Graduate and professional school is a privilege for the few who are fortunate enough to get in. It is the opportunity to study a subject at the highest level, or to receive vocational training at the highest level. I deliberately use two terms, graduate and professional, to describe the target audience of this book, because this identity is what I have gleaned from interacting with many students. Within the label of graduate school I include the humanities and the sciences. Within the label of professional school I include law school, medical school, MBA’s, and vocational certificate programs. The majority of my experience is that of a scientist, but I think that many of the tips that are provided will be applicable to those in other fields of study.
This book was written for those who are currently in graduate or professional school, who are about to start, or who are thinking of applying. For those who are thinking of applying to graduate or professional school, don’t let this book scare you off. For those who aren’t even in college yet, it’s way too soon for you to be concerned about the things in this book. Go through a few years of college before letting this book influence your decisions.
Mental health problems seem to be on the rise in our society. The internet and social media has flooded every hour of our lives with information and expectations, while we still only have 24 hours in a day. Graduate school can be a very difficult time for people, causing depression and the debilitations that follow. Having advised many struggling students – and having been one myself – I hope this book will be helpful to many who will embark on furthering their post-undergraduate education.
New Additions in This Third Edition
The third edition re-words certain sections for clearer meaning, appropriate tone, and adds more sections that are relevant to graduate and post-graduate training. It also incorporates the comments from reviewers, some of whom are quoted regarding their suggestions on improving this book.
This book is not intended to be or to replace professional medical and/or mental health treatment.
Tips for Surviving Graduate & Professional School
By David H. Nguyen, Ph.D.
Self-Published/Kindle Direct Publishing, 2015
1st Edition, 2014
This Kindle eBook is available on Amazon.com for $0.99
(Email me for a free PDF: david.hh.n [at] berkeley.edu).
[The Kindle eReader is FREE for smartphones, computers, and tablets.]
Table of Contents
Chapter 1 – The Right Mentality
Chapter 2 – Qualifying Exams, Committee Members, and Advisers
Chapter 3 – Healthy Self-Actualization
Chapter 1 - The Right Mentality
Tip #1. Success in graduate school is subjective.
Those who get into graduate school are used to being at the top of their class. In fact, that’s how they got in. One of the most difficult aspects of graduate or professional school is adjusting to a system in which the attainment of success is based on subjective factors. During their undergrad years, GPA’s were objective measures of success. If you had a good GPA, then it didn’t matter what others thought about you, you knew that you were good. Graduate school and professional school, however, have a sneakiness known as being “accepted” by your advisers, peers, experts, etc. Your GPA during graduate school doesn’t really matter (unless you are in law school). On top of that, everyone’s smarter than before. Furthermore, in academic research, being “smart” doesn’t really matter either, because ultimately it’s about making contributions that move a field of knowledge forward, or bringing about a remedy for a societal problem. You don’t have to be super smart to do that. You just have to be smart in the right way (see Tip #4) and lucky in the right way (see Tip #22). In professional degree programs, such as law and medicine, students may suddenly find that the effective test taking skills that got them into the program aren’t really helping them with the people skills that are needed to interact with their faculty and colleagues. They sometimes are frustrated that fellow students who are weaker test takers seem to win the coveted brownie points among the faculty because those fellow students are better at social interactions, are more confident, are better at fielding answers when put on the spot during lectures, or are just more outspoken. Being outspoken and having a lot of interactions does have its upsides, but they are no guarantee of future success.
Consider the case of James Holmes, the 2012 theater massacre shooter in Colorado. Holmes was a star student at University of California, Riverside, but failed his qualifying exam at the University of Colorado, Denver, several weeks after which he went on his shooting spree. What happened to that bright student? He had great opportunities at both institutions, but something was amiss. We don’t know all of the details and motives, but the frustration that seemed to have lead up to that event are eerily familiar when I think about the many graduate and professional students whom I have advised, but who responded less destructively to their disappointments. Holmes may have had a mental disorder that was amplified by the stress of graduate school, but his story is a lesson for us all. (See Chapter 2 on tips regarding qualifying exams.)
