Stephanie D. Freis, Ohio State University
Amanda Kraha, PhD, Indiana University East
Whether you’re still contemplating if grad school is for you, or if you’ve already been accepted (congrats by the way!), there are a few things you should know to make the transition as smooth as possible. The general advice? Graduate school is a very different environment than what is expected in an undergraduate education. Your job is no longer to consume knowledge—it is to produce it. How you structure your time, set personal goals, and interact with faculty or peers is going to shift from what you’re probably used to.
Expectations and Structure
Change your expectations. First and foremost, students need to shift their perspectives. Getting straight A’s is no longer your primary goal. Although you may still be taking classes, your research productivity takes top priority. This means that, unlike undergrad where you turn in a paper on a strict due date and await a final grade, the research projects in grad school no longer have a clear finish line. There is always something you can revise or improve on before you feel it is done. Thus, you will be better off if you start being okay with work that is “good enough.” It can be difficult to let go of perfectionist ways (which most high performers in undergrad can relate to) but it will make you more productive over time. Darley, Zanna, and Roediger (2004) discuss in more detail how the game changes from undergraduate to graduate school.
Follow a schedule. Besides changing your expectations for the type of work you’ll be doing, you should also think about how you will structure your working time. With fewer classes and deadlines, it’s easy to (a) feel like you have lots of free time or (b) feel like you should be working all the time. Neither one of these is ideal. Instead, many graduate students recommend treating grad school like a job. Graduate training is the first step toward your dream career—remember to treat it as such. Work in the lab from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and preserve any time outside of normal work hours for a personal life, as much as possible.
Set weekly goals. One of the best ways to ensure that your work hours will be productive is to hold a weekly meeting with yourself and outline your specific goals for the week. Each of these goals should then be mapped onto your calendar so each task has an explicit timeframe assigned; of course many of us should then double the amount of time we’ve allotted because we tend to drastically overestimate our efficiency. For example, if I want to analyze a large dataset, I might break it down as follows: Monday, 10–11 a.m. = code data, 11 a.m.–1 p.m. = analyze main hypotheses, etc. This gives you a more realistic picture of how long tasks will take you so you don’t get disappointed when “analyze data” isn’t finished in one day. It also helps those of us who are motivated by crossing things off our list.
Write regularly. Structuring your time wisely is a continuous theme in the life of an academic. You have likely by now heard the phrase “publish or perish.” This reflects academia’s value in disseminating research. That means writing is going to be the key to your success. You can write to move a manuscript or poster out the door or simply write to think through new ideas or theories. Either way, make sure you are writing regularly. For example, you might structure your time so that the first 30 minutes of each work day are dedicated to writing (before you check e-mail or get distracted by other responsibilities). The bottom line is to create a routine and stick to it. This will ensure that your productivity is consistent and you don’t burn out. Silvia (2007) provides excellent advice on writing if you’re in need of a bit more help.
Relationships Are Different
Choose your advisor carefully. Depending on what type of university you attended during your undergraduate education, you may experience different surprises when you arrive at grad school. For most students, they find that they work much more closely with primary faculty than they did in undergrad, which can be exciting but also overwhelming. Just remember that your relationship to advisors is very important because they hold the keys to your future projects and success. This means you should choose your advisor carefully and have a discussion about what to expect in the student/advisor relationship because each faculty member has a different approach to mentoring.
Ask questions. Regardless of who your advisor is, make sure you communicate regularly and openly. If you don’t understand the theories they are discussing or the tasks they’re asking of you, then ask questions! As a first-year grad student, you aren’t expected to know everything; and if you stay quiet because you’re afraid of how you look, you might find yourself in predicaments later on. After meetings with your advisor, be sure to follow up with a summary e-mail to ensure that you remember (and understood) your advisor’s expectations of you.
