I’ve always wanted to go to graduate school after completing my undergrad degree. So, once I got my diploma, I started writing my GRE, researching schools in the U.S., and doubling down on preparing myself to be a more competitive candidate. I eventually got into my dream school for my program for my MS degree.
Having spend 3 years in graduate school and so passionate about excelling in graduate school, I thought I’d share my top tips on how to do well in graduate school. Even though I decided not to go ahead for my PhD, I was able to publish 5 papers, get a GPA north of 3.80, and placed among the first 3 for research in an international graduate research competition.
So, here are the top 7 things I learned in the process.
1. Know What You Want to Do After Grad School
So, I’ll start with what a lot of people can agree on about grad school. Here it is: grad school is hard. For your undergrad, professors want a lot from you, but not at the level you see in grad school. You’re expected to learn a lot of things by yourself, figure things out, and get better as you go.
Having said that, many people let the pressures of grad school get to them – not realizing that grad school is simply a means to an end, and not an end itself. People spend a lot of time on classes, research, and serving in leadership roles – which is all good and important – but lose sight of the need to know how they’ll make money after grad school.
Throughout your time in grad school, work hard, do well in classes, and put a lot into your research. But don’t forget the most important thing: having a way to consistently earn money after graduation. And that might mean different things to different people. For some, it might be getting a well-paid job, moving with their spouse to a different city, being a stay-at-home mom or dad, or getting a postdoc/faculty position.
It’s perfectly okay to not have a perfect answer six months into your grad school program, but don’t stop looking and researching. Here are some things you can do:
- Find out different career paths that you see yourself getting into upon graduation
- Talk to your program alumni about possible post-grad career options
- Find out where people with similar professional backgrounds to you did after completing grad school
- If you so want to move to a specific city/location, start looking into that city and researching what the local economy looks like and the prospects of getting a job in that city with your degree and experiences
It will take time find answers to these questions, but don’t keep looking. It will save you a lot of frustration down the road. Trust me, it’s more frustrating to get a 4.0 GPA, publish many research papers, and get accolades from your professors, but can’t find a well-paying job after grad school. Each minute you spend now working towards your post-grad plans, the better for your life after grad school.
2. Know When to Stop Digging And Start Hunkering Down
Now you might find it surprising that my first point on life in grad school had nothing to do with the specifics of grad school, and that’s for a very good reason. Here’s why: You want to be clear about the REAL reason of going to grad school in the first place. For most people (and maybe for you), it’s not to get a perfect GPA, complete all your weekly assignments, defend your thesis, or publish first-author papers in multiple research journals.
The REAL goal is to get a well-paying job. All those factors are simply supporting tools to help you get to that goal.
So, now on to point No. 2. If you’ve started post-grad career options, you’ll start seeing a pattern of what people with similar degrees, backgrounds, and qualifications did after they graduated. Maybe it’s:
- Data Science
- Business Analytics
- Software Engineering
- Non-profit work
- And so on
But it’d be a mistake to keep researching, and not settle down on one to focus on. At some point, you’ll need to identify one or two fields that you realistically see yourself ending up in (based on your degrees, qualifications, strengths, and preferences). You can’t keep researching and researching, and expect to end up with a solid job offer after graduation.
That’s because learning new skills in an industry can take lots of weeks and even months. And the earlier you start digging deep and preparing yourself for an industry, the better you can see how well you fit into that industry. Truth is: you’ll completely never know simply by researching and endlessly asking questions. At some point, you have to roll up your sleeves and start learning new skills, refining your resume, or practicing industry-specific job interview questions. The earlier you start, the better. A good rule of thumb is spending 3-4 hours a day or 20 hours a week preparing yourself for your professional life after grad school.
3. Find Out How Others Will Measure Your Success
Now that we’ve started with the end in mind, and you are actively working towards life after grad school, let’s come back to today. Although you might have certain expectations of what you want to get out of grad school, you should know that others have a lot of say in your grad school success. For example, if you’re a PhD student doing lab research, then the opinions of your major professor and defense committee about your work matter a lot.
By understanding this power arrangement, you can focus on activities that will help those people see you in a positive light. Note that this is not ‘sucking up’ to people, or anything of that nature. It’s simply a matter of life. Whatever you choose to do, you’ll often find that the opinions of others matter (to what extent) on how far you go. Whether that be as an employee at work (office politics, anyone?), a self-employed professional (the opinions of your clients), a government employee (your boss and other managers).
In grad school, find out who these people are, get a better understanding of what they’re looking for, and genuinely strive to work hard at meeting their needs. Some professors have unreasonable demands and may be challenging to work with, but nobody ever got a prize for having a tough professor. Contrary to what a lot of business people think, it takes a lot of people skills and emotional intelligence to thrive in grad school – finding out how your professors measure success, working hard to satisfying those goals, and sometimes negotiating with superiors to arrive at excellent outcomes for everyone.
