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Some Thoughts On Grad School

The End is Near(ish)Graduate Student Lounge

As my final year as a PhD student continues its unnerving hurtle forward, I thought it would be nice to reflect on my grad school experience. Below are a collection of ideas, warnings, regrets, and assorted lessons I’ve accrued over my time so far at MIT.

Some of this advice I follow. Some I only wish I followed. All of it, I hope, is more or less true.

Thought #1: Research Trumps All

This is the master thought that most of the other thoughts support. The job of a graduate student is to learn how to do professional-quality research. At the end of your grad school experience you will be judged by the quality and quantity of the research. And that’s basically it. Remind yourself of this truth often. If you’re not making progress on your research, then radically rethink your scheduling priorities.

Thought #1.5: Don’t Let Courses and Quals Distract You From Thought #1

Don’t get too caught up in your courses or qualification exams. Study smart. Do good work. But remember, this isn’t college, and doing well academically is merely a prerequisite for being a successful graduate student — it’s far from the ultimate goal. Keep coming back to your research as priority #1.

Thought #2: Don’t Be a Firefighter

A simple truth: you’ll have more urgent things on your plate than you’ll have time to complete. If you spend your days only putting out one fire after the next as they arrive in your inbox — paper review requests, articles to read, extra experiments to conduct for your advisor — you’ll get very little original research done. This violates thought #1.

This syndrome, fortunately, is easy to avoid. Spend the first 2 -3 hours of the morning doing original work. Only then should you check your e-mail for the first time that day (and let the firefighting begin).

Thought #3: Stick to a Fixed Work Day

The nature of graduate student work is paradoxical. You’ll always feel like you should be working more hours. However, if you add these extra hours, your work output doesn’t increase much. With this in mind, you might as well fix a regular work day (I do 9 to 5:30) and refuse to work beyond these hours (with the obvious exceptions: the night before deadlines, etc.)

Do this, and four things will happen: First, you’ll focus more and get work done faster. Two, you’ll start work earlier which increases its quality. Three, you’ll start turning down time-consuming requests that add little to your career (and be pleased to discover that you’re allowed to say “no”). And four, your stress and guilt will plummet.

Thought #4: Three Projects is Optimal…

Working on one research project at a time is not enough. If you get stuck you can go many weeks beating your head against the wall and getting nothing done. This sucks. More than three projects are too many; quality will suffer and you’ll feel overwhelmed. This also sucks. Juggling three at time seems to be just about right.

Thought #5: …But Don’t Work on More than One Per Day

Within the context of a single day, focus your attention on a single project.

Thought #6: Listen to the Married Graduate Students and Ignore the Unmarried Students Who Live in the Dorms

Students with families have perspective on life and friends outside of the university. They tend to be happy and productive and think sleeping on the futon in your office is childish. They also bathe every day. Which is a nice bonus. The students who are unmarried and living in the dorm have probably escaped, thus far, exposure to the real world in any meaningful form, and because of this they are likely to have a warped sense of personal worth and work habits, and suffer from weird guilt issues. Ignore them.

Thought #7: Promise People Deadlines Then Follow Through

The easiest way to avoid being hassled is to respond to requests with the specific day on which you will complete the work, and then actually follow through. Do this, and people will leave you alone to accomplish things on your own schedule.

Thought #8: Challenge Yourself Once a Month

It’s so damn easy for your research to fall into a rut grooved by short-term decisions based on the question: “What’s the shortest path between here and a new publication?”. Many a graduate student, faced with crafting a job talk after 5 years of work, realizes, with horror, that his “research direction” is weak, jumbled, and uninspiring.

Once a month take yourself out for breakfast and ask: “What is my research mission as a graduate student? And how do I get back there from here?” I imagine this is how lasting careers are founded. (I wish I did this more.)

Thought #9: Don’t Mistake Experience for Smarts

Undergraduates think their graduate student TA’s are smarter than them. Junior graduate students think the senior graduate students are smarter than them. Senior graduate students think their advisors are smarter than them. Sense a pattern? It all comes down to experience. The more time you spend working in a field, the better you get at it, and the smarter you seem to those with less experience. Therefore, when you’re young, don’t get freaked out, and when you’re older, don’t get too impressed with yourself.

