Carol Williams-Nickelson, Ph.D, former associate executive director of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students and co-editor of Internships in Psychology: The APAGS Workbook for Writing Successful Applications and Finding the Right Fit, hears the words “surviving grad school” a lot.
But she wants prospective and current students to know that while grad school is an intense and challenging experience, it’s also a rewarding one. “Grad school was one of the best times of my life,” she said.
Grad school also is a unique experience. It’s unlike college, where classes are of chief importance, cramming the night before leads to decent grades and there’s plenty of time for play and extracurricular activities. Being a graduate student is a full-time job that requires you to sharpen a variety of skills — and learn some new ones.
Williams-Nickelson, along with Tara Kuther, Ph.D, professor at the Department of Psychology at Western Connecticut State University, share their insights on how students can better prepare themselves for the demands of grad school, overcome common obstacles and succeed!
Acing Academic & Other Demands
1. Know how you work.
There’s no doubt about it: Grad school is a lot of work. And in order to keep up with the demands, you need to know how you truly work, according to Kuther, who believes that this is key for succeeding in grad school. Learn “when you’re most productive and when you aren’t.”
2. Read smarter, not harder.
“In grad school, reading is a whole skill unto itself,” said Kuther, who’s also an About.com guide to graduate school. Like most students, it’s likely that you read beginning from end and don’t think about why you’re reading the text ‘til later, she said. But this is actually unhelpful.
Rather, you need to “read with purpose,” she said. This involves looking at the organization of a piece, the headers, chapter headings and bullet points. Also, think about why you’re reading the article, how it fits into your course or research and what you should be getting out of it, Kuther said. Try to determine if it supports your argument and if there’s any surprising information.
Also, when reading anything for your own research, “if it doesn’t fit your paper at all, stop reading.” “A lot of students will still read,” Kuther said, and this just wastes your time.
3. Focus less on grades and more on learning.
Clinical programs accept the cream of the crop so it’s safe to say that you’ve spent your college years worrying a lot about your grades. In grad school, though, it’s less about acing the test and more about truly retaining the information.
When she was in grad school, Williams-Nickelson was on the verge of receiving a B, and she panicked. But it was actually her professor who said that a B is a good grade and stands for “balance.” That’s in part because grad school involves more than just taking classes.
Remember that this program is training you to become a professional, to understand people and to work with others, which Williams-Nickelson said, “is just as important as academic knowledge or assessment skills.” You’re also developing relationships with individuals who will become lifetime colleagues and even friends, she said. Plus, many programs require students to conduct research. You want to make sure you’re doing more than studying for the next exam.
4. Pick opportunities wisely.
There are many different ways of doing psychology, Williams-Nickelson said, but “to be successful in grad school, you really have to choose opportunities wisely…Get a taste of the different specializations and areas but recognize there’s no way you can be exposed to everything in that [short] period of time.”
5. Consult others.
Ask other students how they approach their work. Also, talk with students who are more advanced, post-doctoral fellows or junior faculty, Kuther suggested. Junior faculty in particular “often have a great perspective and aren’t far away from being grad students themselves.”
6. Manage your time well.
“The single most important skill to develop to successfully navigate graduate school is to learn how to budget your time efficiently,” according to Mitch Prinstein, Ph.D, director of clinical psychology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and also co-editor of Internships in Psychology.
But “There is no one way to manage your time,” Kuther said. Everyone has a different approach, which also may change over time. Still, most models have the basics in common: you have to know “where you need to be when and what to do when.”
From there, Kuther said that it’s a matter of making to-do lists for your grad school career, and each semester. Then, you can break it down month by month and day by day. “The critical piece is not to feel overwhelmed but to mark down all the details on paper.” Do this for assignments, too. It’s important to “allocate time for everything.”
Take advantage of organizational tools, such as Google Calendar and good old paper planners. “You have to play with it and figure out what works for you,” Kuther said.
Importantly, “Learn how long it takes you to complete a specific task, and try not to spend much more time on that task,” Prinstein said. But be sure you’re setting a realistic estimate, because there’s a saying in grad school that everything will take three times longer than you think, Williams-Nickelson said.
Always keep the big picture in mind. When you don’t, “you get tangled up in one task,” Kuther said. For instance, it’s easy to spend all weekend writing and editing one paper and neglect other tasks. But this inevitably leaves less time for the rest of your to-do list and becomes a big stressor.
