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Careers Café

Tips on being successful in graduate school

A quick guide for those starting their PhD program this fall.


Just starting your PhD or Masters? Here are some quick tips to make sure you get started on the right foot:

1. Have good working relationships with your lab
Having an advisor that fits your research interests is important. What’s more important though, is personality fit: how well you both work together. After all, the quality of the supervisory relationship is fundamental for the student to succeed. Someone once told me that the student-advisor relationship is like a marriage. Indeed, just like a marriage, the student-advisor relationships can only flourish if both parties are willing to commit long-term, to compromise, and to accept and respect one another’s strengths and weaknesses. Choosing the right person that fits your working style and personality can make all the difference in your work and graduate experience. It is also important to build close relationships with your lab mates, if applicable. Opportunities for effective mentorship and research collaboration are fostered in a supportive and cooperative environment.

2. Relax, take it easy
Take breaks! Re-charging makes a big difference in your overall productivity. Believe me, sometimes it’s hard to not think about work when you are trying to have fun or relax, but my advice is to take breaks and avoid feeling guilty when you do. We are not super humans; our energy will deplete and it will need to be re-charged. In order to restore our energy, we need to relax and focus on self-care. Once we feel better physically and mentally, our work will produce much better results. Stop and smell the roses and take some time each day to breathe, reflect, and let go. Keep in mind that graduate studies is a unique experience, and one to be enjoyed at that. Yes, there are challenges, but take pleasure in the many small accomplishments along the way and reward yourself.

3. Be resourceful
Luck does not come your way on its own; you have to make it happen. That means seeking out every opportunity possible and making sure not to close any doors. Never be afraid to ask for help when you need it and know that there are ample opportunities at your disposal – you just need to keep an open mind. Learn to acquire the relevant tools and knowledge to help you solve problems successfully and always be willing to try new approaches and to meet new people. You’d be surprise at how much being receptive to new ideas and solutions can help you grow. More importantly, don’t be afraid of challenges. If you succeed, you succeed. If you fail? Well, you learn from your mistakes and become a better, stronger individual.

Alexandra is an MA candidate at Trent University studying emotional intelligence, personality, and mental health. She is also the president of her graduate student body.
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  1. Shoshanah Jacobs / August 23, 2016 at 11:55

    Good advice so long as the grad student work environment changes. All of these recommendations, if followed, would cause the student to be swallowed whole by other grad students and faculty. It’s too bad. In fact, it’s unacceptable, but it is the reality of the environment that we have created. So let’s hope for change, change that would allow these tips to be useful.

  2. Melanie J. Roberts / August 23, 2016 at 22:41

    Great post! I am a Ph.D student, and I definitely see myself and other graduate students, fail to acknowledge all 3 tips (particularly #2. Thanks for the reminder to breathe and to be proud of small accomplishments).

  3. grace @ the smokin' chemist / August 29, 2016 at 19:46

    excellent tips, especially about taking breaks- i just had my first day in my program today, so i am looking for all of the advice i can get.

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