The Move – Success in Grad School

When I was over in the USA to explore potential grad schools, I encountered a lot of current students spread across the years, backgrounds and research interests. In many ways, the observations I made about the grad students were more illuminating than anything else I saw within the grad schools themselves.

One large, well-ranked state university dropped quite low in my preference list because of the students I observed there. In particular there was this one boy with hunched shoulders and arms tightly hugging his skinny frame. When he spoke he furtively glanced at me out of the corner of his eyes. “I thought I’d like to be a professor,” he said of his career goals. “But I’m still not sure.”

Another large, well-ranked state university rose exponentially in my estimations after I hit off with the student showing me round. When I first chatted to her I wasn’t completely sure that she was a grad student – she could have passed off as faculty. If a grad program can produce students with that level of professional poise…well, I want in on that.

Then in the middle there were lots of grads that I met who weren’t especially memorable or remarkable. Intelligent, friendly, easy to converse with – but nonetheless fairly stereotypical, average American grads. I don’t remember their names and doubt I could pick them out again if we re-met.

Having gone out in industry for a couple of years and been on the receiving end of an unsuccessful PhD application cycle, I don’t think mediocrity cuts it. From what I’ve seen, success in academia hinges quite strongly on personal connections.  Intelligence and talent are kinda taken for granted, up to a point. Appearing at prospective grad schools in person – and making a good impression – I’m convinced is what got me my admission offers.  Securing a postdoc position will depend on those same personal connections. Getting on well with your PI and Thesis Committee is what will allow you to defend your thesis on time and get feedback you need to improve yourself.  These things don’t happen automatically or by “magic”: they happen by aid of a graduate student’s soft skill-set.

It isn’t easy to universally-quantify “success in grad school”. For some people it’s getting to the end with some shreds of their sanity still intact! The people I’ve seen to date who I count as “successful”:

  • Defended their thesis promptly (after 4-5 years).
  • Had a snazzy job or postdoc lined up for them nearly 6 months in advance of their thesis defence.
  • Presented their work at high-profile (inter) national conferences annually.
  • Obtained fellowships, travel grants and awards on a frequent basis.


The character traits and personalities of these successful grads:

  • Grounded. They came off as neither arrogant nor insecure.
  • Business-like in their approach to applying for fellowships, jobs, etc. They put effort into their applications, cast wide nets and understood the importance of their actions from a professional development standpoint.
  • Likeable. I enjoyed talking to these particular students. They seemed to get on well with their colleagues and had good working relationships with faculty in the department.
  • Well-presented. The ladies did not necessarily wear make-up and jewellery, but they chose flattering, business casual clothes and paid attention to their appearance.


Thinking about these grad students has helped me to formulate my own ideas about what success in grad school will mean for me, and the ways I can achieve it.

There are plenty of learning points. I have some nice business casual clothes in my wardrobe…but I also have the habit of dressing in really scaffy clothes. The scaffy clothes must be eliminated from my everyday grad school attire. I need to be careful that my sense of humour does not backfire, also that I pay attention to norms in American academic culture.

I’ve also gone ahead and created a Five Year Plan as advocated by Karen Kelsky, as a way of keeping track of conferences, deadlines and term dates. I’m reading literature to work out what is currently “fashionable” in my field. The undergraduate textbooks have been returned to for a memory booster.

Right now I’m still waiting, keeping focused and hoping for a successful transition.


2 thoughts on “The Move – Success in Grad School

  1. I agree with you completely. After completing my first year, I’m trying to figure out what makes some grad students more “successful” than others. Everyone here is smart. So what sets you apart is your likeability (like it or not, that’s what people will judge you on), composure/confidence, dress (you don’t need to be too fancy in grad school but you shouldn’t wear jeans and t-shirts all the time, either), and personal connections with faculty, your colleagues, and the students you teach. Hmmm… now you’ve inspired me to write a blog post about it seeing as this is getting as long as a blog post!

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