Sometimes graduate students ask me for general advice on doing well in graduate school. I have compiled a list of tips that I give them. The points are not presented in order of importance. If you have other tips that I should add, let me know!
Communication is key.
You should be in communication with your professors, your advisor, the DGS (Director of Graduate Studies) and the administrators of the department. If you are having problems, contact them promptly. For example, if you need to miss a class, then let the professor know ahead of time. If you are going to submit an abstract for a talk, then let your advisor know. If you have questions about requirements or deadlines, ask the DGS. You can also let your advisor know about your plans for the summer
At faculty meetings, a frequent topic of discussion about graduate students is lack of communication. Part of the problem may have to do with the transition from undergraduate to graduate education. Graduate students are in a much closer relationship to the faculty than undergrads.
Do not be afraid to ask for help. The faculty and administrators want you to succeed, but if they do not know what problems you are having, it is impossible to help.
Do not use incompletes as a load management tool.
If you get an incomplete, you will eventually have to make it up. And there is no guarantee that your future schedule will be any less crowded and complicated than your present schedule. So in effect, by taking an incomplete, you are just passing along your present day problems to your future self. Rather, an incomplete is a last resort measure, like bankruptcy. You should only consider it in very serious cases, like major illness. See the next point on how to avoid taking incompletes.
Do not wait until the last week of classes to start a term paper.
Most graduate classes require an original research paper. A frequent mistake that graduate students make is to start writing their final papers during the last week or two of class. Such a strategy almost always leads to a weaker paper and, just as importantly, to ultra-high levels of stress (which can cause mental and physical exhaustion and even illness).
Many students entering graduate school have gotten used to last minute paper writing from their undergraduate education. They have learned that it is possible to get an A on an undergraduate course paper by pulling an all-nighter. But the standards for writing are considerably higher in graduate school. Not only are you expected to do original work, but you are expected to meet standards of rigor in argumentation and references.
You should make a plan for writing your term paper at the beginning of the semester. For example, you should make sure to meet with the professor early in the semester (in the first three or four weeks) to brainstorm on topics. Then you should plan to have an abstract written and references compiled around mid-semester (week 7 or 8). Later, once you have a draft, you should meet with the professor to discuss it (week 13 or 14). For my own courses, I try to build these milestones into the syllabus. But even if they are not written into the syllabus, you should do your own planning.
Don’t write a qualifying paper (QP) from scratch.
Your QP should be based on some work that you have already done, either a course paper, a talk handout, a draft, earlier fieldwork, an undergraduate honors thesis, etc. Trying to write a QP from scratch in the course of a semester is very difficult, and usually leads to problems. It is almost impossible to do all the required background reading, come up with the data and the analysis, and write a solid paper all in the space of 15 weeks (one semester).
Don’t be shy about making appointments.
A good professor will happily to meet with students. Talking face-to-face with your professors is one of the keys to graduate education. It is a tutorial where you can ask your questions and have the professor focus entirely on discussing them with you.
For example, if you are taking a course from Prof. X, and are trying to come up with a paper topic, make an appointment to brainstorm. Or if you are writing a paper, and believe that Prof. Y would have useful advice for you, make an appointment (even if Prof. Y happens not to be your advisor, and is not even on your committee). If you are writing a QP or a dissertation, you should have regular appointments with both your adviser and your committee members (on a schedule determined by your needs). If your department hosts a guest speaker or a visiting scholar, make an appointment to get to know them and to discuss your work.
To get the most out your appointments, be prepared. Sometimes that means you should prepare a handout. Sometimes it just means that you should think about what you want to talk about ahead of time.
Learn from your fellow students.
When I was in graduate school, I learned as much by talking with my fellow students as I learned by other means (classes, papers, appointments, talks, etc.). I remember having particularly useful discussions with my office mates and members of my cohort (the students admitted at the same time as me). These students were role models for me. I was blown away by how much they knew. Getting to know older graduate students can also be helpful. They have been through the system and can give you advice.
Your fellow students can read your papers, chapters and abstracts and give you feedback, and then you can return the favor.
Graduate students often form study groups to talk about assignments. These groups are a good idea, and they raise the performance of all the students involved. But if you do participate in such a group make sure that you try to think about the problems on your own beforehand.
Sometimes graduate students form discussion groups around writing QPs or dissertations. They meet on a regular basis to give presentations and to discuss their progress. These meetings can be a good way to pace yourself in writing a dissertation.
Try to network.
Forming relationships with scholars (students and faculty) in your field is important for many reasons. First, it gives you an opportunity to share your ideas with others, and perhaps even get feedback. Second, it gives you an opportunity to hone your discussion and argumentation skills. Third, it gives you visibility, which will be important when you go on the job market.
If there is a scholar working in your area of interest, you could write them an e-mail message, and offer to exchange papers (e.g., your QP). When you go to a conference, use the opportunity to talk with other scholars in the field. A good place to do this is at the poster sessions, where the presenter will walk you through their paper, and you can ask questions and give feedback on the spot.
