How to Be a Successful Graduate Student by William Bauer

Success in graduate school isn’t something that occurs naturally.  You have to work at it.  Here are some recommendations and strategies that have worked for me:

Success in graduate school isn’t something that occurs naturally.  You have to work at it.  Here are some recommendations and strategies that have worked for me:

1. Be a careful observer

  • Keenly observe department norms and how people interact and work together for daily activities, departmental functions, as well as seminars you participate in.
  • In your seminars, observe the types of questions asked and how senior graduate students (and other faculty that may be attending the seminar) approach issues.
  • In your readings, attend to the overall argument or idea and relevant details, maintaining reading notes. Outline the main points and questions you have to prepare for the seminar.  Note items of special interest that may be good research topics for that seminar or for later research projects.

2. Be disciplined

  • Have a schedule and stick to it, completing all work on time. Much of your time will be flexible, and you’ll be expected to be self-sufficient, but it can be very useful to form study or discussion groups with peers in order to structure your time.
  • Know the department and graduate studies milestones and make them your milestones. Meeting these milestones on time means that at each stage of your program you’ll be able to focus your energy on that stage.
  • Don’t take incompletes in your seminars, unless absolutely necessary.

3. Be proactive

  • Talk frequently to your professors and peers about ideas that interest you. Follow-up on comments that your professors give about your work.
  • Be creative in the content of your work and how you approach your work.
  • Actively reflect on discussions and projects. Ask: How could this have gone better? How can I apply this in the future?
  • Besides these examples of being proactive, there are three things you can start doing right away to make your graduate experience successful…

Recommended Actions:

1. Keep a research/ideas journal

  • Keep this focused on topics of most interest to you from seminars, discussions, and readings; the seeds of your dissertation and further research might be in here; keep your journal with you wherever you go.

2. Make


update a goals matrix

  • Create a cell in the matrix for each semester of your program; for example, if you’re in a 5-year program, you’ll have 10-semester cells, plus summers. In these cells, enter the classes you plan on taking, courses you want to teach/TA, program milestones, and planned dates for submitting papers to conferences and/or journals.

3. Seek a mentor

  • You may not need to establish a faculty mentor in the first year, but you should keep an eye out for who might be a good mentor (be observant.) Talk to senior graduate students about how they sought a mentor.
  • It’s likely that your eventual mentor will be a professor you did work for or wrote a paper for that really sparked your passion. Consider revising your project and/or pursuing further questions pertaining to it, and seek more feedback from that professor. It’s possible that such projects may be the beginnings of your dissertation.


Explore posts in the same categories: Academic Success, Graduate School, Professional Development, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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