You don’t have to be a genius to do well in graduate school. You must be reasonably intelligent, but after a certain point, I think other traits become more important in determining success. This guide covers the character traits and social skills that often separate the “star” graduate students from the ordinary ones. They are the students who are self-motivated, take initiative, find ways around obstacles, communicate well both orally and in writing, and get along well enough with their committee and other department members to marshal resources to their cause. (Initiative, creativity, tenacity, interpersonal skills, oral presentation skills, and many other important traits.)
After much soul searching, I found my answer (Like this word: soul searching)
I wanted a job that would I find interesting, challenging and stimulating.
Like this thought: I would have no regrets because I had given it my best shot and was not able to make it.
The best answer to this question I have ever seen comes from William Lipscomb, a Nobel Prize winner in chemistry. He said, “With a Ph.D. you will have a better chance of spending the rest of your life doing what you want to do, instead of what someone else wants you to do.”
Most of what you learn in a Ph.D. program comes outside of classes: from doing research on your own, attending conferences, and discussions with your fellow students. Success in graduate school does not come from completing a set number of course units but rather from successfully completing a research program.
“The difference between people who exercise initiative and those who don’t is literally the difference between night and day. I’m not talking about a 25 to 50 percent difference in effectiveness; I’m talking about a 5000-plus percent difference, particularly if they are smart, aware, and sensitive to others.”
- Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People
Generally, the senior graduate students have the most freedom to take initiative on projects. This privilege has to be earned. The more that you have proven that you can work independently and initiate and complete appropriate tasks, the more your professors will leave you alone to do what you want to do.
You don’t need to be a genius to earn a Ph.D. (although it doesn’t hurt). But nobody finishes a dissertation without being tenacious. Tenacity means sticking with things even when you get depressed or when things aren’t going well. For example, I did not enjoy my first year of graduate school. I didn’t tell anyone this until after leaving UNC. I was not on a project and was focused on taking classes, some of which I didn’t do all that well in. I didn’t feel a part of the Department, and really wondered whether or not I fit in. Still, I stuck with it and when summer rolled around and I got a job in the Department, I became much more involved in research and enjoyed graduate school much more. Part of earning a Ph.D. is building a “thick skin” so you are not so fragile that you will give up at the first sign on any difficulties.
One lesson I learned as a graduate student is the best way to finish the dissertation is to do something every day that gets you closer to being done. If all you have left is writing, then write part of the dissertation every day. If you still have research to do, then do part of it every day. Don’t just do it when you are “in the mood” or feeling productive. This level of discipline will keep you going through the good times and the bad and will ensure that you finish.
Flexibility means taking advantage of opportunities and synergies, working around problems, and being willing to change plans as required. Opportunities for synergy and serendipity do occur, but one has to be flexible enough to recognize them and take advantage of them.
your success in graduate school and beyond depends a great deal upon your ability to build and maintain interpersonal relationships with your advisor, your committee, your research and support staff and your fellow students. This does not mean you must become the “life of the party.” I am not and never will be a gregarious, extroverted person. But I did make a serious effort to learn and practice interpersonal skills, and those were crucial to my graduate student career.
Since academia is a type of business, you will have responsibilities that you must uphold. You will be asked to greet and talk with visitors, give demos, show up to meetings, get projects done on time, etc. If you are not well organized, you will have a difficult time meeting those obligations.
“What is written without effort is, in general, read without pleasure.”
– Samuel Johnson
“Present to inform, not to impress; if you inform, you will impress.”
- Frederick P. Brooks, Jr.
Communication skills, both written and oral, are vital for making a good impression as a Ph.D. student and as a researcher. At a minimum, you have to defend your dissertation with an oral presentation. But you should also expect to write technical papers and reports, give presentations at conferences, and give demonstrations to groups of visitors. If you can write and speak well, you will earn recognition and distinguish yourself from other graduate students. This is especially true when giving presentations in front of important visitors or at major conferences. If you are technically brilliant but are incapable of communicating or working with other people, then your results will be limited to what you can accomplish alone and your career growth will have a low ceiling, both in industry and academia. These are skills that can be learned! Don’t worry if giving presentations and writing papers are not something that comes naturally to you. I was not very comfortable giving oral presentations when I started graduate school, so I made a concerted effort to learn how to do so, by taking classes, reading about the subject, and practicing. It’s not easy, but it’s well worth the investment. If you need practice, try giving informal talks at research luncheons, joining Toastmasters, and studying good speakers to see what they do.
Confidence is the key to giving a good presentation. And the way to gain confidence is to give good presentations. When you’re just starting out, this is a Catch-22. However, once you become good enough, this turns into a positive feedback cycle that can make giving talks a pleasure.
Where do you submit your papers? Your professors will help you with this choice, but in general I would suggest shooting for the best conferences or journals where you think it has a reasonable chance of being accepted. It’s not much more work to write, submit and present a paper in a highly respected venue than in less respected venues. And if you don’t shoot for the top you’ll never know if it would have made it.
Don’t forget to communicate with your professors and your teammates. Keep your committee appraised of your progress. One thing I do (which few others do) is write short (1 screenfull) status reports, which I religiously e-mailed to my professors and team members on a weekly basis. These serve as an efficient way of keeping everyone up to date on what I’m doing. They are also a good way for me to record my progress. If I need to remember what I got done during a six month period, I have plenty of old status reports that I can read. You’d be amazed how appreciative professors and managers are of this simple practice. I also throw in a different humorous quote at the end of each week’s report to reward people for reading it.
When you are working in the lab and you reach a milestone or achieve a result, let people know about it! Bring in your professors and fellow students and show it off! That’s a win-win situation. It lets others know that you are making progress and achieving results, and you get valuable feedback and advice.
Choosing an advisor and a committee
The choice of an appropriate advisor is crucial to successfully completing the Ph.D. Your advisor must be someone who can cover your area of specialization and someone you can get along with. When I started graduate school, I thought the advisor – student relationship was supposed to be very close, both professionally and socially. In reality, the relationship is whatever the professor and the student choose to make of it. It can be close, with invited dinners at the professor’s home, or it can be distant, e.g. meeting occasionally to remind the professor that the student is still alive.
Balance and Perspective
“Life goes by so fast, that if you don’t stop and look around, you might miss it.”
– from the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off
“Generally speaking, people provide better maintenance for their cars than for their own bodies.”
- Scott Adams, The Dilbert Future
Earning a Ph.D. is like running a marathon. You have to learn to pace yourself and take care of your body if you want to reach the finish line. Unfortunately, students often act like sprinters trying to run a marathon. They are highly productive for a while, but then fall by the wayside because they aren’t eating correctly, exercising, taking time out to recharge their batteries, etc. You maximize your long-term productivity by not ignoring those other aspects.