Form friendships. Thankfully, your relationships with other students in your program will greatly help in getting you through grad school. It may not be as easy to make friends in grad school as it was in undergrad, but it will surely make your life easier. You can start by talking to older students in your lab to get advice—about everything. Older lab mates are priceless resources when it comes to surviving grad school and often become your closest friends. Lab mates can give you insight into how your advisor works best, the expectations and norms of the program, or simple guidance through new analyses. Other students, especially in your cohort, can also make valuable friends. These friendships will provide needed social support or someone to commiserate with when grad school gets tough. Plus, the friendships may open doors to potential research ideas or new areas of collaboration.
Last Bits of Advice
Enhance your job prospects. Grad school takes a lot of time and resources and should be time spent to get you to your career goal. For example, if you have the chance, teach your own class. This will enhance your job prospects if you’re interested in an academic career and can also surprisingly make you more productive in your research. This is because teaching forces your schedule to be more structured and you to be more careful with your time. You can also get involved with national organizations and serve as a graduate student representative or get connected to faculty who review journal articles for publication. This is great practice for you to see the type of work out there and have a more critical eye on your own work.
Plan for your post doc. Although going straight from graduate school to a job is ideal, post docs are becoming more common. If you think you’ll need a post doc, start networking now! Most grad students secure a post doc position because of their connections and word of mouth. If you’re interested in an academic job, Kelsky (2015) offers great advice on how to make yourself more competitive in this tough job market. Webinars offered by the National Center for Faculty Development and Diversity (http://www.facultydiversity.org/) are also fantastic resources that provide tips and tricks on how to maintain productivity and health in the academic environment.
Personal health. Above all, make sure you take time for self-care. Find a hobby and make time for it (even if it’s just watching TV). Most of all, when you take some time for yourself, don’t feel guilty for doing so. That’s just counterproductive, and you’ll neither enjoy your down time nor get work done, so it’s a lose-lose situation. Take time off and feel proud for keeping yourself happy and healthy through grad school. This also includes resisting the temptation to make social comparisons. This can be highly detrimental in grad school because everyone is smart and skilled, which may lead you to experience higher self-doubt. Thus, although the “imposter phenomenon” may knock on your door, just remember that everyone is working on different projects, comes from different backgrounds, has different relationships with their advisors, and deserves to be in grad school. Just do the best work that you can do in your situation. Maintain a routine that fosters productivity, values work relationships, and rewards time for self-care.
Always remember that grad school is tough for almost everyone. But it also offers a great deal of opportunity to advance your skills and refine your focus on the career you want. Keep you dream career in mind from day one and spend every day making yourself more competitive for that job.
Darley, J. M., Zanna, M. P., & Roediger III, H. L. (2004). The compleat academic: A career guide (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Kelsky, K. (2015). The professor is in: The essential guide to turning your Ph.D. into a job. New York, NY: Three Rivers Press.
Silvia, P. J. (2007). How to write a lot: A practical guide to productive academic writing. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Stephanie D. Freis is a doctoral candidate in social psychology at The Ohio State University. Her passion is mentoring students both in the classroom and in the lab. Her research primarily investigates attributes of the self and motivation, particularly focused on what defines and distinguishes the subtypes of trait narcissism (grandiose vs. vulnerable narcissism). After graduation, she hopes to obtain a faculty position so she may continue her passion in research and teaching.
Amanda Kraha, PhD, received her doctorate in experimental psychology from the University of North Texas, and her undergraduate degree from Arkansas Tech University. While in graduate school, Dr. Kraha served on several committees for the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students (APAGS). She helped launch the new APA journal Translational Issues in Psychological Science while serving on the APAGS committee.
Dr. Kraha is currently an assistant professor of psychology at Indiana University East, serving as the University Psi Chi advisor. She teaches undergraduate research methods, statistics, and cognitive psychology. Dr. Kraha’s research centers on memory, statistical techniques, and professional issues in psychology. Her most recent publication examines the amount of debt students take on in the course of earning a graduate degree in psychology, and what salaries these degree holders can expect upon entering the psychology workforce
Copyright 2016 (Vol. 21, Iss. 1) Psi Chi, the International Honor Society in Psychology