20 Tips for New Graduate Students

Bookshelf with labels reading, “All these books are donated by customers . . . Reading is always enjoyable.”

[September 2020, updated September 2022]

I’ve spent over 10 years in university, and I’ve been a graduate student for 8 years. What follows is a list of 20 tips for new graduate students, based on lessons I’ve learned the hard way in academia!

1) There’s always more work that could be done; you can’t – and shouldn’t – do it all. Protect your time for: exercise, relaxation, hobbies, and relationships. Take long lunch breaks and go for walks. Have fun with your colleagues.

2) Figure out when you get your best work done. Personally, I use mornings for deep work and afternoons for admin work (emails, scholarship searching, etc.)

3) Start your work day by reading and summarizing one paper related to your research. If you get nothing else done that day, you will have at least read one paper. UPDATE: Alternatively, use 15 minutes to 1 hour every morning to slowly work on a paper. Just open up the file, see if you have anything to say. Even if it’s just to vent about the project.

4) Create an Excel Gantt chart to schedule all major deadlines for the upcoming years: course deadlines, scholarships, comprehensive exam, proposal defense, conference deadlines, etc.

5) Use Microsoft OneNote or Evernote software for organizing projects and keeping track of various files and emails related to your research projects. Use the Clipper plug-ins to send web pages and emails to your project notebooks.

6) Use a reference management program to keep track of references to follow up on, as well as to cite while you write.

7) Keep a spreadsheet tracking all academic reading related to your research. Have separate columns for: citation, main idea, relevance to your research on a scale of 1-5, methods/participant data, other notes. This documentation counts as “writing”!

8) Learn to conduct a systematic library database search, using relevant subject/MeSH headings and keywords.

9) When you’re doing a systematic or scoping review, screenshot your entire search strategies with timestamps in case you need to re-do the searches. It’s a little too easy to accidentally delete a saved search…

10) Only remove EndNote/reference formatting right before submitting a manuscript. Save the plain text version for submission as a separate file. When you have to do revisions, you do NOT want to have to go back and change all the references by hand.

11) Use Microsoft Word headings and the navigation pane. It’s sort of like Scrivener-lite. The headings make flipping around a 50 page document much easier!

12) For documents with multiple versions, save the file with the date at the beginning of the file name_the main point of the file_and a few notes about new changes made. E.g. 2020.09.13_Blog Post-Tips for Grads_added more tips.

13) Invest in a second monitor for writing papers. I use this one.

14) Ask your department to buy a transcription pedal for qualitative and/or interview-based research.

15) Try using Excel for thematic analyses.

16) Send meeting invitations to professors at least 1-2 weeks in advance, unless otherwise discussed. Offer several scheduling options that they can choose from.

17) Read newsletters from your relevant organizations. Funding opportunities are often advertised in newsletters.

18) Know that there’s a lot of hard work involved in research, but there’s also a lot of luck.

19) Everyone at a conference is there to network and learn from each other. Research is a team sport. Introduce yourself!

20) We’re all fighting imposter syndrome. Don’t be too hard on yourself or others. Support your colleagues and peers. Be kind.