Examples of how grad school professors include:
- Doing well in classes, or high GPA
- Working as a teaching assistant
- Passing qualifying exams
- Managing a lab
- Purchasing lab supplies
- Tutoring undergrads or new grad students
- First-author research papers
- Research papers in top journals
- X number of research papers by graduation
- Presenting research at conferences
- Winning research awards
- Getting a decent job
Most professors don’t value all all of these factors (or outcomes) to the same extent. For them, the sweet spot is usually a combination of a few (but important) factors. Find out those factors that they hold so highly, and work hard on succeeding in those.
4. Be Consistent With Your Schedule, Yet Be Flexible With The Process
This might sound boring, but it’s what separates those who achieve a lot versus those who don’t. You want to be consistent with your daily/weekly schedule, yet be flexible enough to improve what you do based on past results. In other words, be consistent with your schedule, but flexible with the process.
Grad school, depending on what outcomes your advisors expect, is a marathon, not a sprint. Grad school is not about staring wistfully out the window, and coming up with a groundbreaking research innovation that dramatically upends the world.
Rather, grad school is usually filled with days of mistakes and disappointments. You might even find yourself feeling bored, lonely, hopeless, regressing (not progressing), and just on the edge of quitting. It helps to know that this has nothing to do with you – you are not alone. So, it’s not about something being wrong with you or your abilities, but more about the realities of life in grad school.
The ‘secret’ tool I’ve found to conquer this nightmare is to stay consistent. Don’t spend all night working at the lab one day, and not go to the lab for the next three days. Your work needs you to get enough rest, but to also show up every day. It also helps portray you to others as someone who puts in the effort with dedication and seriousness. Find a schedule and stick with it. It’s not so much about working 14-hour days. Rather, it’s about finding a realistic schedule that works for the demands of your projects, and work at it, no matter what.
If you keep being consistent, and don’t push work to a later day, you’ll thank yourself very much for pushing when it got hard. Show up and do the work. Often times, you’ll find all the situation needed was that initial push from you. But if you find yourself not just working (after being on it for several minutes… 30 minutes, for example, take a break, recharge, and come back to the work later on.
5. Be Self-Directed
Someone once said: “The only stupid questions are the ones you don’t ask” – I disagree. As a grad student, you’ll have many occasions where you have no clue on how to proceed. It will serve you well that, in those situations, you pause and analyze why you’re having the problem in the first place. Dig deep into past research and literature to see how a similar problem was handled. This way, you’ll build your ability to deal with unfamiliar situations and come up with solutions.
Because the truth is: as much as professors are there to guide you, their main objective is to “advise” you, not tell you what to do. In fact, your goal is to know more about your specific topic than most people – including your professors (especially if you’re working on a PhD or thesis-based MS degree). Often times, when you ask your professors or fellow lab mates, they would also need to use Google or dig into past data themselves. The more you start self-directing your learning and figuring it out as you go, the better you’ll placed to achieve your over-arching goal in grad school – come up with results that push the boundaries of knowledge in your field.
6. Know You Deserve to Be There
If you allow it, self-rejection and imposter syndrome will hold you back in grad school. If you were selected and admitted, then know this: you absolutely deserve to be there. Many times when things don’t look the way they should, you’ll be tempted to question whether you’re smart enough or ‘technical’ enough to be in your grad program – DON’T DO THAT.
If you don’t think you deserve to be there, it will hold you back in several ways. For example, you might feel you need to spend 6 years to earn your grad degree, when you can do it in 4 or 5 years. The truth is: most professors won’t voluntarily want you out of the program. In fact, the longer you stay, the better for them. Because if you leave, that’s a lot of expertise gone. In which case, they’ll have to train the new grad student on everything that you already know. That’s a lot of lost time for them.
You’ll need to convince your professor that you’re ready to graduate. And that won’t happen unless you want it to happen. You’ll need to push yourself to give members of your grad committee what they want, and be done with it. Also, some professors will only release you if they know you’ve got a job lined up. If you can catch that vibe from them, start applying to jobs right away. When you get that job, it will put every one (you, your professor, your committee) on a timeline to complete your program in a shorter time than you originally thought.
You got in, so you deserve to be there – so act like it.
8. Have A Life Outside of Graduate School
As you work hard, and strive to be patient and kind to everyone you meet, you’ll feel the need to spend all of your waking hours thinking about your research and grad school – DON’T. For your sanity and mental wellness, you NEED a life outside your lab and research. This might mean:
- having weekly hang-outs with friends
- talking to family and friends (with whom you can talk about stuff unrelated to your research)
- adopting a relaxing weekly routine
- taking daily walks to clear your mind
- taking up leadership positions on campus
- volunteering in your local community
- becoming part of support groups that match your values or belief systems
- joining professional or skill-building clubs, e.g. Toastmasters for public speaking, dance clubs, cycling groups, long-distance runners, etc.
To summarize, here are the top 7 tips you need to do well in graduate school:
- Know the REAL reason why you’re in grad school – and consistently work on that week-by-week
- Find out how your advisors will measure your success, and strive to meet or exceed those benchmarks
- Have a consistent work routine, while still being flexible in your process
- You’ll need to figure a lot of things out yourself. When faced with a challenge, try to unstuck yourself first, before asking others
- Your research is in your hands and you’re your own CEO – be self-directed
- You totally deserve to be in your program – so act accordingly
- Have a life outside of your lab, research, and classes.