9 tips for getting the most out of graduate school

Ringed Notepad & Pencil

Now that I am in the home stretch of my PhD, I started reflecting on my experiences throughout. I recently saw a post on Cal Newport’s blog about some of his thoughts on grad school, so I thought I might toss my hat in the ring. Below are two sections. The first section is aimed at ideas for all graduate students, but the second section are ideas geared mostly toward PhD students in the same boat I am. Some of these recommendations are things that I focused on, some of them are things that I wish that I had focused on more. Either way, hopefully you will benefit from my experiences:

Ideas for all graduate students

1. Figure out exactly why you are in graduate school, and what you are going to get out of it.

The point of graduate school is to put yourself in a better position after you finish your degree. The degree itself is important, but you have to identify what it is you are aiming for. Is it a specific job? If so, figure out the most important things that will get you that job. Just doing well in your classes is not enough- you need to figure out the specific measures of success that will help you get what you want. Ideally you will have figured this out before you started your program, but if not, do it anyway!

2. Figure out the 2 or 3 most important markers of success and do those extremely well.

Don’t forget the Pareto Principle. This states roughly that 80% of your results come from 20% of your efforts. Once you figure out what that 20% is- make sure that you do those activities extremely well, since the bulk of your benefit is going to come from those things.

3. Build strong relationships with your mentors.

The mentors you have in graduate school are who will write your recommendation letters, introduce you to their networks, and tell you the inside scoop about jobs. Do you want your mentors to write and speak highly of you to those people who are looking for job candidates? Give them good things to talk about. Your mentors will probably be graduate faculty in your department, but not necessarily. Your mentors might come from your classes, thesis advisors, internship supervisors, and elsewhere. A side note: something I didn’t really understand before I wrote my first reference letters for other people is that each time someone writes a recommendation letter, the letter-writer is putting her/his reputation on the line to recommend a person. Because of this, do you think a potential letter-writer is going to put themselves on the line if they either: don’t know you very well, or don’t think you’re worthy of their recommendation? The answer is no. Build the relationship and demonstrate you are a person that deserves their endorsement.

4. Do the “important, but not urgent” tasks.

The upper-right quadrant of Stephen Covey’s time management grid is for “important, but not urgent” tasks. These are habits and tasks that reap long-term benefits- exercising, sleeping enough, building and maintaining personal and professional relationships are all things that fall under this heading. These are the habits that will result in long term success- not the “not important, not urgent” tasks that seem so important to keep up on but really aren’t (e.g. Twitter, email, endless tweaking your personal website).

5. Go to events and put yourself in situations where you get the opportunity to network.

To some, the idea of networking might seem a bit slimy at first blush, if you’re thinking that the point of networking is to build shallow relationships to help you get what you want. Not at all. Networking is the act of trying to build mutually beneficial relationships. None of us work in silos, none of us can get by by ourselves. When you network, you are trying to figure out how you can help out other people (and maybe how they can help out you), even if it is not immediately apparent. One little pointer- when you are finishing up your degree and you’re getting ready to jump on the job market, there is nothing wrong with asking for information on jobs from people within your network. For example, I mentioned I was on the job market to a contact I had with equipment company in our field. He referred me to two job openings that had not yet been advertised on the main academic job boards. Very helpful!


Special Cases for PhD Students

1. Do research (in addition to your dissertation).

Perhaps you are publishing your dissertation as you go, or maybe you are planning to publish it after you graduate. Either way, come job search time, you need publications on your CV. This means as soon as your feet hit the lab floor on day 1 of grad school, you should start be thinking about potential projects to get going. Don’t have any ideas? Ask your mentor if they have any side projects on the backburner they may want to bring to fruition. There is nothing wrong with being a later author on a paper. Obviously you want as many first and second author publications you can, but a publication is a publication.

2. Build your relationships with like-minded students.

These are your contemporaries, and your future colleagues. Having good relationships with them is important to your current, and later success. You are already going to have a ton on your plate in grad school, and these are the folks who will be there each step of the way as you work toward finishing. Those side-projects you are working on in addition to your dissertation? Your fellow students are a great group to help you divvy up the workload so you can all work towards getting a job after graduation. Strong relationships with other students gives you a support network as well. There is no reason to muck through this all by yourself.

3. Go to academic conferences, ask good questions, try to get feedback on your research.

As far as I know, this is one of the few things that will bring lots of academics together into one room. Conferences are your best chance to meet lots of potential collaborators, search committee members, and future contemporaries. You can also get some great feedback on your research via poster sessions and free communications. The best outside ideas I’ve gotten came from chats in the hallway after a session. I have also gotten great information about upcoming jobs at conferences too. A side note- don’t count out regional conferences. If anything, regional conferences give you more time to chat with the people that might be on search committees and within departments you might want to join since there are less people. You should probably do big and small conferences if you can swing it.

4. Start your CV early, and keep it up to date each time you do something “CV-worthy”.

By the end of grad school, you will inevitably be sending out your CV (among other documents) to a slew of different jobs. Having an already started CV is so much easier to get into the right shape than having to start from scratch. It can become really difficult to keep track of the different things that you do throughout your degree that are CV-worthy. Much easier to add those things to your CV as you accomplish them, than to remember it all a year or more later. Having a regularly tweaked CV also allows you to see how you compare to other potential job candidates. Your professors can be useful in letting you know where and in what ways you need to improve to fill out your qualifications.


I did my best to give you the ideas that will give you the biggest bang for you buck. Are there other tips I may have missed?