I’ve been around the University of California, Berkeley campus for over 13 years, and almost every year I hear about a student who committed suicide. It’s a tragedy for the student and his/her family. It’s also a tragedy for the university; that the university failed to train-up its students in some fundamental ways. In the midst of intellectual and technological grandeur, what is the university not teaching students about life and living?
Tip #2. The road to success is seldom straight.
People often think that success in life a straight line from the bottom to the top. This mentality will demoralize the graduate student who is having a hard time. The reality is that the line might start straight in an upward direction, and seem straight decades later, but the middle portion is a convoluted ball of yarn. Consider how Microsoft and Apple started in garages! Understanding that set-backs and disappointments are a natural part of graduate school will help you cope with difficult times during your graduate program. It will also help you cope with difficult times after graduate school.
Tip #3. Good mentorship is what tracks with future success.
The healthiest graduate students that I know are ones who are open to different career paths. Many graduate students enter Ph.D. programs thinking that they will one day occupy some faculty position in an ivory tower of some university. The reality is that 60 years ago that was a real possibility for most graduate students. However, today the academic system has become saturated, which requires graduate students to become a new breed of thinkers, doers, movers, and shakers. However, if we were to define success as holding a faculty position at a research university or running your own laboratory, then the one feature that tracks with that type of success isn’t SAT score, high school GPA, college GPA, which college you graduated from, or which graduate school you graduated from. It’s about how good your mentors were, and how good they were to you (see Tip #16B). This is likely to be true in many fields of study or lines of work.
Tip #4. You don’t need to be good at every subject.
The first several years of graduate school are when students take most of their courses. This is one of the reasons why the first few years can be the most difficult times of adjustment. Not only are your classmates smarter, but the course material is much harder. Furthermore, in graduate programs with large entering cohorts, everyone is trying to impress everyone else, so the stakes seem to be higher for everything: your first paper, first midterm, first presentation, etc.
The fact of the matter is that graduate school is a marathon, not a sprint. There are many more ways to show your worth in graduate school than a good performance during your first year. In fact, things like fortitude, diligence, maturity, and resilience, are the true markers for the making of a successful academic or professional. Furthermore, creativity and unique perspectives forged over time are the engines of innovation and insight – not first year performance awards. These aspects are not mutually exclusive from shining during your first year, but shining early on is definitely NOT a prerequisite to attaining success later.
Another fact of the matter is that not all the courses that you are required to take during graduate school will actually apply to your research later on. So, it’s ok that your fellow classmates seemed to be so much better at this subject or that. Success in the practice of your discipline within or beyond your program does not require straight A’s, or any A’s for that matter. A’s might help, but the real-world problems that you will later face require very refined areas of expertise that no graduate courses can provide.
Tip #5. Forget the Nobel Prize or whatever other prizes it is that you want.
This might sound silly, but some graduate students are overly fixated on one day winning the Nobel Prize. Sorry to burst your bubble, but the Nobel Prize has more to do with “workplace” politics than scientific merit. Don’t get me wrong, the Nobel Prize has always been given for great research – and there is a lot of great research out there. However, in the sciences, only three people will get the award for a topic that might be studied by tens of thousands of people over several decades. Randy Schekman, Ph.D., recipient of the 2013 Nobel Prize in Physiology & Medicine, candidly said in an interview for University of California, Berkeley that he got the credit for work that had been done by many people. Think about that and give yourself a break.
Early on in my research career, one of my mentors – Suraiya Rasheed, Ph.D., University of Southern California – gave advice about the Nobel Prize. In her younger days, she vied for the prize, since she was a tigress – a term she used to describe herself as she smiled and nodded – within HIV research. I remember her advice as if it were yesterday: “You can’t want it too much. It will consume you.” It’s fun to work towards awards, and ambition is important, but being sober minimizes the frustration of a difficult training program. Furthermore, wanting something too badly makes you do shady things to people. I’ve heard first-hand and second-hand account of crooked things that researchers do to each other and their trainees out of paranoia of not getting some award.
Chapter 3 - Healthy Self-Actualization
Tip #20. You do not deserve to be sexually harassed.