Thought #10: Take Days Off

The wonderful thing about being a graduate student is that you don’t have a real job. Your responsibilities are long-term (produce good research) not short-term (answer the phones from 9 to 5). Embrace this fact. Take days off to reward work well done and to unwind. See a movie in the afternoon at least once a month. No one is secretly punching a time clock for you.

For my graduate student readers, what thoughts do you have about your academic experience?

(photo by Lupton Library)

78 thoughts on “Some Thoughts On Grad School”

  1. Great post! I definitely agree with 1 (research), 4 (three projects), 7 (deadlines) and 8 (challenge research focus). I’ll definitely take #8 seriously; it’s a fantastic idea. Although I would disagree with you on #5. I think the reason I’m most productive with three projects is because I have the freedom to move from one to another after a few hours once my brain is tired of thinking about one thing and is fresh for another. Plus, it means I can check three small things off my to-do list instead of just one big one!

  2. Nice. While thought #1 and #1.5 are true, I would say depending on how your graduate program is structured, it could be bad advice. I’ve heard countless stories of students at my school busting their humps for their professor’s research, and neglecting their quals and eventually having to leave for not passing them. If you weren’t an R.A., there was no strong incentive to focus on research if you hadn’t passed your quals. If you didn’t pass your quals and maintain above a 3.5 GPA, you “had” to leave.

    My department has recently tried to mitigate this issue by requiring students to produce research in their first year of graduate study.

  3. Some aspects of graduate school are slightly different for English majors (and other humanities majors, I would assume).

    1. Start thinking early about what topics you love. Although there is no pressure to choose a dissertation topic your first year, if you are writing seminar papers with at least a vague focus, that focus eventually becomes honed and those papers become potential dissertation chapters. So, think about topics that you can write about over and over again without hating them. And conversely, if you find yourself writing about the same topics over and over again, that is probably your dissertation topic right there.

    2. Read for fun. With all the assigned reading to wade through, it can be difficult to remember why you are doing this in the first place….oh, yeah, I like books. So take a break from Barthes and Bakhtin and Bronte and read Twilight. Or read Barthes, as long as it is your choice and not for work.

    3. Avoid negative people, seek out positive people. PhD students take perverse pride in seeing you can gripe the most about their workload and stress level. Whoever is closest to a nervous breakdown wins. Avoid people who indulge in this form of masochistic recreation. There are people out there who actually have a healthy relationship with their work.

    4. And speaking of masochism, appreciate criticism. It is extremely difficult to see your carefully crafted article sent back covered in marginalia. Swallow your pride and take notes. I tack the particularly thorough criticisms to my bulletin board for reference on the next paper that I write.

    I love this post (especially 8, 6, and 10) and would like to see more on graduate school.

    • My daughter is an undergraduate student who is plagued by the same problems (almost)all students are- time, stress, burnout. She has broadly chosen dedicate herself to the study of the humanities. As she complains about attention problems and less clear direction in the humanities compared to STEM fields, I have recommended that she take another look at Cal Newport’s book “Deep Work” which we both have read. She resists as it is her opinion that Mr Newport’s methods are more applicable to STEM and don’t really work nearly as well for studying the humanities. What is your opnion re: application of Deep Work principles to studying the humanities?

  4. Great post–I only wish I had come across this advice earlier! I definitely struggle with #3 and #10, always feeling like I need to work and then feeling really guilty when I’m not pseudo-working. I’ve been trying to figure out a way to reclaim more of my life–I’ll definitely try to implement some of these suggestions.

    I would definitely love to see some more grad specific posts, as well. Keep up the great work! And congratulations on nearing the end of your PhD!

  5. More! Write more about grad school! I’m a first year PhD student.

    I am using a fixed work day, and it’s wonderful.

    1. 8-9 is organizing my entire life and doing little random things (GTD-style)
    2. 9-12 is coursework (completely scheduled out from mon-fri, i won’t bore you with the details.
    3. 12-12:30 lunch and random chore overflow
    4. 12:30 – 2pm run/stretch/lift weights, mon-fri
    5. 2-5 research (i’d do research in the morning, but it’s easiest to catch my advisor and the rest of the lab in the afternoon, and if I need help or need to get more done, it’s easy to just stay and keep working.
    6. 5-6 (GTD-style wrap up, tie up loose ends for tomorrow, park downhill)

    This is the default schedule. There’s tons of flexibility here, and no days look exactly like this, but this is what I orbit around, and it’s great. As I do less coursework, more and more of this will move to research.

