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Advice for First-year Graduate Students

Empty college lecture hall
by Katie White Austin with the SPSP Student Committee

Image by Pexels

The first year of graduate school can be challenging and nerve-wracking, even in the absence of a global pandemic. With the new academic year upon us, the SPSP Student Committee reflects on advice for first-year graduate students.


  • Avoid stressing out over every single reading for each class – Reading for classes is important. However, sometimes it’s not possible to read every word for every article or chapter that’s assigned. One committee member recommends that you prioritize a set of the readings assigned. For example, if a class assigns 4-5 journal articles each week, pick 2-3 to read fully. Then, read the abstracts and discussions for the remaining articles. As long as you can make a contribution in class discussions, it’s okay if you can’t read all of the papers carefully.
  • Branch out – There are many advantages to taking classes outside your core, content area. Exposing yourself to material and research outside your department can help you create new research ideas and have a broader understanding of the constructs you study. Several members also recommended that strengthening your statistical analysis skills by taking a range of stats courses will help you more than it will hurt.


Lab-related work

  • Organization is key -- Several members recommend using a planner or calendar to keep track of all upcoming deadlines. Take some time figuring out what format works best for you (e.g., a spreadsheet, LOT planner, a virtual calendar). This will help not only with lab projects, but also with all other deadlines. If it seems overwhelming to map everything out, try breaking up projects and papers into smaller pieces.


The advisor-advisee relationship

  • Read published journal articles – When you join a lab, try to read as many of your advisor’s published journal articles as you can. This will help you become familiar with their research, and you’ll get a sense of what they might like to do in the future. This can help you set expectations for what type of projects you’ll be doing.
  • Ask for clarification when you need to – It can be awkward to go back to your advisor and admit you don’t quite understand what you’re being asked to do. However, it is almost always much worse to charge ahead and risk making costly errors. Several committee members suggest that it’s better to error on the side of asking too many questions than not enough.
  • Be open and honest – Communicating when you are coping with physical or mental health issues, busy schedules, and family obligations may make it easier to develop your relationship with your advisor in the long run. It can also be helpful to try to get to know your advisor beyond research. One committee member suggests starting every meeting with a brief conversation unrelated to work. This can help develop a more holistic relationship with your advisor.
  • When you have issues, take time to pause and then reach out to a trusted colleague – Unfortunately, there may be occasions where you feel the relationship with your advisor isn’t functioning as it should. In these instances, wait at least 24 hours before addressing something that may be confusing or stressful. It can be our impulse to want to respond instantly, but you may send an email or say something you later regret. If you feel there is a bigger issue at hand with your advisor, think about reaching out to a trusted colleague who can provide you with another perspective.  


Relationships with peers

  • Attend and plan events – This can be especially hard in a virtual setting. However, if your school is hosting virtual social hours, try to attend! Similarly, think about reaching to members of your cohort or lab to plan a virtual event if meeting in person is impossible. Graduate school can feel isolating, especially so in a pandemic, but still try to foster social connections.
  • Support is more important than competition – Comparing your progress those of other individuals in your cohort or program is natural. If you’re able to, focus on developing supportive relationships with the others in your program. One member of the student committee advises that you never know who will end up on a hiring committee later on or if someone in your program could collaborate with you on an awesome paper. Celebrate others’ successes as much as you can, but don’t obsess over what others are accomplishing. Focus on your own path.


Work-life balance

  • Set boundaries for yourself – It’s okay to work all the time if you want to. However, it’s also okay to keep a 9am-5pm schedule if that works best for you. Keep in mind what works for someone else in terms of working hours might not work for you. The important thing is set a schedule and try to stick to it as much as you can. This will help your sanity!
  • Still, some weeks (and months) will feel easier than others – As one student committee member aptly put, “there will be weeks you will work 80-90 hours, and some you will work 30-40 hours. Some weeks your home will be clean and you'll meal prep, others you may be eating bread and living in pile of dirty clothes.” If you expect a difficult period is coming up, let others know you’ll be busy, ask for extensions on projects when you need to, try to clean the house ahead of time/stock up on healthy meals, and set strict, early bedtimes for yourself.
  • Focus on who you are outside of graduate school – Several members recommend spending time developing yourself outside of your graduate studies. Maintain old hobbies and try new ones. When you can, take evenings and weekends off. You will a better scholar in the long run if you nurture your whole personhood.

Imposter syndrome

  • You are not alone – Your fellow students as well as your professors all have experienced imposter syndrome at times. One committee member recommends being patient with yourself, figure out what you are interested in, and then go full steam ahead toward that pursuit. Don’t let imposter syndrome let you freeze up or work yourself too hard.
  • You are a work in progress (and that’s okay!) – You won’t know everything right from the get-go (nor should you). Why else would you be in graduate school? As long as you are learning and growing through this experience, you are not an imposter. Embrace this time for what it is. You belong here, and you will grow here.


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