How to Succeed in Graduate School: 5 Tips and Tricks

May 31, 2022

By Shaquilla Harrigan

When I received my first graduate program acceptance letter, I was so excited that my hard work in applying to graduate school had paid off. After deciding between programs, negotiating offers, and moving to a new city, I was back in school two years after completing my undergraduate degree. Easing back into academic life wasn’t easy, but through trial and error, I learned how to succeed in graduate school — and you can too! In this article, I’d like to share some of my most helpful tips for how you can succeed in your graduate program

While I thought that my two years of professional work experience would make stepping back into the classroom less daunting, I soon realized that I would need to develop new habits if I were to do well in my PhD program. When I started my program, I would read blog posts (like this one!) and try to implement the author’s methods into my routine. Eventually, I learned how to adapt their tips to match my own work style.

I hope that in reading this list, you’re able to discover that the most important advice for how to succeed in graduate school is that there is no one-size-fits-all formula: it’s all about finding out what works best for you. 

5 Tips on How to Succeed in Graduate School for Scholars in Any Department

1. Get Organized: Create an Overview of Your Graduate School Career

Understanding all of the myriad requirements that stand between you and your degree is an important starting point for success. Your program will have a list of required courses and projects you must complete before graduation, and each of these overarching tasks will have smaller assignment deadlines to meet. 

To help me keep track of all these requirements, I created a “Grad Career Tracker” spreadsheet in Excel to organize my program requirements, professional goals, grant application deadlines, and teaching responsibilities. On the first page is a semester-by-semester overview of my classes and departmental requirements. Another sheet within the same document has a checklist of all my assignment deadlines, exams, writing goals, and application deadlines due in a single semester, and a third tab has a checklist with the anticipated date and completion date of my departmental requirements.

This helps me ensure that nothing slips through the cracks during hectic semesters or research periods. I also share this spreadsheet with my advisors so we’re on the same page about my goals and deadlines.

2. Use a Calendar System

I highly suggest using a calendar system (whether it’s Google Calendar, iCalendar, or a paper calendar) to manage all of your tasks and responsibilities in graduate school. I make sure that I sync my school calendar with my personal calendar across both my computer and phone, which helps me avoid double-booking meetings. At the start of each semester, I add my class schedule and all my deadlines to my iCalendar. I also include reminders two weeks and one week out from my deadlines. I pencil in regular meetings with my advisors, blocks of time I’m at the gym, and even when I walk my dog. 

It may seem excessive, but I find it helpful to visualize how I’m spending all the hours in my day. I initially believed that I would use all the unscheduled white space in my calendar to work; however, that was not the case. This undedicated time was unorganized and left me feeling like I didn’t know where my time was going. To help you manage your unscheduled time, I suggest blocking out this white space on your calendar for worktime and self-care time. You can also leave in flux time or extend a worktime session from two hours to two and a half hours. If you finish early, then you can either move on to the next thing or take a well-deserved break. 

Mapping out your time on a calendar will help you protect your time and keep track of your tasks and responsibilities. You should also consider the time you spend checking email, in transit, or completing the pre-tasks (reading, collecting sources, etc.) that are necessary before starting your main work. Don’t be alarmed if you find that in the first few weeks of the semester it’s taking you longer to complete your assignments than the time you initially allotted on your calendar: This is completely normal!

Give yourself a realistic set of tasks for each day. Not only will it feel nice to visually see your accomplishments, but over time you will improve in knowing what’s doable in a day and get better at setting attainable goals for the week. 

3. Understanding Active vs. Passive Brain Time

Active and passive brain time refers to the idea that some of your tasks will require different amounts of attentiveness and engagement for completion. Tasks such as writing, researching, and teaching are more active brain activities. Tasks like reading for class or checking email, however, require less deep engagement. 

In addition to the type of task at hand, your active and passive brain time may change throughout the course of the day. If you’re someone who has a lot more energy in the mornings, then you should schedule your most intensive work during those hours. On your calendar, you should block out these hours for yourself. Treat this time as immovable and schedule meetings around it. For example, I always hit an afternoon slump, so I dedicate that time to tasks like reading or checking my email. Organizing your schedule around your active and passive brain activities will help you ensure that you’re maximizing your potential for productivity.

4. Practicing Self-Care and Pacing Yourself

Remember that graduate school is a marathon and not a sprint. You need to take care of yourself in the short term to facilitate your success in the long term. This means regularly scheduling self-care into your routine. Remember: Self-care does not equal getting enough sleep or eating healthy food. Those things are the foundations upon which other activities are built! Self-care can mean scheduling a weekly call with a close friend, unwinding and watching a movie if you’re feeling overwhelmed, or going for a long walk to help clear your mind.

Each semester will bring about unexpected setbacks and opportunities, so give yourself grace and flexibility, and don’t be afraid to adjust your calendar when needed. Your peers and professors will understand!

5. Take Advantage of University Resources

One of the best parts of being a graduate student is having access to a wide network of opportunities and resources at your University. Your University’s library will have access to several research materials and may even host tutorials on programs like Zotero or Python. Even though I’m a Sociology PhD student, I’ve found classes and resources to support my research agenda in other departments on campus, such as the Graduate School of Education, Africana Studies, Anthropology, Political Science, and Center for Global Affairs. Don’t be afraid to branch out of your department to see what your University can offer you in terms of academic and professional development!

You can also branch out further beyond your University to find external conferences, classes, funding opportunities (check out the ProFellow database!), and more. For example, many universities also sponsor workshops that are open to outside graduate students. Your program may have a lot to offer, but don’t hesitate to network and make connections with scholars beyond your campus.

I hope that these tips on how to succeed in graduate school, which are informed by my own personal experiences as a PhD candidate, are helpful to you in your graduate school journey. Remember, you have all of the qualities to earn your degree; it’s just a matter of perseverance, seeking support, and finding the right routines and habits that work best for you and your research. 

Shaquilla Harrigan is a doctoral candidate in Sociology at the University of Pennsylvania. Her research focuses on education and training programs for Kenyan youth. Prior to beginning her PhD, Shaquilla was a Princeton in Africa Fellow in Nairobi, Kenya. She graduated with a B.A. in Social Studies from Harvard University.

Interested in learning more? Find out How to Find Fully-Funded Graduate Programs in Your Discipline in our video tutorial.

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