Read our COVID-19 research and news.

Perspective, certificate
Credit: G. Grullón/Science

Secrets to thriving in graduate school

As Steven’s eyes rise from his Western blot membrane, he takes note of his surroundings in the lab. To his left: superstar postdoc Laura. Laura is always on task; she has submitted a manuscript within her first year in the lab. To his right: eighth-year grad student Derek. Derek hasn’t published anything yet. He is gorging on free seminar pizza while searching the web for cheap hiking boots.

Steven’s thoughts drift to his own trajectory. How can he, a second-year graduate student, avoid Derek’s fate and set himself on a Laura-like trajectory?

Absorbing the ideas and philosophies of people you respect can help you navigate around, over, or through some potholes.

Many of us have a “Steven moment” as graduate students, when we compare ourselves with peers and wonder how to make the road to a Ph.D. more comfortable—or less bumpy—as we prepare for what lies beyond. Absorbing the ideas and philosophies of people you respect can help you navigate around, over, or through some potholes. Here, I provide practical productivity tips that will help you build and maintain momentum and keep your projects moving forward.

Project design and completion

Craft good questions. Spend time thinking about your projects and analyses before you start. Revisit and revise your questions frequently as results come in.

Have at least two projects. If you have downtime on one project, you can focus on another. You can develop your second project by collaborating with lab mates or scientists from another lab.

Write down your goals. Effective goals have five critical characteristics: They are challenging, attainable, and specific. They have a timeline for completion, and they must be revisited and refined periodically.

Write often to write effectively. Your writing communicates your scientific story. Write and read often to improve your writing skills. Before you start your project, write an introduction—then revise it many times as you progress. Write a scholarship or grant. Attend journal clubs and seminars. Set up weekly citation trackers to stay up on recent findings related to your work. Write summaries of the most interesting and relevant articles, with notes on how the work connects to your own.

Put a stamp on it. If an experiment is worth pursuing, it is worth completing. Don’t stop with the lab notebook; compile review slides in PowerPoint (or another suitable package) that document your experimental outcomes. Include purpose, methods, results, and interpretations along with data and revealing figures. You and your supervisor will appreciate this effort when you refer to these experiments in the future.

Working in the lab

Respect and appreciate your lab mates—even Derek. Everyone in the lab has skills that can help you. If you often work with undergrads or technicians, show your appreciation by taking them to lunch. You’ll find that even Derek—the career grad student—has skills or knowledge you can benefit from.

Ask others for advice. You can learn about experimental design by discussing it with experienced scientists. Are all appropriate controls included? What time point should be used? If your lab mates seem busy, schedule a meeting.

Sleep on it. If a lab mate or mentor irritates you, write down your thoughts (discretely and securely), but don’t respond right away. Sleeping on it will clear your head and allow you to compose a balanced, respectful reply the next day—if you decide to reply at all.

Acknowledge the contributions of others. Include generous acknowledgements in all your presentations, even (or especially) at small events like lab meetings.

Find and submit applications for scholarships and travel awards. Your supervisor will appreciate your initiative, and you will benefit from the experience—especially when you start writing grants.

Need guidance from your mentor? Set up a meeting. Your mentor is busy. Unless she prefers to keep things informal, schedule a time to ask for direction.

Seek out collaboration. If you do not have the expertise—or if the workload next Tuesday is overwhelming—seek help.

Do not reinvent the wheel. Talk to lab mates, search for local researchers with expertise, or collaborate with an expert elsewhere when you need to employ an unusual technique. You don’t get extra points for doing it on your own.

Learn when to be obsessive. Many protocols have parts that must be performed in a specific manner and other parts that are more flexible. If you know each step’s function, you know which steps you can do quickly and which will reward your obsessive attention to detail.

Have high hopes but low expectations. Such an attitude sets the best possible conditions for success while averting deep disappointment if the experiment does not work.

Do not take failure personally. Approach it as a learning experience.

Discomfort is a harbinger of change, or should be. If you aren’t feeling good about your project or lab life, use that discomfort to drive changes that solve the underlying problem.

Fake it ‘til you make it. Impostor syndrome—the feeling you’re a fraud and will soon be exposed—is common among aspiring academics. Find confidence by owning your job title (“I am a graduate student, so I’ll act like one.”) and emulating people you respect (a postdoc or principal investigator you know and admire). Most of all, find confidence by getting stuff done.

Improving your productivity

Every day, accomplish at least two tasks. This is especially important when you are stuck in a rut (e.g., when you’re getting inconsistent or unexpected results). Keep moving forward.

Do the task you are least excited about first (and right away). If it is a small, short-term task, finish it first thing in the morning. You’ll build momentum for the day. If it is a daunting, long-term task, plan it out and get started. Once the experiment is scheduled and the reagents are ordered, everything follows in turn. You’ll turn a reason for procrastination into serious momentum.

<p>Andrew D. Gaudet</p>

Andrew D. Gaudet

Courtesy of Andrew D. Gaudet

Balance bouts of focused work with short breaks. Most people focus better if they think about something else now and then.

Start the morning’s work immediately, before you turn on your computer. Avoid checking e-mail and media sites for at least an hour after you start work. Set an alarm (phone or online countdown). Reward yourself with a short break after that hour.

Restrict e-mail and social media use. E-mail and Internet surfing are time sinks. Process your e-mail no more than twice a day. If you’re expecting a message from your adviser, monitor your messages but don’t get sucked in. Stay focused on your main task.

Use online calendars and aggregators to organize your life. Never miss an important meeting, experiment, or workshop. Cloud-based aggregators (e.g., Evernote) help you maintain and easily access information (such as details for ordering supplies and the locations of samples in the lab).


On the bumpy road to a Ph.D., many potholes can be navigated. Others can be skipped over if you build enough momentum. If you’re clever, still others can be avoided altogether.

By following strategies outlined in this article, you can set boundaries that help you achieve more every day—and, in time, achieve your goals. Hopefully, in a few years, new graduate students will see you as a “Laura” rather than a “Derek.” You don’t have to be an eighth-year graduate student to enjoy free pizza.

Follow Science Careers

Search Jobs

Enter keywords, locations or job types to start searching for your new science career.

Top articles in Careers