My Top 10 Tips for Grad Students

The transition from being an undergraduate student to becoming a graduate student can be challenging. One aspect that graduate students may struggle with is the ability to decipher faculty expectations. A couple of weeks ago, I gave a presentation on this topic that included my top 10 tips for graduate students. I am posting them here in case they are helpful.

  1. Clarify expectations, and then put forth your best effort to meet those expectations. Sometimes students feel embarrassed to ask faculty to spell out what they want for a particular project due to fear that they will look unprepared or unintelligent. However, taking time to clarify expectations typically leads to a better outcome both in terms of completing a task correctly and decreasing uncertainty and anxiety for the student during the process.
  2. Practice conversational skills, listening, and otherwise refining your interpersonal interaction style. These skills are important to develop for networking, job interviews, and opening up collaborative opportunities. I recommend seeking out ways to practice in order to feel more comfortable and confident interacting with other professionals in your field. If you want feedback about your interpersonal skills, I recommend asking faculty or more senior graduate students who you trust to be honest and constructive.
  3. Complain discreetly. Almost all (if not all) people vent or complain about the less desirable aspects of their work and life from time to time. It can be a helpful way to process emotions and garner social support. However, if complaining about graduate school-related topics is done frequently, particularly in public domains (e.g., in public hallways and public places, social media), it may suggest to people that you are dissatisfied with your line of work and may fit better in a different field.
  4. Act respectfully toward others, not just people you view as crucial to career advancement. Though it’s a rare occurrence, sometimes people will only act respectfully toward certain professors that they view as vital to their advancement and less respectful to others, including their peers and administrative staff.  Word gets around about people who do this, and it can reflect negatively on you.
  5. Respond well to feedbackOften students who enter graduate school are used to being among the top students from their undergraduate classes. It can feel especially difficulty to start receiving more in-depth criticism on writing, presentations, and other aspects of your work. It is important to keep in mind that you are working to attain a much higher skill level than before, and feedback is necessary for you to reach that higher skill level. As best as you can, try to accept that feedback is part of the learning process and not a personal attack or sign that you are incapable. Try to be open to feedback and respond well to it.  You are not expected to do something perfectly the first time you try, but it will reflect positively on you if you listen non-defensively to feedback and incorporate changes based on it.
  6. Be mindful of your online presence. Many employers, students, and clients will look you up on social media. Keep this heightened visibility in mind as you transition into a more professional role as a teaching assistant, begin practicum experiences and internships in your field, etc. Try to keep in mind that anything posted with a public setting may be viewed by people other than your friends and family, and tailor your online presence accordingly.
  7. Show interest. If you are passionate about your field and demonstrate that through enthusiasm about your work and the work of others, people will be able to see you as a professional in the field. If it appears that you are doing the bare minimum asked of you, tuning out in class or lab meetings, or otherwise going through the motions, you may want to consider whether you would be happier in a different field.
  8. Be engaged. In my seven years as a faculty member, I have repeatedly heard other faculty members talk about graduate students who impress them. Consistently, they are students who demonstrate that they are engaged through consistent, hard work, going above and beyond what is asked of them, and seeking out additional opportunities for learning (e.g., attending presentations or reading materials that are not required), and independently seeking out professional growth opportunities (e.g., initiating research projects and papers, presenting at conferences, applying for grants and fellowships, attending specialized workshops).
  9. Act with integrity. Regardless of achievements or talent, if a person does not act with integrity (e.g., treats people disrespectfully, acts in an aggressive or discriminatory manner, lies, or cheats), then faculty will be reluctant to work with or hire them. On the other hand, if a graduate student treats others fairly and acts honestly and ethically, then faculty can wholeheartedly recommend them to future employers and collaborators without reservations. In most cases, if you make a mistake, you can still prove that you have good character by taking responsibility, apologizing, making amends, and proving that you have changed your behavior.
  10. Take care of yourself. Finding a balance between working really hard and taking care of yourself can be difficult. Yet, it is essential to prevent burnout, maintain productivity, and, most importantly, to protect your physical and mental health. If you find yourself struggling to strike this balance (as most of us do), consult faculty members and peer role models for advice, and please consider seeking counseling as an option as well. Discussing your values and well-being needs with a person outside of your program can help to clarify what you need to do to take care of yourself while balancing the important, hard work that you need to do in order to succeed professionally.

Navigating graduate school can be a challenging process. You were admitted into your program because the faculty in your department have confidence that you have what it takes to succeed. I hope that you can take some comfort in that fact while balancing the numerous demands of graduate school.

 Maplewood State Park, 57 miles from NDSU