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My Take on Excelling in Graduate School

Like many, I had a slightly slow start to my graduate career before I started to learn how to really get things moving. As I move on to new pastures, I figured it be worth taking a few minutes to share some of the things that have helped me in my adventure + many more that I wish I had known or had taken more seriously coming in. Here’s a shortlist for them for folks thinking about graduate school or who know folks with plans that might find this useful!

*Caveat : this list is psych-centric with an emphasis on folks interested in a academia, might be some useful bits in the mix for folk interested in applied work but I’d recommend checking out other sources for tips on that!

1) Learn a Skill and get good at it, very good at it ideally

Unless you happen to have a earth-shatteringly great idea, it’s going to be awhile before you get to direct skilled folks to do your bidding. Particularly since most earth-shatteringly great ideas take a high level skill to pull off. IMHO the best graduate students have great ideas and the skills to see them through to their fullest potential. If you get really really good at a valuable skill, doors will open, I can guarantee that.

For Psych students, my recommendations would be programming, statistics and/or some neuroimaging modality. If I were coming into the field now, I would pay particular attention to becoming versed in machine-learning based approaches and Bayesian methods both of which are certain to be a big part of the future wave of research. Solid programmers in programming fields are a dime a dozen, solid programmers in psychology are a rare talent. If they play their cards right, the odds are in their favor.

Try to build the bases for these skills BEFORE you get into graduate school. I find graduate school serves much better as a place to hone skills you already have in some shape/form. It’s hard to start learning something completely from scratch. I was lucky to come into my program with programming experience in hand. It would have taken me wayyy longer to get my EEG work going if I had to pick up coding skills while simultaneously learning the theory and math that lay behind my code. Be kind to your future self. =)

A final point on this which a lot of faculty members tell me, graduate school (and maybe your postdoc) may well be the last time you have the time to develop a skill to a sufficiently high level to achieve mastery in. Don’t waste that time.

2) Do lots of things

By all means, work on some huge project that might end up in nature/science but for Pete’s sake, don’t wager your future on just that one thing. I highly recommend getting involved with as many projects as you can handle. It’s a much safer way to be certain you won’t end up with a near empty and unimpressive CV at the end of your run, a fate I’ve seen befall more graduate students than I can count. The thing is with big projects is that they so often end up involving so many big names and can end up getting so political that you’re not likely to headline the most important pieces and without a few big headline pieces you risk a lifetime of academic obscurity. Go into those projects by all means but I’d recommend not gambling your career on them. I believe there are no shortcuts to success. It might seem easier to ride someone else’s ideas and get famous but as far as I’ve seen, not only does that rarely happen but you’re also denying yourself the opportunity to hone your own experimental chops and develop the skills needed to raise an idea up from scratch (see point 1)

3) Collaborate

Keep a constant eye out for collaboration opportunities and grab them by the horns when they come by. You never know which’ll work out well for you. A chance conversation I had once turned into years of research funding and three top-tier journal pubs. When you do take on a collaboration, commit and be the best collaborator you can possibly be (see #4 and #5). Crappy\half-hearted\ collaborators are a dime a dozen. Don’t be one of those. Not only will that collaboration likely falter but you’re not likely to ever get a 2nd invitation. Exceptions exist if you have an amazing skill (see point #1) that’s so much in demand that people will bend backwards to have you on the team but even then it’s frankly so much better to just do your job well.

On the other side of things, if a collaboration is going south, learn to know when to cut your losses and split. I’ve wasted years trying to make clearly (in hindsight) bad collaborations work. Don’t do that. If the floorboards are rotten, no one’s dancing tonight.

4) Be good with E-mail. Be Very good with E-mail.

You’ll be surprised at how many folk I’ve seen getting hurt by being slow with their E-mails. Whenever I hear a professor gripe about a ‘bad’ graduate student, lack of E-mail promptness almost always comes up. Taking a few hours to get back to someone is tolerable (sub hour is better), a day is pushing it, more than that is likely to (justifiably IMHO) tick someone off. The ability to move quickly on things is one of the marks of a good collaborator, email being high up on the list.

5) Move Quickly

While we’re on that subject. Move, Move, Move, is a great grad school mantra. Have an idea, get the ethics review in ASAP, program it up while that’s in review and start contacting folk to get data collection planned, hit the ground running when approval comes in and get the data collected as soon as you can manage. The nice thing about grad school is being able to set your own pace. The surprising (or cynically, unsurprising) thing is how many students decide that the ideal pace is crawl. I recommend taking a good hard look at how prolific students at top-notch places are and what the publication standard for entry-level positions currently are in the field. It’s not uncommon to have to run multiple iterations of multiple projects to discover something noteworthy and papers can take up to 8 months to get published. Unless you’re lucky enough to be part of a large lab with multiple post-docs, research technicians and whatnot, the only real shot you have is to keep moving and don’t stop till you have to.

6) Get into the grant/funding game as soon as you can

Self explanatory this. Graduate school can be comfortable if you get folk paying your bills for you. Pretty soon though, you’re going to have to start pulling in grants of your own and it’s a totally different ballgame than you’ve probably been trained to be good at. Being funded in school is a great time to start giving the gig a go and getting advice from folks far more well versed in it than you are. I recommend starting a little bit before you think you have a decent chance of landing something (else you’re likely to wait till you graduate… ).

7) Get your teaching experience and move into full-research as soon as you can

Teaching is awesome. I love teaching and I’ve got really solid teaching reviews. If research is your goal though, don’t lose sight of that and throw all your time into teaching and relatively little into research. Research has the “disadvantage” of being more abstract with more nebulous goals and deadlines as opposed to teaching. Likely due to stress, I’ve seen far too many graduate students focusing almost exclusively on concrete aspects of their teaching load and neglecting their research. Get some teaching experience by all means. It’s half the job and you should really like it and get good at it if you’re keen on a life in the area. However once you have that experience, compared to being on research funds, teaching lines take up way more time, take resources away from your research goals and pay less well too boot. I would keep a sharp eye out for folks who have research lines to spare and do your best to prove your worth to them. The boost to your research productivity from being able to totally devote yourself to research is amazing. You might never get this chance again for a long time so savor the opportunity and use it to bolster your CV as much as you can! Once you prove yourself as a researcher you can take on as much teaching as you want and be in a position to have considerably more say on how that teaching goes so you can really do what you want to change the lives of your students.

There are a bunch of other things, but those are more difficult to convey quickly. I’ll wager good money though that you’ll have a better graduate school ride if you can implement at least some the things on this list in any case. Have fun~!

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