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12 Tips for Surviving and Thriving in Grad School

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.

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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.

12 Tips for Surviving and Thriving in Grad School

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). 12 Tips for Surviving and Thriving in Grad School. Psych Central. Retrieved on August 6, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
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