On being a successful graduate student

In the spirit of the new academic year, I have decided to post some notes that I give to my own graduate students when they start working in my laboratory.  These are compiled from discussions with other people, from my own experiences, and from a graduate class I took in the mid 1990s at the University of Alberta. 

During graduate school you will transform from a student of science to a scientist over a short period of time.  It is important that you come through this transformation quickly and efficiently.   Here are some things to think about, and some pieces of advice as you embark on this journey.

Take responsibility for your career.

Look at graduate school as a career instead of a lifestyle and instead of an extension of your undergraduate.  See others for advice and criticism but think for yourself.  Your thesis research is your thesis research.  Advisors, committee members, and peers are there to help, and to put down some pylons to make sure you don’t drive off the road, but ultimately you are responsible for your career.   Do not depend entirely on your supervisor.  Be a skeptic, think critically, and ask questions along the way.  Use interactions with other people to learn about different viewpoints and techniques and to facilitate enthusiasm about the work in your chosen field.

Think and act like a professional:

  • Form a strong relationship with your supervisor: you must have an excellent working relationship with him/her.  They will write letters for you and help you in many intangible ways.  Keep your ego outside of this relationship, and deal with any problems as soon as possible and in a transparent manner.
  • Commit yourself to graduate school. Competition in academia is fierce, and only the best and most committed individuals succeed.  It’s a lot easier being committed if you have participated significantly in the thesis project and planning from the start!
  • Don’t work two jobs: graduate school is full time, and unless you are registered part-time, you need to treat graduate school like a full time job.
  • Know the literature: collect, read and catalog it.   Spend time every week reading papers both within and outside your discipline. Read papers that your supervisor recommends.
  • Collaborate and learn from others: meet with visiting scientists whenever possible; correspond with other people working in your area of research (don’t feel intimidated by this!  You’re in the big league now – leave intimidation behind); attend and participate in scientific meetings; participate in scientific discussion groups; join scientific societies.
  • Buy an agenda and use it.  Never complain about not having enough time – nobody cares and nobody likes a whiner.
  • Don’t be late: this includes meetings as well as due dates for written material. Be organized, manage your time, and don’t miss deadlines; come to meetings prepared.
  • Do not be afraid to make mistakes.  Everyone makes mistakes.
  • Read papers written by your supervisor and compare the quality of your work with the quality of his/her paper(s).
  • Hone your oral presentation skills. Give lots of scientific talks, and try to lecture in an undergraduate class: the practice will help.
  • Get experience judging your peers and compare your performance to theirs: you will continue to do this throughout your career
  • Help others: there’s a lot of Karma in the scientific community
  • Publish your work.  It is an important and essential responsibility

Comments on publishing:

Keep publications in mind at all stages of your thesis research – this helps with planning and execution, and publishing is a fun and validating experience.  Try to design your program of study so that you can produce scientific papers.  Keep an eye out for short, peripheral studies that can be done without jeopardizing your main project.

Publish quality and not quantity:  don’t fall into the trap of publishing your very good material in Least Publishable Units (LPUs):  two or three substantial papers are much better than a string of trivial ones.

Authorship:  have a clear understanding with your supervisor and other cooperating individuals about authorship.

Don’t become married to your research project.

Your research should be one component of your life and your graduate school experience, and although it is the most important component, it’s not the only one.   Make sure you live a little bit, read outside your area of research, and continue to increase the breadth of your knowledge as well as its depth.   Interact with the outside world: you will become a very narrow person if you never escape the ‘ivory tower’.   Have fun and find a way to meet people and do activities outside the academic world, and don’t be afraid to communicate your research activities with the non-academic world.  This is an important and underestimated skill.

Characteristics of influential scientists.

Influential scientists are not often those with the highest numbers of papers, most graduate students, biggest research grants, etc.  They are:

• someone who contributes new ideas to their discipline

• someone who contributes ideas that change the direction of a discipline

• someone who innovates

• someone who synthesizes diverse facts and ideas to develop new paradigms.

Always expect the best.

If you anticipate the worst, chances are you will experience it. Develop a positive attitude, decide what you want and then pursue it.  Take full advantage of opportunities, and opportunities seem to come easier if an individual adopts a positive attitude.   Be an active and independent person in graduate school.

Graduate school can be a truly enriching and wonderful part of your life, or it can be a miserable and excruciating experience.  You have the ability to make sure the former happens, and much depends on attitude, passion, and your ability to get the job done.


5 thoughts on “On being a successful graduate student

  1. Pingback: The Weekly Flypaper » Biodiversity in Focus Blog

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