Students are expected to do a huge amount of reading in graduate school. If they take three courses, each of those courses will involve at least one reading per week, for a minimum of three significant papers per week. This is just a minimum, since faculty often cram their syllabi with more than one reading per week.
The papers that faculty assign are those that they feel give the student an idea of what the field is about. So it is absolutely crucial to do the readings. Also, the readings need to be done before they are discussed in class, since the students are expected to participate in the classroom discussion.
On the other hand, the student cannot be expected to master all the technical details, nuances and implications of the paper on the first time through. Rather, you should try to get through the paper at least one time before class, focusing on the logic of the arguments and highlighting your questions. You can always reread it a second time after it is discussed in class.
If there are a lot of readings for a particular week, the student may ask the professor to prioritize the papers or indicate which sections are particularly important. Sometimes the structure of the paper itself makes it obvious which sections are the most relevant to the topic being discussed. In my classes, I always limit the required readings to one per week. This way I can be confident that the students will have the time to do the reading. In addition to the required reading, I give supplementary readings that the students can make use of as needed.
Of course, if the student is reading a paper in order to give a class presentation, then they have to master the contents at a deeper level (since they have to teach the paper). Usually in this case, I ask the student to prepare a handout, and then I make an appointment with them to discuss it and to see whether they have understood the main points.
In some cases, professors post course descriptions and syllabi before the semester starts. If you have time, you could start to read some of the papers then. Doing so would lessen the reading burden during the semester.
Be Curious and Open Minded
You might have entered graduate school intent on some very specific topic in semantics (e.g., applications of mereology to the possible world semantics of counter-factual conditionals in Yoruba), but there is a whole linguistic world out there, with interesting connections between the subfields. Go to the colloquia talks that the department offers, sit in on different lab group meetings, go to conferences (even if you are not presenting), take a seminar in a different subfield.
As a graduate student I was interested in syntax, but I took a phonetics class, and sat in on phonology seminars. The things I learned in those classes are still useful to me today.
Give yourself time to write.
Writing a QP or a dissertation is difficult, and time consuming. Do not underestimate the amount of time it will take you. As noted above, last minute writing does not work for term papers, and it is even more of disaster for QPs and dissertations.
Part of the QP process is learning how to write a paper in linguistics, so you need to have a completed draft before the defense (with no missing sections or references to fill in later). Furthermore, you need to finish your QP about a month before you wish to defend. You give the QP to the advisor to read, and they approve the draft. Then the other committee members need two to three weeks to read it before the defense. So if you plan to defend at the beginning of May, then you need to have a defendable draft completed by the beginning of April.
When you are writing the dissertation, do not spread yourself too thin. Your academic projects at this point should all relate to your thesis. Some of these projects might include conference handouts, conference posters, conference proceedings submissions, NSF DDRIG proposals (Doctoral Dissertation Research Improvement Grant), and journal submissions. Also, if you submit papers to journals, you will get reviews, and responding to those reviews can enrich your dissertation.
You will need to find some way to pace yourself when writing the dissertation. A typical thesis will have three or four chapters in addition to the introduction, the conclusion and the references. In order to finish in the allotted time, you need to make regular progress. A frequently given (but somewhat unrealistic) piece of advice for dissertations is that you should write a page a day to finish within a year. One way is to ensure progress is to meet regularly with your advisor and committee members. You could also try to arrange regular meetings with your cohort to report on progress and get feedback. Yet another way to pace yourself is to find venues to present your work at regular intervals. Students often present their work at lab/working group meetings in the department, or nearby departments. And of course, there are a variety of conferences where students regularly submit their work.
Submit your work.
A good way to take your research to the next level is to submit your work. I suggest that you try to submit at least one of your QPs. You can submit to working paper volumes, conference proceedings, edited volumes or journals. Getting reviews and working through them can help you to deepen your work. When you write a paper, and it is read by your advisor or committee members, in some sense you are preaching to the choir, since you have discussed your work with them and they have given you feedback on many previous occasions. You are probably even using their theories and results in your work. But reviewers for journals are something completely different. The process is double-blind, so you do not know who the reviewers are. Getting a careful review from a knowledgeable person is worth its weight in gold. Even after working through the reviews, there are issues in working through the editorial remarks and proofs that are important to know about.
Put your health first.
You cannot be mentally sharp, productive and creative, if your body is physically exhausted. Reducing stress and staying healthy are important.
Maybe you can drink Starbucks coffee or Irish tea or diet coke in large quantities, and stay up all night to grind out a term paper at the last minute, but eventually you will crash and your body will resent what you have done. More generally, graduate school is filled with super high stress periods, resulting from deadlines for papers, assignments, readings, etc. The build-up of such stress can cause illness, which can have serious repercussions.
The pillars of good health are diet, adequate exercise and sleep. You should make sure you organize your life to maintain all three.