    Please write more about grad school!

  6. I should add, that by using GTD-style project management and having a fixed work day, I seem to be generating 20-25 hours of progress a week (i.e., the time i’m technically supposed to be putting in) in only about 15 hours a week (i.e., my advisor is satisfied with my progress, so far anyway), not counting strategic planning outside those 15 hours.

  7. And I wear dorky headphones when I’m stuck in the lab, to block out all noise, and I spend as little time in the lab as possible (to get more done), managing commitments crisply to avoid an impression of dereliction.

    Another point is trying to do at least one independent study. That has its own uncertainties and stressors, but I have more control over my schedule because i’m not stuck in class.

  8. Wow. That GradHacker list you link to at “warped sense of personal worth and work habits,” I don’t know how to read. That guy either is either very sharp and a good satirist, or an idiot

  9. Hi,

    When you do research how do you collect your data? Do you read everything exhaustively or just skim the materials? I have a bunch of texts to read for a project I have going on and I’m having difficulty finding an efficient way to collect my research. Reading + notetaking takes an extremely long time–on the other hand, if I don’t read diligently, I feel as though I don’t really have a good handle on the material.

  10. Wow. That GradHacker list you link to at “warped sense of personal worth and work habits,” I don’t know how to read. That guy either is either very sharp and a good satirist, or an idiot

    He’s very sharp and a good satirist.

  11. I’ve heard countless stories of students at my school busting their humps for their professor’s research, and neglecting their quals and eventually having to leave for not passing them.

    I guess my point is that you have to be able to bust your hump and not neglect your quals…

    As always, great post Cal!
    What are your plans for after you finish?

    Post-doc en route to a professor position … if anyone will have me, that is.

    When you do research how do you collect your data?

    I do math, so I basically spend a lot of time staring at blank pieces of paper. For the humanities, reading and taking notes is like 90% of your responsibility. Get a good system for collecting your notes, then do lots and lots of it. (Check out protoscholar — link can be found in my blogroll — she writes about this a lot)

  12. +1 for more Graduate School posts. I’d also like to see more “how to prep. for grad school” posts…. I WOULD LOVE a whole book on it. I would think many of your readers (myself included) are serious undergrads who consider getting into academia. Maybe you should explore that “market” more often 😉

    And naturally, congrats on your upcoming “epic win” (some internet lingo for you).

  13. I agree about 1.5, but as a 1st year student, courses are still an overwhelming priority. While this is your aggregate advice, how might this particular advice varied earlier on in your PhD life? How can you carve out time for your own research early on in the process?

  14. Wow. That GradHacker list you link to at “warped sense of personal worth and work habits,” I don’t know how to read. That guy either is either very sharp and a good satirist, or an idiot

    Hilarious. I laughed for about 30 seconds right now reading that. Thanks Cal, for the good words a few comments after. Though I should add that I feel like an idiot basically every day; I suppose that’s Thought #9. Also, the full list of How to Act Productive Posts can be found at the new blog address:

    Great list Cal. Though, I should tell you, I will whole heartedly be ignoring Thought #1.5 for a few months until I pass my Qual. Then I will embrace it completely. (Be honest, I assume this is what you did?)

  15. I love it, excellent thoughts and advice. You hit the nail on the head with your point about research. My undergrad (now graduate) studies were in Theology. You talk about learning how to research, that’s what much of it has been, along with writing of course. 🙂

  16. Great tips!
    I think number 3 is great. Routine: The way to succes 😉
    And the one time a month challenging yourself.. Fantastic!


  17. This is an excellent list – especially 9 and 10. Although I think people not taking time off is partly because of the pressure of “feeling stupid” (cf. experience versus smarts). I felt a lot better after my supervisor told me that she still feels stupid when she does research – but she sticks with it for the moments when she finally figures something out!

    Count my vote in for more posts about grad school!!

  18. Hi, Cal. I am interested in reading more articles about doing well in grad school as well. I just purchased your second book and will be applying the strategies as I study for my final. By the way, thanks for answering my two questions.

  19. I am interested in reading more articles about doing well in grad school as well.

    I’m interested in writing some more of these articles. Are there any specific topics you’d really like to hear about?

