How to be a Good Graduate Student

Published: Tues., April 14, 2015; by Grace Troupe

Grace Troupe portrait

Graduate school comes with a whole new set of rules. To help you navigate this terrain and meet expectations, I’ve compiled some helpful hints from my own experience and ideas from Indira Raman’s paper How to be a Graduate Advisee.

Be a Great Advisee

Work with your mentor to identify short and long term goals, then set deadlines for each. Use an Individual Development Plan to facilitate conversations and track your progress.

Allow adequate time for your mentor to respond to your requests. Remember that email isn’t instantaneous, and your advisor may be in the middle of a big project and need several days to get back to you.

Before a meeting, make an agenda for yourself to be sure you address all your questions efficiently. This’ll help you remember all your goals during the meeting, even if your conversation starts moving in different directions (as conversations often do when two people are passionate about a topic!). After the meeting, thank your advisor in an email and summarize the conversation.

Remember that graduate school is training you to become your advisor’s future colleague. This means there’s less handholding than when you were an undergrad. Grad school’s when you learn to process information and make decisions like a principle investigator would, so don’t expect your advisor to tell you how to do what’s next or how to find resources. Keep your ears open and watch what makes the more advanced graduate students in your program successful—and what doesn’t.

Use criticism to improve yourself. When your advisor points out a flaw or critiques your work, it’s to help you be the best you can be. Don’t take it personally! After you get feedback, take a deep breath. Remember that you can use the criticism to your advantage.

Be compassionate. Your advisor is human too! Becoming familiar with their struggles and victories—from grading 100 student papers to applying for (and winning) a grant — will help you work better with them.

Excel at Your Work

Discover how you work best. Your learning preferences can guide the way you work. This allows you to create the best possible work environment for your learning needs.

Record your work as you go along. This is essential. Even if you think you’ll never forget the details of a procedure you repeated thousands of times when you were collecting data, the reality is that details get murky in the time between when you conducted an experiment and when you complete your write-up (whether that’s for an article, thesis, or dissertation). Keeping track of details as you go along is worth the extra effort. Your records will be a valuable resource down the road and save you time and aggravation.

Find traits that you admire in the people around you. Not only will this help you build relationships because you’re focusing on others’ strengths rather than mulling over their weaknesses, it’ll help you aspire to those qualities. Then, look for ways to develop those traits and abilities.

Don’t let your work become your whole life. It’s important to have friends outside your lab and other interests to delve into. If you don’t, when something goes wrong with your work or you have a conflict with a co-worker, you might feel like your world is falling apart.  But when your life involves other components, it is easier to let things roll off your back and you have a realistic perspective. A balanced life leads to less drama and greater adaptability.