Graduate students

Welcome to grad school!

Some general suggestions

It’s possible that all the points below are obvious to you. But they certainly are not obvious to a lot of people out there. These suggestions are based on my own experience as a graduate student and as a professor. I have also added some recommendations from colleagues of mine.

  • Perhaps one of the main differences between undergraduate and graduate students is that faculty expect the latter to be considerably more autonomous. If you need to email your professor to ask simple technical questions, you are not autonomous. If you constantly ask questions which are easily found online (or on the syllabus), you are not autonomous. You should be able to figure things out by yourself: emailing your professor should be your last resort. On autonomy, also see next point.

  • Grad school is about original and creative ideas that will help us better understand a particular topic. So the first big thing is to find out which topic you want to focus on, and then which problem within that topic you’d like to tackle. Your supervisor plays a crucial role here, but ultimately this is your topic. This is very different from when you are an undergraduate student, where you simply need to learn about well-established facts. In grad school, you have to push the boundaries of what’s known. This is hard (but also exciting). You will need to find sources and references (you can ask for suggestions, but your topic is, well, your topic).

  • Have a timeline and organize your schedule around that. Discipline is crucial, and is likely one of the main reasons why a lot of graduate students drop out or take longer to complete their degrees.

  • Understand that some days will be completely unproductive, and some will be highly productive. That’s completely normal, but make sure it does not impact your schedule overall.

  • Talk to people. Grad school can be a bit lonely sometimes—and this should not come as a surprise to you (if it does, you didn’t do your homework before applying). A lot of the difficulties you face as a graduate student are psychological—not necessarily intellectual. Get involved in some unrelated activity to relax.

  • Find out which topics are “hot” in the field. There are many nice topics out there, but not all of them will be interesting enough for you to attract people’s attention (of course, this depends on whose attention you want to attract). Sometimes what’s “hot” is really a combination of two different topics from two subfields.

  • Try to see how your main topic of research could be expanded. Could you work on the topic from multiple angles, or is it the kind of topic that simply ends once you’re done? This is important because you want to have a coherent research program, where sub-topics are somehow related (ideally).

  • Ask yourself what you wish to accomplish when you finish grad school, as this will certainly determine what you’ll have to do during grad school to maximize your chances. From 1 to 10, how much do you really want to stay in academia?

  • Go to conferences. Big conferences make good lines in your CV, even though they may not be the best ones for feedback, necessarily, since there are a lot of people coming together from different subfields. Smaller conferences, on the other hand, may give you the opportunity to talk to more people in your specific subfield. Ideally, you’d want to mix these two types of conferences.

  • Get to know people who already finished grad school in your field of interest. Find out what they did; where they published; which conferences they went to. After some time, you’ll have a good sense of what you should do to maximize your chance of success later.

  • Above all, make informed decisions. Talk to your supervisor about which conferences and journals are appropriate given your plans and your field. There are numerous predatory journals out there, and you definitely don’t want to be associated with those journals. If you’re planning to be in academia, be aware of the job market early on, and assess what the best plan is.

  • Have a professional internet presence. This may sound obvious, but it means you should use some common sense in social media. Your online presence is public, and employers or colleagues can look you up. Everything you post online tells the world a little bit about you—and nobody will tell you to stop oversharing, for example, so it’s really up to you to take care of your professional image online. Besides a website, here are some suggested websites/databases to help you improve your online presence: ORCID, Google Scholar, OSF.

  • Have a website where people can find your CV as well as papers, slides, etc. There are dozens of user-friendly tools to create websites these days. You can create yours in under 20 minutes (see Wix, Weebly, WordPress etc.). If you don’t have an online presence, you are already late.

  • Learn how to be an advanced Word user, so that your documents look professional. Alternatively, learn how to use \(\LaTeX\). You can read more about this here.

  • Learn how to manage your bibliography early on—this will save you dozens of hours of work down the road (and you’ll need those hours). Alternatively, learn how to use \(\LaTeX\). Don’t underestimate the importance of professional-looking articles, posters etc.

“As a grad student, you have no service expectations. You don’t serve on admissions, gen-ed, hiring, or other regular or ad hoc committees. You don’t have to referee papers for peer-reviewed journals. You don’t march in graduation ceremonies or help hire new faculty. […] you aren’t required to publish. You certainly should publish […], but publishing isn’t a requirement for you to graduate with a 4.0 GPA and glowing letters of recommendation. This brings me to some stark advice. If you find that you hate grad school, if you find everything you do to be a massive struggle, […] you should consider quitting. It doesn’t get easier. You will never have less expected of you and never face less pressure than you will as a graduate student.”

Brennan (2020, pp. 63–64)

Copyright © 2024 Guilherme Duarte Garcia


Brennan, J. (2020). Good work if you can get it: How to succeed in academia. JHU Press.
Wapman, K. H., Zhang, S., Clauset, A., & Larremore, D. B. (2022). Quantifying hierarchy and dynamics in US faculty hiring and retention. Nature.