Sexual harassment is problem in many places, including universities. Victims of sexual harassment can end up in depression, end up quitting their programs, and worse. It is a problem that universities and departments need to take more seriously. Victims sometimes end up blaming themselves for the harassment that they face from advisers or superiors, which makes the depression even worse. They start to think that their intellectual and personal worth does not warrant respect, that they deserve to be sexually harassed. It is important to realize that just because someone is feeling stressed and overworked, it does not give them the right to sexually harass you. This may sound absurd, but I’ve heard this as a defense of those who sexually harass students. I know people who have been sexually harassed in the workplace and in the university. There is a reason why we have laws against sexual harassment. It ruins people’s lives. There are counseling centers that specialize in confidential treatment of mental health issues due to sexual harassment. The Rape Trauma Services center has a 24-hour hotline staffed by professionals who are trained for these types of situations. www.RapeTraumaServices.org, (650) 692-7273. The following website catalogs the crisis hotline numbers in many countries around the world:
Tip #23. Learn to appreciate yourself and the “wild card” of your potential.
In card games, the “wild card” is a card that can take on different identities, which can suddenly change the fortune of one or more of the players. It adds unpredictability to the game, suddenly giving a losing player the upper hand or removing the advantage from a winning player. Having heard so many stories of successful people who started out as someone whom their colleagues would have voted as “least likely to succeed,” I have come to appreciate that the degree of a person’s eventual success is hard to predict – on top of definition of success being subjective. Thus, even if your mentors and colleagues don’t seem to pay as much attention to you as you would like, don’t count yourself out. As long as you are willing to work hard, learn new things, and be open to new opportunities, you may eventually stumble upon the right opportunities. I once served on an alumni panel that gave career advice to Berkeley students. One of the co-panelists told the story of her career, which I’ll never forget. She was the co-founder of a service-based tech company, but said that if someone had told her at her college graduation that she would one day run a tech company, she would’ve said that they were crazy. Her undergraduate major was Political Economy of Industrial Societies (PEIS) and her goal was to work in office administration – computer programming was nowhere in her goals, since she didn’t like “techy” subjects. Indeed, office administration was what she started doing, but in one of her jobs she had to learn a little bit of computer programming. Under the tutelage of her coworkers, she did and learned to get the hang of it to some degree. Later on, her co-workers, who were the computer scientists/programmers who had worked with her, decided to start their own tech company. Because they had worked with her and understood her skillset, they invited her to manage the administrative side of the company. Thus, ten years or so after her college graduation, this PEIS major who dreaded “techy” subjects became the co-founder of a tech company.
"For too many students, graduate school looks like a game whose rulebook they're not allowed to see: it's different from college, but nobody tells you how. The practical advice in David Nguyen's little book not only will help graduate students avoid some of the common pitfalls, but will help undergraduates prepare themselves for what their advanced studies will bring them."
Steven Justice, Ph.D.
Professor of English, University of Mississippi
Professor of English, University of California, Berkeley
"Most of us who've been a graduate student know how difficult it can be, for reasons we can't foresee. These challenges strike at the heart of our identity and feelings of self-worth. In this handy survival guide, David Nguyen helps the reader navigate these graduate school pressures. The advice he dispenses is timely and relevant and worth re-reading at various junctures in graduate school."
Francis Su, Ph.D.
Professor of Mathematics
Harvey Mudd College
“If it wasn’t hard, everyone would do it," a quote from the movie League of their Own. David Nguyen has the courage to unmask the hard and complicated survival path of getting into, through and completing graduate and professional school. He gives practical advice in a friendly page-turning book of survival tips with respect to academically and emotionally charged challenges. In my 34 years in science, I have encountered many graduate students who would have benefited from this handbook. David creatively weaves his story and that of others into the book with respect to self-worth, diversity and inclusion, and striving for excellence. David is a leader, mentor, and a person I have enjoyed working with. His book shows us that there are many paths to success, and that you should not give up on yourself.”
Kathleen A. Bjornstad, B.S.
Staff Research Associate
Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory