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
(2) Establish a daily writing habit
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).
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.
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.
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.