“Take a realistic look and decide if you have to drop something and if you have to allocate less time for something.” The same goes for the entire program. As Williams-Nickelson said, if you need an extra year to finish the program, “and you can maintain your sanity and leave as a less stressed and better balanced person,” so be it. “People try to cram a lot in and feel pressured to complete in a short period of time. I think the end result is probably not worth the stress that’s endured for that.”
Finally, “Don’t let unhealthy perfectionism keep you from attending to all of the demands of graduate school,” Prinstein said.
7. Don’t see grad school as the end of the road.
The goal of grad school is to give you a “baseline of knowledge,” so regardless of where you’re going — academia or private practice, for instance — “you have some minimum level of knowledge to get you started in the right direction,” Williams-Nickelson said. After grad school, there’s still a lot of learning to be done. “Learning is a lifetime endeavor.”
Mastering the Masters Thesis & Dissertation
When it comes to writing up your thesis or dissertation, the topic and even the outcome are less important, Williams-Nickelson said. “What is absolutely important is the academic exercise of learning how to conduct a thesis or dissertation really well.”
8. Keep a file of everything that interests you.
If you just started grad school, you might be stumped about what subject to select for your thesis. Kuther suggested starting early by keeping a file of anything and everything that interests you. Over time, you might find a theme around what you’ve been collecting.
However, remember that your topic doesn’t need to be revolutionary. Trying to pick an earth-shattering subject only prolongs the process. What also can stall the process is a longitudinal design, Williams-Nickelson said, so try to avoid conducting long-term research as your project.
9. Be thoughtful when choosing your committee members.
“Who you select to be on your committee is exceedingly important,” Williams-Nickelson said. Consider their work style, expectations and philosophy about the thesis or dissertation, she said. Some professors do push their students to come up with groundbreaking research. Others make your project even more complicated, “introducing all sorts of other research questions.” Instead, “consider asking a different professor who believes in the process and helping you learn how to do research…who wants to see you succeed and complete it” in an efficient manner.
To get a good idea of where professors stand, Williams-Nickelson suggested having “exploratory conversations with potential committee members.” If your advisor recommends a certain professor that doesn’t mean that you have to choose them. You could say “You know that’s a great idea, but here’s someone else I was thinking of and here’s why,” Williams-Nickelson said.
10. Write it your way.
Just as students do with reading, they assume that you have to start at the very beginning when writing a thesis or dissertation. “If you believe that, it’ll take you forever,” Kuther said. Rather, “Write whatever you can whenever you can.” She said to start with “whatever points make sense to you.” Remember that you’ll make multiple drafts, and it’s easier to edit than it is to write.
Got a mental block against writing? “Sometimes students find it easier to talk about the material” instead of doing traditional academic writing, Kuther said. If that’s the case, just “write as you’re talking” and forget the fancy words until you have your thoughts typed out. Or use speech recognition software like Dragon, which types as you talk.
Kuther suggested pacing yourself, working slowly and steadily each day and writing two to four hours tops. This prevents students from burning out and then abandoning the writing for days. However, this may not work for everyone.
For Williams-Nickelson marathon writing days worked best. She’d spend several 12-hour days writing and reading, and then take one or two weeks off. She felt that plugging away for about 20 minutes per day didn’t give her enough time to do substantive work. But the longer spurts helped her “get more done that way” and made her feel “more productive and more fulfilled.”
So figure out your learning and working style and apply that to successfully complete your thesis, dissertation or other projects, Williams-Nickelson said.
Having a Life Outside of Graduate School
11. Have a life outside of school.
While it might be “difficult to have a full life outside of school,” time away from school is key to your well-being. Your free time might include going out with friends, going to the gym or joining an on-campus club.
This also means practicing good self-care. Many students think that once they finish the program, their schedule will free up, demands will decrease and challenges will ease up. But as Williams-Nickelson said, “this just isn’t the case.”
Even though you won’t have large pockets of time, still carve out small blocks for self-care. For instance, spend 15 minutes a day exercising or 30 minutes walking on the beach. Participate in “whatever makes you happy and healthy and stay grounded.”
12. Keep your family in the loop.
Keep your family up to date on what you’re working on and how they can support you, whether that’s cooking dinner or leaving you alone, Williams-Nickelson said. It’s hard for people outside the program to automatically understand the demands and expectations. Let loved ones know when you’re going to be less available and why. Have “open conversations in advance and throughout the process.”
Overall, grad school is “a very enjoyable experience,” Williams-Nickelson said. While there are tough times and many demands, realize that it’s “time-limited,” and “take advantage of the opportunity to learn.” You’re participating in a unique experience, which less than one percent of the population has the opportunity to do, she said.