4 Concrete Tips for Succeeding in Grad School and Beyond

Let's face it, graduate school is hard, particularly research-based PhD programs. My own graduate experience felt like running a 6 year marathon; a long difficult journey that was  rewarding and exhausting at the same time.  There are a lot of different factors that contribute to a student's succcess; and many people have written extensively about this topic. My recommendations fit more into the professional development side (e.g., time management) rather than the research side (e.g., idea generation) of academia. I strongly believe that these 4 concrete tips can benefit almost any graduate student. 

(1) Define your goals at the beginning of the term and then look at them at the beginning of every week

Most academics can identify with Mary, a fictional researcher. Mary typically starts off the summer with a set of lofty goals (e.g., get her paper submitted, finish her grant, finish analyses for her recent study, etc.) and then is disappointed when summer is nearing an end and very few of her goals were actually achieved. Mary is the prototypical academic - her long-term goals revolve around the things that matter for her career (i.e., data collection, grants, and papers), but she easily gets bogged down in the minutiae of daily life (i.e., responding to email, administrative work, RA supervision).

The key to staying on track in graduate school and beyond is to use your list of goals to plan each and every week. It's not enough to just have a list of goals. Every single Sunday/Monday, you should pull out your list of goals and use that list to plan your week. I can't stress this enough; by using your goals to plan your time, you will help keep the big picture in focus and structure your time around the things that matter for your career.  

(2) Establish a daily writing habit

I am not the first person to recommend establishing a daily writing habit (and yes, I do actually mean daily); many prolific writers tout this as the key to success. I remember learning about daily writing as a graduate student and I was overwhelmed with the idea. How could I possibly write every day when I had so many other tasks that had to get done (i.e., they had immediate deadlines and/or immediate consequences)? In fact, I even know full professors who think the idea of daily writing is unachievable. I am here to tell you that (a) daily writing is possible and (b) daily writing will substantially increase your productivity. Just trust me a bit on this one - set aside at least 15 minutes a day to write and stick to it. You will be shocked at how much you can get done in 15 minutes. And I am certain that each and every one of you can find 15 minutes a day to set aside for writing.

(3) Create a conceptual model that represents your research interests/program and then use that as a guide for study planning and collaboration

People in my field (social psychology) love models. I created a conceptual model of my research as a post-doctoral fellow and it dramatically changed how I go about the research process. Prior to creating my conceptual model, I lacked a clear focus. I planned studies based on my interests at the moment and I agreed to collaborations it they sounded like a good opportunity. Fortunately, my research had a somewhat coherent theme, but this was largely the result of  happenstance rather than purposeful planning.

Now that I have a conceptual model, I use it to guide my decisions about study planning, both in terms of my own and collaborative studies. When I have a new study idea, I ask myself where that idea fits in with my model - and the same applies when people approach me with a collaborative opportunity. If I have an obvious answer to my question, I know I am helping build a programmatic line of research. If I am not sure where the study would fit in my model, then I think long and hard about whether I should pursue that opportunity.  

Don't be overwhelmed by the idea of creating a conceptual model for yourself. You don't have to come up with some ingenious model that advnces new and innovative ideas. Your model should simply be a visual summary of your research interests that you can use for planning purposes.

(4) Don't get stuck on a study/idea that doesn't work; cut your losses and move on

My final piece of advice stems from a tip I received in graduate school when I was spending a lot of time on a study that wasn't really going anywhere. A faculty member in my department told me that it would be better to cut my losses and move on. The more I thought about it, the more I realized that he was right. Academics are extremely pressed for time, so why waste time working on something that isn't moving forward? The obvious answer to this question is that we become emotionally attached to our studies and our ideas. It can be really hard to admit that your idea didn't pan out and the time you spent running a study won't pay off in the way you hoped. But, in the long run making these tough decisions will allow you to (a) limit your losses and (b) free up your time to work on something new that will hopefully work out.