  20. Hi Cal,
    I like your blog a lot, but sadly it has less topics for ph.d students. I am a second year ph.d student in German University. In Europe, we do not do courses or teaching, but we also have less time to produce high quality research ( 3years), and we need to publish at least once. It would be interesting to read more about your experience, or experience of other successful graduate student. In particular, tips about project management (this tips might be quite different from those for the college students), producing publishable, meaningful results, getting along well with supervisor and colleagues, meeting the deadlines without stressing out too much, etc. I should say, most of these topics are already covered in different sections of your blog, but again, they are not quite suitable for the kind of life style that the graduate students have. Thanks a lot for your helpful tips and good luck!

  21. Hi,

    Just wondering if you could talk more about #8. In particular, how do you decide what your research mission is in the first place? How do you know if it’s worthwhile or not?

    The reason I ask is that every time I go to craft a “research mission” for myself, I decide after about 10 minutes that I need to go spend about 2 more years reading about my field before I could possibly presume to understand where the weak points are in the literature and what to do about them. Unfortunately, 2.5 years is how much time I have left to complete my PhD…

    — Dan

  22. Hi Cal,
    This is my first question in your blog. Cal I am a prospective MS student and I am right now deciding between universities(wont mention names) one of which has with good research going on but with hectic non flexible credits policy and other has flexible course structure but with not that great research.Both have good profs

    If i go with good research then the hectic rigid credit policy wont give me time to indulge into researcg and if i go for flexible credit policy thn i can devote my time to do sth innovative

    Could you please help me with your views of going wid good research or flexible course structure

  23. Could you please help me with your views of going wid good research or flexible course structure

    Go to the school with the better reputation. The quality of your research (which, to a large degree, comes from the quality of your advisors) trumps.

    Just wondering if you could talk more about #8. In particular, how do you decide what your research mission is in the first place? How do you know if it’s worthwhile or not?

    My article on James McLurkin and stretch churn is a great place to start. Basically: get to the bleeding edge; once there, potential research missions will become much more apparent.

  24. Hi Cal,

    I think your post is slightly misleading. From my perspective, academic workload is highly dependent on which domain of study you’re in. I know nobody in mine who can achieve the basic requirements without having to work at least 55 hours + /week. We often joke about Maths PhD not working a lot (a couple of us have close friends in math department).

    I still agree that a fixed schedule is a great thing and does improve productivity, but saying that you can achieve a PhD in 40 hours/week is, in my opinion, an understatement.

  25. #1 assumes that everyone who gets a PhD wants to go to a Research 1 school. I know that the idea that people might want to get a PhD and teach at a SLAC (small liberal arts college) is abhorrent to research snobs, but it is a fact: Not everyone loves research.

    I didn’t notice anything about teaching in your post. Is teaching not important in your program, or is it more like pumping chemical toilets ( Well, I guess if you’re going to a Research 1, it doesn’t matter to you if you’ve left a mass of confused, disgruntled students in your wake as long as you’ve done your precious research. To hell with the undergrads–you’re there to do research!

  26. # 6 is a little odd! but may be true as a generalisation. Some of us have thought through the idea of marriage with great time and care and have come to the conclusion that it’s not worth it. Excellent article otherwise.

  27. We often joke about Maths PhD not working a lot (a couple of us have close friends in math department).

    It’s possible that us theory types had it easier.

    I know that the idea that people might want to get a PhD and teach at a SLAC (small liberal arts college) is abhorrent to research snobs, but it is a fact: Not everyone loves research.

    That being said, a quality SLAC is still going to hire you primarily based on your research record.

    Some of us have thought through the idea of marriage with great time and care and have come to the conclusion that it’s not worth it.

    Notice, I’m not advising your to get married. I’m saying instead to take your cues about stress, schedule, work habits, from those who are married.

  28. Hi Cal! I wish I’d seen this before. I’ve arrived at pretty much all the same conclusions, but after spending half a year in grad school. Looking back at the last 4 months … ouch. But the first 1 (and a half) suggestions are really true. I now get my work done in the morning before my first class, so after that I can focus on classes and developing math skils.

    Again, Thanks!

