David M. Hillis
Alfred W. Roark Centennial Professor
There are several common themes that seem to be shared by virtually all the successful graduate students I have known. The following list isn't everything that you need to know to be a success in graduate school, but if you've checked off these items, you are already well on your way to a successful, fulfilling, and enjoyable career.
- You must have passion for the subject: In my experience, passion for knowledge
is the greatest determinant of graduate
student success. Graduate students who
care deeply about discovering the answers
to the questions they pose in their dissertation
are likely to be successful in their graduate
careers, as well as in their professional
lives. If you aren't truly passionate
about your dissertation topic, then find
another topic. If you aren't passionate
about anything, then graduate school is
probably not your best option.
- Select a compatible faculty advisor: The second-most important determinant
of success in graduate school is finding
a compatible faculty advisor. Advising
styles vary markedly from program to program
and from one advisor to another within
the same program. You should find out
as much as you can about potential advisors,
and ensure that your wants and needs match
those of your advisor. Do you like to
receive constant guidance and oversight?
Do you prefer to work independently, and
only receive help and advice when you
ask for it? If you and your advisor have
compatible views about such topics, then
you are both likely to be much happier.
- Current and past graduate students
are the best source for reliable information
about prospective advisors: You will
want to ensure that your graduate advisor
is well known (for positive reasons) in
his or her field. This includes a publication
record of papers that have shaped the
field in recent years, a citation record
that indicates the papers are widely read
and cited, and a record of appropriate
research funding. However, you also want
a graduate advisor who is generous with
his or her time, and shares your passion
for knowledge of your chosen subject.
It is important that you ask the advisor's
current and former students about their
experiences. Does the advisor promote
and support his or her graduate students,
and appropriately share credit for joint
work? Are past graduate students also
in successful positions and leaders in
the field? Are current graduate students
happy working with the advisor? If not,
it is best to look for another advisor.
- Manage your time carefully: Successful
graduate students work hard and stay focused.
This doesn't mean that you should
ignore your life outside of your graduate
studies, but it does mean that you should
set aside dedicated time for your graduate
research. You'll need dedicated time
for your personal life as well. But when
you are supposed to be working, focus
on the job at hand.
- Learn to cooperate and share your
talents with others: Some graduate
students feel that they must compete with
their fellow graduate students. Don't
fall into this trap! Learn to cooperate
and help your fellow graduate students
who need assistance, and learn to ask
others for help when you need it. Your
advisor will be the best person to help
with some areas, but your fellow graduate
students will be critical for other assistance.
Be generous with your time and knowledge,
and others will return the favor.
- Enjoy yourself: If you followed the steps above, then you have a passion for the subject of your dissertation, you've found a supportive and compatible faculty advisor, you work hard on your research topic, and you have a supportive group of fellow graduate students who will be life-long friends. So enjoy and make the most of the privilege of graduate school you will always remember it as some of the best years of your life.