3 Tips for Graduate School Success

Tip # 1: Collaborate Whenever Possible

Sometimes when individuals enter graduate school, they believe they have to be the first person in their field to come up with a completely original, earth-shattering finding completely on their own. This idea is pretty far from the truth.

It's pretty rare to come up with some new findings that will make you as famous as, say, Noam Chomsky. The urge to complete with your peers to be original could come from your brilliance or sophomoric egotism. If you’re astoundingly brilliant, more power to you!! You probably don’t need to know what I’m about to write, because you already know it. I can’t wait to read your work. For the rest of us who have to couple our intense intelligence with hard work, please read on.

As you progress through graduate school and your career, you’ll find you’re knowledgeable about certain things and lagging in others. On top of that, you’ll meet people who are super knowledgeable as well. When you meet people you synergize with, that is an opportunity to learn more from them, teach them a thing or two, and develop new knowledge as a team. Developing new knowledge as teams can open up opportunities to collect more data for a project, analyze data in innovative ways, publish more articles over the course of your career, and avoid burnout because you won’t be doing all the heavy lifting.

This isn’t to say you should become a mercenary and jump on every project that looks good or is almost done to get your name on a publication. On the contrary, this means only joining projects that dovetail with your research interests and your expertise. You don’t want to be the obnoxious colleague who is always hovering around other people as they work. Also, p[ease don’t want to be the colleague who says yes to every project but cannot complete the tasks you volunteered for. Instead, gracefully offer your expertise to individuals who are working on projects you can add value to. If you’ve been assigned a project, and you know trustworthy individuals who might be interested in contributing, invite them to work with you. Sometimes collaboration can be over something simple, like classmates making a reading group to succeed in a course

Meeting people to collaborate with is easier than you think. Having meaningful, sincere conversations with faculty, your cohort mates, and other researchers at mixers and conferences are a good place to start. Another way to meet with people to collaborate with is to ask trusted colleagues and mentors to introduce you to individuals you are interested in if they have connections. Also, never underestimate the power of a well-written email coupled with a follow-up call as a way of connecting. Many a powerful alliance has developed through introductory emails and cold calls.

In order for a collaboration to work well, the work on each individual’s part must be executed in concert with everyone else in the group. Thus, before beginning a collaboration, always make sure all participants have agreed to some collaboration rules that have been verbally articulated and written down in the team’s shared notes. Also, make sure to set realistic deadlines everyone in the team can reach. If you need help navigating this, please read the Rules for Collaboration blog post on this site.

Tip # 2: Start an Annotated Bibliography On Day 1

Yes, I know. You’re drowning in reading and have been since you started grad school. Why not create a skiff that will help you glide over the flotsam and jetsam of all the scholarly PDFs while you bring up all the treasures from that academic sea?

A comprehensive annotated bibliography is the vessel you require to help you memorize authors, the key takeaways from their work, and your critical responses to that work. The fact is, if you have an annotated bibliography you start from Day 1 of graduate school, it will be easy to remember and reference citations when it comes time to write articles, do your qualifying exams or finish your dissertation. Think of the annotated bibliography as a personal library you can dive into anytime you need it. A lot of researchers use Endnote as a resource to organize their citations. There are a number of good videos on Youtube and on university sites, like RMIT, that can help you get started with using the program.

You also may need to condense abstracts to soundbites, copy quotes accurately to avoid plagiarism, and respond to sources as you’re reading with an annotated bibliography that is in a document or a spreadsheet.

Tip # 3: Ask for help!

There is NO SHAME in asking for help. Always ask for help if you feel like you’re not learning something, if you feel overwhelmed, depressed or like you’re failing. As students make the transition from an understudy to an expert, many believe they have to understand everything or do all the work of thinking through ideas alone. Nothing can be further from the truth. Some of the most brilliant discoveries and most powerful work in history came about through people being real with each other. If you’re feeling challenged in your work, reach out to your major professor, a librarian who specializes in your field, a graduate student in your department who is further along in their process, or anyone else you feel you can trust in regard to your research.

The emphasis here is selecting individuals you instinctively trust in your gut. For example, if you and your primary advisor are on shaky ground, arrange to meet with your secondary advisor before approaching your primary about the issue. Set an appointment (or multiple appointments) to work through your issue with your colleague. Make sure you arrive at the appointment with specific questions about your issue. If the person you have met with cannot help you definitively solve your problem, ask them if they can refer you to someone else or if there is literature you can read to help you better understand your issue. You can even reach out to trusted colleagues at other institutions. Don’t stop asking for help until you get the support you need!

Asking for help is doubly important if you’re experiencing challenging feelings, like overwhelm and depression, which is more common for graduate students than you think. If you have insurance or mental wellness services on your campus, use those resources as outlets to help you process feelings as you're going through them. You don't have to wait until there is a serious problem. The goal is to manage unexpected challenges by having someone you trust to consistently talk out your feelings with.

If resources are limited through your insurance or on campus, look to the surrounding community for support. There are also nationwide organizations you can connect with. Please visit the NAMI Website to discover the right organization for you.

Once you’ve asked for help and gotten support from your colleagues and community leaders, create a plan of action to mitigate the impact of stress on your performance in the future. For example, you might feel like work is getting away from you, and you need more time to get things done. After talking with a trusted colleague, you realize you’ve taken on too much work and don’t have enough time for self-care. Here is a prime opportunity to reevaluate your boundaries, your schedule, everything. Once you've finished, you can re-prioritize the different components of your life to focus on your growth first as a human being and second as an academic.

If this post served you, and you'd like to enjoy more motivational tips, you're invited to try the Self Care library in the Dissertation Lab app free for 3 days. To access the app, download The Dissertation Lab today at the Google Play and Apple App stores!

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