  29. Nice post and awesome blog. As a 4th year grad student your advice resonated quite strongly. I do have a couple of things to add:

    1) Your advice for having a fixed work day doesn’t work so well for experimental research (especially in biology). Experiments tend to have their own schedule (especially cells) that we grad students have to follow to get good results. Also, machines break, experiments go wrong, etc. and you may have to stay late to get things moving again. While I agree with the general principle that work should be focused and useful, sometimes it’s impossible to completely avoid the ‘time wasting’ stuff.

    2) Do you have any advice for coming up with original research proposals? What do you do if you can’t generate good ideas easily? How do you pick a good topic to start with? It would be great if you could do a post about this.

  30. Thought #2 cannot be overemphasized.
    I stopped checking my mails before 12noon focussing on what really matters and I can see the effect on my productivity. I now control my day and its not controlled by mails from my supervisor.

  31. so what about non-science oriented grad students? many of these items are great, but i’ve tried the set work hours, i’ve tried saying no, i’ve tried not focusing on the fires… that doesn’t seem to work too well. is it cultural? is it because we’re headed straight back into academia at the end that if we don’t look like we’re working 12 hour days 7 days a week, we’re considered slackers? i can’t tell you how many times my advisor has told me she’s worried i spend too much time taking care of my health (i have diagnosed chronic migraine—and am getting accommodated!). talk about having no grip on reality. do i just need a thicker skin?

  32. 9-5:30??!!! What kinda lab are you working in?? A senior student in our lab just graduated after 10 years and worked at least 12 hours per day plus the weekends. And don’t tell me that she doesn’t work efficiently. Quote from the boss:”she can easily run a lab.”

    And married students are happier?! what kind of bullshit is this?! <30k salary plus paying tuition plus raising a family and you call this happier?!!!! I've personally witnessed four married coupled broken up as a result of financial stress. Do more research before you trick more students into this grad school shit hole.

  33. What I don’t understand is how you only work on one project a day in graduate school. I have 6 classes (so I’ll say 6 projects, even though there are usually more than one project per class each week) and then on top of that I work 15 hours a week to keep afloat (another project). Do you only have 3 courses? Or fewer?

    • In this article I’m really talking mainly about research focused programs in which your class work is not that relevant after the first two years, and even then 3 or 4 classes would be normal. If you’re taking 6 classes then your focus will be more class focused.

  34. Good general post overall but I’ll have to disagree with you on #6 quite a bit. If you yourself are unmarried, it’s much easier to have social outings and destress with grad students that do not have a family to deal with. Your statement is a gross exaggeration based on what, with lack of evidence, can only be assumed to be your single experience. I guess you can try to assume that anyone unmarried is “of lesser quality” and more mature than those married, but if that’s your attitude, then fine isolate yourself up in that stuck-up tower all you want.

  35. Wonderful and very insightful post,

    May I request you to write more on Graduate school studies, publications, balancing work-life-studies. More comments/detailed post on #8, and #6 will surely help readers in long run.

    Will look forward to more posts on this….

  36. Hi Cal,

    This is one of your masterpieces. I do not know how many times I have revisited this post during these three years of graduate school just to remind myself how should be my daily routine.

    I wonder if it could be possible for future posts to combine your current interests in deep work with this more school oriented pieces.

    Sometimes I think that this kind of posts are more humanitarian – considering the great despair and hungry for right advise in school – than anything else.


  37. I am about to start graduate school (two more days) and the advice in this post is really helpful. It aligns up with all your work on being a good student and focusing deeply on the things that matter and produce value (I loved deep work).

    Not sure if you still get notifications for old blog posts from the past but if you do stumble across this comment I just wanted to say thanks. Both your books and your blog have helped me become a better student.

  38. It’s good to know more about grad school. I’m thinking about going into it, and I feel woefully unprepared. I guess I need to get really good at researching things, if that’s the main focus of grad school!

  39. I agree, however, struggle to reconcile the lower priority of classroom obligations with the goals. I feel as though my department in particular shuns this thought (I am, I should admit, a first year PhD student). One class is particularly challenging and known for doling out C averages for most exams (2 out of our class of 30 got an A). What do I do here?

    My first thought was to tackle this class similarly to how Cal suggests in how to win at college: test early and often. I do not have the luxury of time to analyze this effect yet. I also am trying to focus on nailing this class and ratcheting down effort for other classes with less of a burden.

    Have other students in their phd felt the same tension? How did you resolve it? I want to be competitive for scholarships starting next semester, but certainly would be out of the picture with anything lower than a B on my transcript.


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