How to Succeed as a First-Year Graduate Student

Congratulations! Your graduate advisor has deemed you a worthy investment, and the first year will determine your experience as you work to establish yourself in your graduate career. Here are a few tips to help you navigate courses and make the most of your graduate experience:

1) Communicate Early and Often with your Advisor. Your advisor should be your greatest ally throughout your graduate experience. Communicating effectively with them through email, phone, and face-to-face meetings will keep you both informed of each other’s expectations, concerns, successes, and goals. As previously mentioned, be honest, because your advisor can detect b.s. before you can even finish telling the lie. No one wants to admit failure, but that is the nature of research. Talk early and often with your advisor and establish a routine (i.e., weekly status updates via email, monthly meetings, etc.) to keep the lines of communication open. Talk. To. Your. Advisor.

2)  80:10:10 Rule. Peter Fiske, a nationally recognized author and lecturer on leadership and career development came up with the 80:10:10 rule. 80 percent of your week should be focused on your work itself; 10 percent on personal and professional development; and 10 percent on telling people about your interesting research. The previous points in this post have focused on the 80 percent, but does not mean that spending time on yourself (both personal time and self promotion) should not receive your full attention. Many graduate students will join clubs or teams at the university, while others join yoga studios, paint, or dance. Have fun! Self promotion means jumping at every available opportunity for outreach and discourse. Meet with your local museum and give a talk to the public about your work, and share your passion for science with the community. You know your research is amazing, so share it with the world!

3)  Required Classes. Some programs have core classes which you are required to take—make sure you take them and do very well in each class. This is the kind of mindset you need to have in grad school: A+=A, A=B, B=C, C=Fail. You may have gotten away with C’s in undergrad, but that will not fly in grad school. It is possible that your advisor (in the same breath) will say, “good grades keep you in this program” as well as, “focus more on your research rather than your coursework”. Find your personal balance with coursework, and stick to the routine.

4)  READ. As a graduate student it’s your job to read, digest the information, and then come up with your own hypotheses. At a minimum, you should be reading 2-3 journal articles per day, brainstorming hypotheses, and talking about your research topic. You need to read in order to DO SCIENCE. Bonus: this habit also prepares you for your prospectus/proposal composition, committee update meetings, qualifying exams, and defense.

5)  IRS & Taxes. Show me the money! Depending on the contract and grant supplying your paychecks, you may have to pay estimated taxes to the IRS. It is important to keep this in mind so that you don’t have to magically find a few thousand dollars to pay the government. Learn more about estimating taxes.

6)  TA/RA Expectations. This why you receive a paycheck, so do your work well. Attend the TA lab meetings, be the best TA for your students, and stay on top of grading. Many incoming graduate students have not had any teaching experience, and it will take time to settle into the position. My best advice is to be calm, assertive, and honest. If you do not know the answer to the question, do not fake it. Instead, turn it into an active discussion by creating a folder on the course website with links, short summaries, and applicable videos. Learn with your students!

Speak with your advisor about specific work they expect you to do as an RA. Keep a record of your work in the lab in a lab notebook, and take as many detailed notes as possible. It’s very rare for graduate students to say, “I wish I hadn’t written such detailed notes!” when re-visiting old lab notebooks.

7)  FEES. The devil is in the details, graduates. My master’s contract covered all of my fees, and in my naiveté I assumed my doctoral contract also covered all of my student fees. WRONG. Imagine my shock and horror when I found out that the university wouldn’t let me register for required courses until I’d coughed up $1,000 for fees the day before the start of term. Check with your advisor, other grad students, and administrative staff in your department to know exactly what you’re expected to pay each semester.

8)   Respect the Administrative Team. Introduce yourself to the team of executive and administrative assistants that make your department run like a well-oiled machine. They know where to send paperwork, how to receive paychecks, and fix the copier. Work with them, respect their time, and when they help you, express your appreciation!

9)  Collaborate! Find self-confidence deep within your gut, because you’re in the big leagues now. There are some people who believe that academia is a geekier version of ‘The Hunger Games’, and it is your decision to play the game or rise above it and collaborate. Want to collaborate but haven’t a clue how to go about it? I’ve found that brainstorming with colleagues over coffee or meals sparks ideas and fuels discussions on potential paths to new research. Some of my most memorable collaborative work has come from simple conversations that start with “I wonder if it were possible to…..” or “Why has no one looked at this question?” Spoiler alert: you will get much farther in your career if you collaborate and nurture professional relationships.

10)  Make friends! You’re all in the same boat. The nightmare of the first day of school is back, but this time it’s only nerds at the lunch tables.  Make every effort to introduce yourself to other graduate students, and when they invite you out to lunch–GO. Yes, you are graduate student on a very tight budget, but putting in the effort and the funds with new friends is worth it. Bonus, you’ll also be exposed to new restaurants and get a feel for the new area.







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