Seven Habits of Highly Effective Grad Students

During the summer before I started grad school, I wrote my future self a letter called “Why I’m Going to Grad School.”1 I had been reading anything I could find about what my new life would be like, and I noticed a few common themes. In the letter, I summed up them up like this:

“It’s impossible to say what [grad school] will be like, but given what I’ve read and heard, I am probably underestimating the challenge (and that’s with being repeatedly told it will be quite a challenge). As a result, I’ve heard, it’s easy to get discouraged. It’s easy to forget why you’re going. And it’s easy to forget that your worth does not depend on a journal submission or job offer.”

I can now report that everything I had read and heard was basically true. Graduate school is challenging (and I was underestimating that challenge). It can be discouraging at times—especially when dealing with journal rejections and the like. And you have to make an effort to remind yourself that there is more to life than journals and job offers.

However, graduate school is a job training program. The academic market is tough, and if you want to be competitive, you cannot start thinking about your publication record or grant applications or your dissertation topic in the fourth or fifth year. You need to start on your fourth or fifth day. Although it challenging, along the way, you should develop some habits that ensure you stay productive and sane. Here are mine:2

(1) Keep working hours

The nice thing about grad school is that you are your own boss. The not so nice thing about grad school is that you are your own boss. On the one hand, you get to decide what to work on and when. On the other hand, you not only have to get a lot done—you have to get a lot done entirely of your own volition. No one is going to tell you what to work on, when to work on it, or what the deadline is. This is especially true of the post-coursework period.

The boring and unglamorous solution to this potential trap is to simply go to work. Wake up at a reasonable hour, sit down at your desk, do stuff on your to-do list, and keep doing it until your work day ends.3 Little by little, you will build up an impressive body of work.

(2) Do the reading

Also do the problem sets. And take the course papers seriously (you never know when one might turn into a full-fledged publication).

Demanding as these assignments are, your faculty have designed them to bring you up to speed as quickly as possible and enable you to start conducting independent research—a necessary condition to secure an academic job. If things were assigned at a more leisurely pace, you’d be in grad school for 15 years.

(3) Get involved early (even if you don’t think you’re ready)

You cannot learn to write an academic article simply by listening to someone tell you how it’s done. Research is hard—and the best way to learn how to do good research is to…do research alongside those who have experience and know how it’s done.

In my first semester of graduate school, I asked my advisor if there was a project we could work on together. At the time, I had almost no social science skills of which to speak. I did not even know what the lm() function did. But it didn’t matter. I could read journal articles, and I could take notes. That was enough.

As we continued to work on the project, I progressed through my coursework and learned new skills that I could contribute to project. But I also got a lot out of seeing how social science was done—a skill I could apply to my own solo projects.

(4) Get a lot of feedback

It takes time to learn which ideas are worth pursuing, what data and methods are most useful to test your hypotheses, and how to write an academic article—even if you get involved early. Don’t wait until you’ve written a polished, 30 page draft of a solo article that you’ve never shared with anyone to figure out if you’re doing it right. Get feedback early and often, take the comments seriously, iterate, and come back for more.

Don’t stop with your advisor either. Keep going. Get feedback from the methods person, get it from the person who doesn’t work directly in your subfield, get it from the scary and intimidating senior professor. These people will all see your work from a different perspective. They may share comments that echo what others have said (take those especially seriously), and they may share thoughts or ideas you had never considered.

And remember: feedback is a gift. If someone is willing to take the time to give it to you, you should thank them and take their comments seriously.

(5) Be professional, but not excessively deferential

Graduate school is strange. To borrow from Brittney Spears, you’re not quite a student, not yet a professor. You are higher in status than the undergraduates you interact with, but you’re more junior than the most junior faculty member in your department. How should you behave and interact with others?

My advice is to be professional, but not excessively deferential. You can (and probably should) be aware of the status differences, but that does not mean you need to walk the halls with your head held low, avoiding eye contact and apologizing for everything you do.

Be polite. Be respectful. Definitely. But also remember that you have knowledge and skills (in some cases, skills more senior faculty do not have). If you act like a peer (albeit a junior peer), you will be treated like one.

(6) Make time for admin

Because you are your own boss, you have to make the time for work that allows you to keep working. That means prioritizing things like writing and updating your CV, creating a website, applying to conferences, promoting your work, networking, applying for grants and fellowships.

For humanities and social science grads, these tasks fall into the low-priority/low-urgency quadrant of the Eisenhower Matrix, which means they can always be put off for something more important or more urgent. Yet, these troublesome chores are necessary to keep doing research. You need money, a job, citations, friends, and co-authors. If you don’t make time for admin, the pipeline will eventually dry up.

(7) Take a break

Grad school is stressful and demanding. There is so much to do. Even when you’ve checked off the urgent tasks, there are other things you probably ought to be doing (like admin). It can feel a lot like the Red Queen’s race in Through the Looking Glass:

“Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

I strongly believe that if you keep working hours and use them efficiently and effectively, that is enough. Then, when you’re done for the day, log off. Watch TV. Play video games. Go outside. Exercise! Stepping away may feel like you’re blowing off work, but rest is a down-payment on future productivity.

To summarize (and to borrow from one of my advisors, Betsy Sinclair), a successful academic is a one-person start up. You must be enterprising, hard-working, independent, and your own best advocate. By developing healthy habits, you can help ensure you remain productive and sane no matter what comes your way.

  1. Writing myself letters is not the sort of thing I ordinarily do, but it was a good way to keep my anxiety at bay and do something semi-productive with all the nervous energy. 

  2. I should stress that I am not on the job market and will not be on the job market for at least a year and a half as of publishing this piece. These habits have worked for me, and I believe they will work for you as well. So take my advice as one person’s perspective, get advice from others (especially others who recently succeeded on the academic job market in your discipline), and triangulate. 

  3. This advice may be harder to follow if you’re working at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but it is even more vital if you’re having trouble being productive (leaving aside real and complicating factors such as childcare, etc.).