s no one right way to plan for and manage your time, some approaches work better for some people and there’s no easy way to determine what will work for you other than to try it out. Before you start graduate school is a great time to experiment.

Here are some systems to consider:

  • Time Blocking – time blocking involves scheduling every part of your day in a calendar. This system provides structure and can head off decision fatigue (e.g., not knowing what to work on next), it also forces you to consider non-academic time demands in your planning. This type of system works best for people who are generally well organized but who need to ramp up their efforts due to an increase in time and resource demands. This system can be challenging for people who struggle to estimate the time tasks take, have difficulty breaking tasks down into smaller components, or get overwhelmed thinking about long to-do lists.
  • Most Important Tasks (MIT) Prioritization system – With this time management approach, you select your top 3 priorities to complete in a day, work to get those completed, then tackle less urgent tasks at the end of the day. This system works better for people who get overwhelmed with large to-do lists but can lead to inefficiency when there is no time limit (tasks will expand to take as long as you allow). It can also lead to lower-priority tasks being pushed off until the last minute and then becoming urgent.
  • The Ivy Lee Method – Similar to the MIT prioritization process, this method involves taking time at the end of the day to identify the 3 to 6 most important things to do the next day. One of the benefits of this system is that it prompts you to consider the next steps while the projects you are working on are still fresh in your mind. However, a downside to this is that it can lead you to prioritize the things you are working on that day over other tasks, simply because it’s fresher and not because those tasks are necessarily more important.

Looking at these systems, you can see how there are three sets of skills that are the foundation of time management: 1) Breaking projects into smaller action items, 2) prioritizing the action items, and 3) estimating the time demands of the action items. If you struggle with these skills, check out my Top-Notch Time Management course. It is filled with tips, tricks, and strategies for improving these skills, all the juicy secrets I teach my one-on-one clients.

Image of a hand holding a clock. Graphic link to the Top Notch Time Management course for graduate students.

Information Organization

Just like it’s important to develop a time management system that works for you, information organization is vital. Most graduate students need ways to take and arrange notes (e.g., to-do lists, research ideas, and information you need to quickly access frequently), save resources for later (e.g., journal articles and citations, important websites), organize email, maintain version control of programming code, and a naming convention for files and folders. There are a wide variety of tools available but here are a few tips.

First, learn to use a reference manager. Reference managers allow you to save citations (journal articles, book chapters, etc.), attach/link the referenced material, sort and file and annotate the citations, keep track of what you’ve read and what you need to read, share reference libraries, output the citations in your papers in a format of your choosing, and automatically create reference lists. There are a number of free and paid reference managers, with some of the most popular being Zotero, Mendelay, and Endnote. My personal favorite is Endnote, it’s extremely powerful and great for those who do a lot of writing with references, but it does have a one-time fee and a bit of a learning curve. For all of these reference managers, I strongly recommend checking out tutorials on Youtube so you can get a good overview of what these programs can do. You will miss out on wonderful and useful features if you just open the program and go.

Second, develop a method to keep track of ideas, notes, and additional resources that you come across. You can think of this as a lab or research notebook. Some people use traditional notebooks for this and others use digital. Notekeeping apps like Evernote, Onenote, or Goggle Keep can be used for this or a free project management app can be used as a digital lab notebook (e.g., Trello,, or Asana). Some students who do mostly reading and writing (e.g., English or history majors) for their degrees like to use Scrivener to manage their information. Whatever system you choose, it should be the simplest system that meets your needs. More complicated systems do not result in better organization because if a system is difficult or confusing to use, you will not keep up with using it.

Third, set up a system for backing up your files. You can upload everything into Google Drive or DropBox, buy an external hard drive and set up an automated backup, or make sure you do a file backup to a thumb drive regularly. The how doesn’t matter, it’s that you do it and do it regularly. In this day and age, no student should lose important files for lack of a backup but I can assure you, it still happens.

I’ll be publishing several articles about organizational strategies for graduate students. Sign up to be notified when they go live.

