Strategies for Success in Graduate School

By Janice F. Madden

Vice Provost for Graduate Education

Reprinted from Almanac, September 22, 1992

For the first time you are engaging in studies and research that will be judged not relative to your classmates, but relative to a larger profession. The competitiveness and real risk of failure to "be the best" paralyzes many of the very best. A recent study of graduate education at our peer institutions revealed that only 56% of students entering Ph.D. programs in English, History, and Political Science were awarded the Ph.D. It is very difficult to know who will suceed. Some of the very brightest, most promising students perform superbly in courses but never finish the Ph.D. thesis. They become part of the largest group of ABD's (All But Dissertation). Of those that finish the Ph.D., the number of graduates who never produce additional research exceeds the number that go onto illustrious academic careers. We do not understand what makes the difference.

There is very much about the successful education of researchers that remains a mystery to me. The goal of graduate education is clear: to produce researchers who will make substantial contributions to their fields. How to achieve that goal is less clear. Today, however, I want to focus on what we do know about completing doctoral degrees. There are things that you can do to make sure you obtain your Ph.D., rather than join the larger group of permanent ABD's


Make sure that you always have an advisor, more than one if possible. Your advisors are the faculty personally responsible for telling you how you are doing and what you need to do to make progress.

Your advisor should be able to meet with you as needed. When you are taking courses, they should guide your course selection each semester. As you progress through the program, they should assist in shaping your research agenda. After you have finished courses, your advisor should assist you to find a special subject area, define and redefine a specific research question, and respond to drafts of your dissertation proposal and dissertation chapters. As you near the completion of your dissertation, your advisor should guide your job search, including advising you in preparing the credentials needed for your application, writing personal letters of reference, and making personal inquiries with their own professional contacts.

You should take an active role in determining who your advisor will be. You obviously need to select faculty who are engaged in research close to your own interests. The faculty you choose should be responsive to you. On a subject level, they should be people that you can respect and with whom you can establish professional dialogue. In addition, check the graduate student grapevine to find out about their record with other students. How have their students fared? Have they completed? How long did it take? Does the professor set responsible standards: sufficiently high that her/his recommendations will carry weight later on, but not so high that no one ever completes in a timely manner? What does the professor expect from advisees? Does he/she set deadlines for outlines and chapters? What is the placement record for her/his students?

The persons who serve as your specific advisors may change as your interests change or become clearer.

You also must take responsibility for making the advising relationship work. Make appointments with your advisor to keep your advisor up-to-date on your progress, and remember that your advisor deals with many students. He or she will not remember your last conversation. Start with a summary of where you were at the last meeting.

Discuss your plans for your entire graduate career, especially time schedule, financial support, and work commitments.

Follow your advisor's suggestions. If you disagree with the advice, you must either get your advisor to change his or her position or you must get another advisor. You cannot expect a faculty member to continue to devote time to your work and career if you ignore their input

Course Strategies

Consciously use your courses to prepare yourself for writing a dissertation. Don't take incompletes; complete each course as you register for it.

Read the papers and books assigned in your courses with an eye to thinking of ways to study the same question differently. Take note of how ideas are expressed and the form in which papers are written. Keep notes on these considerations. But, do not fall into the graduate student habit of only looking at a study to list all its problems. This strategy is ultimately paralyzing. Every study/approach has its advantages and disadvantages. You will not be able to come up with a research plan that does not have problems. Rather, focus on what else can be done.

Consider possible dissertation topic interests and devote course term papers to those topics.

Other Strategies

You should attend the seminars/workshops/colloquia in your field of interest. Seminars represent less of an investment of your time than courses and allow you to meet faculty whose interests may be similar to yours. Furthermore, by attending the seminars, you will learn seminar skills that are important in your own future work roles.

Discuss your work with other students; form academically-oriented support groups. Comraderie with your classmates provides the best cure to the isolation that is often experienced by graduate students in the humanities and social sciences.

Read the materials provided by your graduate group and fulfill rules and requirements. If properly designed, they impose a clear set of steps to completion of the doctoral degree and give you feedback along the way.

Assist a faculty member in his or her research; ask about joint authorship. This will improve your letters of recommendation from the faculty member and publications will improve your resume.

Do not take outside jobs unless you are starving; it is far too easy to devote time to projects with immediate results and put longer term, harder intellectual challenges, like finishing a dissertation, on the back burner. But do engage in family, social, and recreational activities that keep graduate school in perspective.

For the first time in your life , it is no longer enough to be the smartest kid in your class. As you write a dissertation, you take on generations of knowledge. It can be a heavy burden for those whose entire identity depends on being the best. We hope that you will be the best, but most of us do not achieve that level of eminence. For most of us, there is somebody who can do our jobs better than we do, but luckily enough they are otherwise engaged! You will find your niche. Remembering this will help you keep your sanity, and keeping your sanity assures you of finding your niche!