How to be a successful grad. student

I asked my TECH621 students to interview 3 professors each and get tips about graduate school success.

Here are their posts: Scott S., Stephen W., Jenny S., Zheng Z., Andrew B., Scott K.

A bit late, here are my tips & expectations about being a successful graduate student. They are derived from my experience in grad. school, both as a student and professor:

Be self-motivated

You don’t have to be in grad school. Your parents may have forced you to get an undergrad degree, but you are in grad school because you want to learn. So, learn.

A successful graduate student doesn’t only “absorb” information. She actively seeks knowledge.

Professors might mention something in passing, and the grad. student goes out to research that topic in depth and learn about it, because he wants to, because he’s curious – because he’s a born researcher (you know who’s a born researcher? Don Bulmer. He has an innate curiosity and the drive to pursue knowledge. Those are characteristics of the ideal grad. student.)

Actually, several other tips follow from the first one:

  • work hard. As a grad student, I put at least 4 hours of reading & other work preparing for each 3 hour class I took.
  • be conscientious. Grad students don’t miss assignments, don’t turn them in late. They don’t miss class (there was never an attendance policy in my grad. classes, but I didn’t even dream of missing class unless I was very sick).
  • be critical. Try to view different points of view. Question. Explore. Ask:
    • “why?”
    • “does it have to be so?”
    • “what/who are we leaving out?”
    • “what’s the downside of that?”
    • “what are the long-term effects?”
  • create knowledge. Most grad. students learn to be researchers. Assume your researcher role and if there’s no easy answer to a question, go ahead and research it – create new knowledge.

Try to learn the culture of academia & to fit in

You can’t succeed in academia without doing good work. But you can do good work and not succeed in academia, because you don’t understand how to present your work in ways that are valued by academic culture. The values vary by field and even by department, but be on the lookout, try to identify and learn things such as:

  • the accepted/valued outlets for presenting research (posters, conference papers, or panels, and at what conferences?)
  • the accepted/value format and writing style
  • and even… the accepted/valued topics. There are certain “hot topics” at any given time, just as there are certain “passe topics.”

A mentor can help you figure these things out – but it doesn’t have to be your academic adviser. Ask faculty members, we love to give advice. You learn a lot just by hanging out with faculty or senior grad students. Create these opportunities. Organize a seminar or a get-together, or ask if you can go to lunch with someone.

Think long-term

Every class you take is a potential job interview. I’ve had several professors approach me and offer me teaching or research assistantships while I was taking their course, or as soon as the course was over. In fact, many classes ARE job interviews.

Maybe today’s class or assignment is boring, or seems irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. Try to do your best anyway. Keep in mind that 2 or 4 years down the road, you might need to ask that professor for a recommendation letter. The best thing we can write about a student is that she consistently exceeded expectations. Great work is great. Doing great work consistently and repeatedly is even greater.

As always, please add your tips, comments, reactions, comments or… cabbage jokes 😉

6 thoughts on “How to be a successful grad. student”

  1. Clear points really hit home. This is true for both grad school and professional life as well.
    I am sending this to my daughter and several of her friend who are seriously considering grad school. It is very clear and direct about the experience.

  2. Ginevra, I wouldn’t be in graduate school right now if it were not for my club/organization connections made during my undergraduate studies. I agree with your comment, and also would suggest to any reading to continue that experience through graduate school. College universities are unique and create experiences different to each individual. Most of my networks and jobs were through the university, and in some cases, they still are.

    Bryan, you make a valuable point with the self-motivation. A person is only as successful in grad school as the work they put into it. As long as you don’t get distracted, as Mihaela stated, it is simply a matter of the word, “self-motivation.”

    I visualize a tight-rope walker on a piece of fishing wire in some cases… ouch.

  3. Ginevra, yes, that’s a good point. I founded the Romanian Student Association, was president of the Communication Graduate Students’ Association, and those experiences were very fulfilling – I think I got involved later on, not the first year. It took me a while to get my bearings 🙂

    Bryan, I totally understand and sympathize. I don’t necessarily think it’s right that we force thought into a specific writing style, but it does happen, and if you want to succeed, you pay attention to that and adapt.

    I forgot one point: Stay focused on your goal. You’re here to get a degree. Let that always be your priority. Work, teaching, and other obligations suck a lot of time and attention, but many times they are distractions. I always tended to spend a lot of time on my teaching – my adviser kept reminding me to stay focused on progress towards my degree.

  4. I really enjoyed your post. Having graduated with my master’s in PR last May, I was interested in hearing what a professor’s opinion was on this subject.

    I couldn’t agree with you more about being self-motivated. I was a very average undergrad – doing enough to get by – but going back to school on my own dime made a huge difference. I graduated with a 3.98 GPA and thoroughly enjoyed my experience.

    I also agree that you can do good work and not succeed in academia, which is one issue I did have with getting my master’s. I would have preferred less emphasis on the academia side of things and more on the “real world” applications. While I can now put together a 5-page, error free, reference page in APA format, I would have preffered spending more time on how to put together business or PR documents.

  5. Hi there,

    I am a graduate student at Florida State University in Mass Communication. I agree with all the tips provided above.
    Another tip I would like to suggest is the following.

    It is not enough to be studious and be the perfect “student”. Being a graduate student means going beyond classes. Get involved with your community, join organizations (Film society, Chamber of Commerce, Sustainable City Association, etc), become a member of the board, or just a volunteer. You will be surprised how many connections you make outside academia that are indirectly related to your future career. It is all to your advantage.

    Also you can get involved with activities/organizations at your university. It helps meeting other scholars, professors not just from your department.

    Hope this helps.

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