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Academic Writing Skills

Academia requires a lot of writing, so improving your academic writing skills is a good way to prepare for graduate school. Professors often complain that undergraduate and graduate students lack strong writing skills. The good news is that there are plenty of resources to develop good writing skills in general and good academic writing in particular. Here are some of my favorites:

  • The Elements of Style by Strunk and White: If there were a bible for writing skills, this would be it. It’s short, sweet, and to the point. If you are only going to look at one resource from this list, look at this one.
  • On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft by Stephen King: You might be surprised to see a book by a famous horror fiction writer on a list of resources for academic writing but good writing skills transverse all writing types and no one communicates that better than Mr. King.
  • From Numbers to Words by Morgan, Reichert, and Harrison: A good resource for students who have already had good exposure to statistics (or save it until you do), this book helps translate and report your statistical results clearly and accurately.
  • The Hot Copy Podcast with Toon and Weaver: Another surprise entry is this copywriting podcast. Copywriting is writing sales and marketing materials so you might wonder how that applies to academic writing. Academia involves writing for a lot of different audiences. Whether it’s convincing a scholarship or grant panel to fund you, writing up your research results for a job presentation or convincing journal reviewers to publish your paper, all writing has an audience and that audience has a psychology behind it. No field is more adept at identifying and targeting that psychology than copywriting.

Non-academic Preparations for Graduate School


If you have to move to attend graduate school, now is the time to prepare. Moves can be expensive and proper planning is essential to saving money. Start saving boxes and ask your friends to save some too. This will stop you from having to buy a readily available resource. Before your move, pare down on the things you don’t need. Donate or dispose of everything you no longer want or need. This will reduce stress and possibly save you money if you don’t have to rent a large vehicle. Once you’ve gotten rid of the unneeded items, start boxing up the non-essentials that you want to take with you but can live without until after the move. This will save you a lot of time and stress closer to the move when everything gets crazy.

If you need to rent a truck, be sure to shop around early. Truck rentals get more expensive closer to the date of the move. Truck rentals are cheapest in the middle of the week, so play with the dates to get the best deal. Be sure to ask about student discounts also. Beware of moving services that seem to be really good deals, they are often scams, jacking up the price after the truck is loaded. Be sure to do your due diligence by searching the company name and ‘review’. Do not rely on ratings from the company website or Better Business Bureau scores (there have been reports of the BBB rating companies highly despite numerous complaints).

Before you go, make a list of the closest groceries, hardware stores, take-out places, and pharmacies to where you will be living. The first few days in a new place can be overwhelming, so having a list of the places you might need during that time can take a bit of stress off.


Most graduate students don’t have a lot of money. Learning to budget can help you make the most of what you have. There are many free resources that will teach you ways to budget and this is a skill you want to prepare for grad. school before you are thrown into a graduate student assistant paycheck.

Health Care

Putting together a healthcare team is something often overlooked by graduate students. As soon as you know the details of your health insurance plan, establish a primary care provider or find out where student health is. Primary care providers almost always require a new patient visit before you can see them. That can take weeks to even months. If you need a doctor during that time, you may be left with urgent care or an ER to get treatment and that can be expensive.

If you need mental health care, you’ll want to get a jump establishing that too. There is a severe shortage of mental health care professionals (at least in the U.S.), so don’t delay. Many universities offer mental health treatment services to students too, so be sure to look into that.

As an aside, if you have a disability for which you need or think you might need accommodations, get those in place as soon as possible. The process for getting accommodations established can take a while, so don’t wait until you have an immediate need to start getting the paperwork in order.

Create a Network

One of the best predictors of graduate student success is feelings of support, so if you haven’t already, it’s time to make some supportive friends and set up your professional network.

NPR had a great article on getting to know people after a move. Another way to build your personal (and even your professional) network is to join groups with similar interests. There are numerous ways to find these groups online (e.g., Facebook, Meetup, Nextdoor) but you can also find them pinned on community library bulletin boards, postings in your university student center, and by word of mouth. Keeping a school/life balance is essential for mental health in grad. school, and having a friend group outside of your fellow students can be helpful for that. One last piece of advice on this, meet lots of people but be judicious in who you call friends. Focus your time on the people who inspire you and make you feel good, those that would show up for you if you had a problem and leave the rest behind. Grad. school is going to leave you with limited time, so spend it wisely.

This is also a good time to set up a student LinkedIn profile. You want to set this up early, even if it’s going to be bare bones for a bit, to make it easier to save your connections as you meet faculty and fellow students to connect with. Long gone are the days when professionals all had business cards and the best way to keep in contact with professionals that can inspire you and help you progress in your career is (for now anyway) Linkedin.

Feel free to connect with me on Linkedin. In the meantime, have fun as you prepare for graduate school, and congratulations on your acceptance!

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

All for Free!