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Career Assets

Getting Into—and Getting the Most Out of—Graduate School


Dr. Vern Hart, LetPub Editor

January 2022

Graduate school is difficult. Impostor syndrome is rampant, and many students often report the strategies and skills that helped them succeed in college are no longer sufficient. I experienced similar feelings during my first semester and began to wonder if I had what it took to be successful in a PhD program. However, as time went by, I began developing new habits that both yielded positive results and increased my confidence. Now, as a professor, I look for these same habits in my research students because I know how powerful they can be. Developing these attributes now will not only help you ace your interview and get accepted into a graduate program, but it will help you to thrive and enjoy your experience once you are admitted.

1. Find a true mentor

Your experience in graduate school will depend largely on your advisor. When applying to programs, contact faculty whose research appears to be of interest to you. Correspond by email and ask if they can meet over the phone, by video chat, or in-person (if possible). Some personalities clash, and some people are simply more difficult to work with than others. If a potential advisor takes time out of their schedule for you and shows a genuine interest in your growth as a student, it is often a good indication you will enjoy working with them. If they seem too busy, ignore your messages, or you do not have a positive experience when meeting with them, you may want to look elsewhere. Remember, this arrangement needs to be mutually beneficial.

2. Collaborate and make friends

When things are not going well, it can be easy to isolate yourself. However, reaching out to others is one of the most critical skills for surviving and thriving in graduate school. This is true both in your coursework and in your research. Even if you are the only student working on a particular research task, others can offer advice and support. They may even be using a similar technique, despite having a different project, and could offer guidance. When interviewing potential students, I look for those who work well with others, as evidenced by group projects or involvement in extracurricular activities with a social component.

3. Learn to be comfortable with uncertainty

When I first began graduate school, I frequently encountered problems I did not know how to solve. This weighed on my mind and often kept me awake at night as I worried about how I would find an answer. However, after days or weeks of trying and failing, I always found a solution. This cycle began happening often enough that I stopped worrying. Now, I tell my students that once they can sleep soundly at night, without knowing how they will solve the problems they might face tomorrow, they are ready for graduate school. We are often afraid to admit our shortcomings, but this is one of the first things I look for in a research student. I want to know they will not become frustrated when they face inevitable challenges. When interviewing for a graduate position, do not be afraid to discuss occasions when you tried and failed, perhaps multiple times, before finding a solution. Such persistence is a strength, not a weakness.

4. Cultivate a sense of curiosity

Graduate school can and should be an enjoyable experience if you take advantage of opportunities. It offers a unique chance to pursue the frontiers of knowledge to depths that many people never experience. If you wait around for your advisor to tell you what to do, it can feel just like any other job. However, if you pursue problems because you want to know the answer, it becomes a journey of discovery.

5. Identify personal goals

A graduate student should make their advisor’s life easier. One of my favorite qualities in any student is a sense of independence and ambition. Too often, bright, talented students will join my research group and begin asking for my assistance with every task they are assigned. It is important to understand your advisor does not want to tell you what you should be doing every hour of the day. Remember, you joined the group to help move the project forward. You may not understand everything, but you can still form your own questions and set your own goals.

6. Enjoy the journey

Do not wait until you are nearly finished to begin enjoying graduate school. Instead, try to appreciate the journey and the progress you make daily. You will be happier, and your advisor will be happy with the results.

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