This blog post was adapted from a talk I gave during October of 2021. Literal books have been written on how to succeed in grad school. Having read several of them – and a healthy dose of blog posts – it can be overwhelming. This post is a distillation of information, and pointers to information, about the hidden curriculum that I found helpful. You don’t have to read it in one go and it may be helpful to return to it from time to time.

Wait, what am I doing here?

“Think of yourself as an apprentice, learning techniques and ways of thinking from your adviser and other professors.

Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning an M.A. Or a Ph.D.

It is important not to loose sight of what your overarching goals are in grad school:

  1. Research
    1. Publish academic papers
  2. Network
    1. Go to conferences
    2. Get on committees

This blog post is mostly focused on unspoken skills that underpin success in the former.

Some other things to keep in mind

  • Success is determined by the graduate student; faculty can set up opportunities but the graduate student must leverage those opportunities
  • Do well enough in classes to pass but don’t let them distract from research
    • Instead of acing classes your new goal is to strive for 3-4 strong letters of recommendation
  • Don’t speed run your PhD
    • You should feel free to work on big projects which take longer
    • You should take a summer to get industry experience
    • View your PhD as your last chance to learn in a structured environment
  • Be flexible with what success looks like
    • Rejections happen; don’t take the criticism personally
  • Be sure to take care of yourself
    • Eat well
    • Excise
    • Sleep
    • Take time off

How To: Be Organized (Internally)

One of the toughest things [as a grad student] is to keep aware not only of what you’ve got to do today but also of what you’ve got to do in six months.

– Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning an M.A. Or a Ph.D.

You need to keep organized. Your organizational system must account for the following things:

  • Research
    • Paper&Citation management
    • Knowledge management
  • Getting stuff done
    • Long term goals
    • Short term goals
    • Daily todolist

Software can be a helpful tool when running an organizational system. However, at the end of the day, what matters is that you pick something and stick with it; endlessly optimizing your organizational system instead of doing work is a hindrance.

Organization For Research

A citation manager like Zotero, Mendly, or Docear will save your papers in one place and generate citations on demand. I use Zotero, dislike Mendly, and am interested in Docear. I haven’t tried Docear because Zotero (with the Zotfile add on) gets the job done for me and I don’t have the time to mess around with Docear despite its interesting value proposition. See a full breakdown of each of the three reference management software programs here.

Putting your papers in one place is helpful but you should have a method to keep track and make sense of all of the information you’re taking in. This leads us directly to the problem of knowledge management. Knowledge management is a huge topic and outside the scope of this post.

In short, there are apps that help facilitate knowledge management. These include: Roam, Logseq, and Obsidian. Roam is a paid application but free for graduate students; Obsidian and Logseq are free. Much digital ink has been spilled on the merits of Roam vs Logseq vs Obsidian and I don’t think I have much to add to that debate. At the time of writing this Roam locks in your data while Logseq and Obsidian do not. I personally use Obsidian.

If software facilitated knowledge management is not your speed, you can also try long form writing or old fashioned paper notes and notecards. If you choose notecards, you should look into the Zettelkasten method.

Organization To Get Stuff Done

You must have a calendar that’s non-negotiable. Put long term and short term goals on the calendar along with meetings and appointments. Besides that, it is really up to you. Some people use apps to stay on top of their tasks, others use pen and paper. You can even use a running .txt file as a todo list like Jeff Huang.

One other thing to keep in mind is that you should schedule/plan your day in advance which will keep you from getting distracted by unimportant tasks. This will feed nicely into the periodic reports that you should send your advisor.

How To: Be Organized (With Others)

Unlike many media portrayals of the lone scientist changing the world, research is a collaborative endeavor. Shocking, right? Collaboration means meetings. Lots and lots of meetings.

Meeting Notes

In these numerous meetings you should be taking notes. This will allow you to recall what was discussed in the meeting and what people promised to accomplish before the next meeting. This then will be used as the basis for the follow up meeting. (repeat this ad infinitum1). You should also consider a collaboration document so that all meeting members can add to the meeting notes and be on the same page for assigned tasks. Below I have reproduced my meeting notes outline.

Suggested notes format:

  • Agenda
  • Minutes
  • Action items

Clear Communication

In between all of the meetings you may find yourself communicating with your collaborators. If your collaboration environment has a Slack workspace – or something similar – then this is pretty easy: just use the channel for your project channel to give updates ask questions whatever. You shouldn’t DM a collaborator unless its off topic. Keeping project communication in the dedicated slack channel keeps everyone informed.

If you’re collaborating over email the key idea to keep in mind is to communicate broadly and succinctly. Email is a scourge upon your productivity and focus so you want to minimize its bad influence as much as you can by:

  • Writing informative subject lines
    • Use “FYI” and “Action Needed”
  • Moving action items to the top of the email
  • Replying to points within paragraphs

Just be sure that you emails get sent to all of your collaborators on a project so everyone is informed.

How To: Read Papers

Before you can read a paper you need to know where to find good papers. The best ways to find new papers are:

  1. Conference proceedings
  2. Alerts on Google Scholar
  3. Digests from arXiv

Once you’ve downloaded a new paper be sure to read with a critical eye. Always be thinking about why you are reading a given paper. That includes being strategic on which sections you read. Time is your most precious resource as a grad student; for example, if you aren’t planning on building off or implementing the system described in a paper then you likely don’t need to read the Methods section word for word – or at all in some limited circumstances.

While reading you should take notes and annotate to coax your brain into engaging. Phillip Winter has listed several great guiding questions to scaffold your notes and annotations.

How To: Conference

Lastly, a few tips about conferences:

  • Conferences represent an opportunity for you to network with other researchers

    • You get to tap into knowledge and perspective that people in your department don’t have
      • This may lead to research collabs in the future
  • Don’t feel self conscious about talking

    • People are at conferences because they want to chat with others – like you!
  • Researchers like people who take interest in their work. Leverage this

    • Before the conference, find someone you want to talk to, read their papers, and then send them an email being like “I have some questions; can we set up a time to chat at the conference”
  • Network broadly

    • Top researchers may be hard to talk with without an “in” so don’t just focus on talking with them. There are lots of interesting people to chat with at a conference
    • Keep in mind that your fellow grad students today will be in positions of power tomorrow
    • Get people’s Twitter handles and follow them

How To: Learn More

Further Reading From Specific Sections

In addition to all of that, I also highly recommend: How To Be A Successful PhD Student by Mark Dredze and Hanna M. Wallach

Suggested Books

  • Getting What You Came For - Robert L Peters
    • Many useful tidbits of information
    • A bit outdated both in advice and outlook on grad school
  • A PhD Is Not Enough - Peter J Feibelman
    • Primarily focused on what happens after the PhD
  • A Field Guide To Grad School - Jessica McCrory Calarco
    • Excellent
    • The scope of all grad school means that not all the advice is applicable
  • “Effective Tools for Computer Systems Research” - Philipp Winter
    • Quite helpful
    • Succinct
  1. No not the metal band! It’s just Latin which means again and again and again and again….