David M. Hillis

Alfred W. Roark Centennial Professor
Integrative Biology

David Hillis 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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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.

  6. 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.