How to Succeed in Grad School – From People Who Have Been Here
Our alumni and faculty share their best advice for success in graduate school.
Graduate school is full of challenges, but it’s also teeming with people who have overcome those challenges and want to help others do the same. Our alumni and faculty offer their advice on writing, finding research topics, maintaining mental health, succeeding as international students, and more.
Dennis Liotta (Ph.D. ’74, Chemistry) revolutionized HIV treatment by creating a drug that is now taken by 94% of people in the U.S. with HIV. He recently visited the Advanced Science Research Science Center and shared this advice:
“So you need to focus on what you're doing, but you need to also have some intellectual breadth,” Liotta said. “I think the people who make the most contributions have oftentimes come into a field peripherally, and they don't have the same intellectual baggage so they can think in novel ways, and that's what having that interdisciplinary foundation can do.”
Speak Up When You Don’t Know
Jacqueline Katzman (Ph.D. ’23 Psychology) started a tenure-track position in the psychology department at John Jay College of Criminal Justice, where she will continue her research into racial disparities in the legal system. To those still on their Ph.D. journeys, she suggests to know when to say you don’t know something.
“I definitely wasn’t very good about that in my first and second year,” Katzman said. “And I think I would have had a much easier time in graduate school, and maybe less stress on the job market later on, if I had asked in my first year some of the questions that I asked in my third year. … Nobody’s expecting that you know anything when you come into the program. You’re in graduate school to learn, and it’s a unique time in your life when you have all of these amazing professors who are there to teach you. It’s really good to take advantage of that.”
Build Your Network
“One thing I wish I had understood at the start of my Ph.D. journey is the critical role of networking,” Park said. “Ph.D. students are presented with numerous opportunities to submit proposals, abstracts, or full papers for conferences, seminars, and other academic events. Being proactive in participating in these academic gatherings is crucial for career advancement. I did participate, but in retrospect, I wish I had done more. You never know when a connection you make might prove beneficial. For instance, a person you met years ago at a conference could be at an institution where you’re now applying for a job.”
Be Generous and Kind
Jeehey Kim (Ph.D. ’15, Art History) is an assistant professor at the University of Arizona, where she recently won a 2023 Early Career Scholar Award for her trailblazing research in Asian photography. She says the better way to succeed is through kindness.
“Academia is a small world, so it is important to be generous and kind to one another,” Kim said. “Graduate programs can be very competitive, and many are anxious to excel. I was an arrogant and sometimes rude student but found that being kind and generous is the best way to survive in the more competitive academia.”
Don’t Wait for Validation
Distinguished Professor Wayne Koestenbaum (English, Comparative Literature, French, Biography and Memoir) was named a 2023 Guggenheim Fellow and his 22 books encompass poetry, essays, memoir, and a novel. He shares this advice on writing.
“Don't wait for external validation or approval,” Koestenbaum said. “Write exactly the way you want, write all the time, write against the rules and with the rules, invent your own rules, break the rules you've invented, send out your work for publication but don't feel crushed if it doesn't get published, keep writing, keep reading the idiosyncratic books that teach you how to cultivate and nourish your own idiosyncracies, don't let envy or jealousy tarnish your quest to keep writing and developing your ‘voice’ or your voices, don't let your own disdain or disgust for what you've produced prevent you from continuing to write and continuing to peer into the crevices of your own sentences to find the molten ore that warrants and rewards your own further excavations.”
Andréa “Dre” Becker (Ph.D. ’22, Sociology), a reproductive rights scholar, landed a tenure-track position as an assistant professor of sociology at Hunter College. She offers sage advice on finding your research area and maintaining your mental health.
“Be curious,” Becker said. “Follow your curiosity in different directions, as you don’t know what will ultimately grasp your full attention. I didn’t come into my Ph.D. thinking I would focus on reproductive health or even on gender, but saying yes to projects and following my curiosity led me to my ultimate research agenda. That said, you can’t say yes to everything, and you shouldn’t make the Ph.D. your entire life. Have hobbies that have nothing to do with your research, build a strong support system, take full breaks to rest your brain, learn early on how to de-stress — whether that’s going to the movies, getting into an exercise routine, or (ideally) seeing a therapist regularly. Ph.D. students have disproportionate rates of mental illness, and it’s critical to take care of ourselves and rest our minds. I got burnout countless times, and it took years to learn how to prevent and snap out of these moments. I started reading fiction for fun, cooking or running to de-stress, taking real vacations where I didn’t open my laptop, and learning to shut off that little voice that tells me I should be working when I’m having fun.”
Lean Into Yourself
Lauren Esposito (Ph.D. ’11, Biology) is one of the world’s leading female experts on scorpions and founded 500 Queer Scientists, a visibility campaign for LGBTQ scientists. She offers this tip to others who want to create positive change through their work.
“Lean into yourself,” Esposito said. “Think about yourself, your background, your community, and the things that you hold most dear and lean into those. Because those are your greatest assets in terms of being a scientist and what you can bring to the table.”
Don’t Be Afraid
Nishani Jayakody (Ph.D. ’22, Physics) began a prestigious postdoctoral fellowship at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C., after graduating the same program with the same adviser as her father did decades earlier. She says this to other immigrants who are considering coming to study at the Graduate Center from far away.
“Don’t be afraid,” Jayakody said. “I grew up in Sri Lanka. I didn't know the culture. I didn't know the language. Everything was new to me. I never thought I would pass all the exams and finish the Ph.D. with two kids. If I can do it, I feel that anybody can do it.”
Find Your People
Avery M.D. Davis (M.A. ’20, Liberal Studies) has long aspired to have a leadership position in higher education. Now a Ph.D. student at Johns Hopkins University School of Education completing his dissertation — for which he recently won a National Academy of Education/Spencer Dissertation Fellowship — he is on his way to fulfilling his dream. He spoke about the importance of coming out of your shell.
"I’m very much reserved, but I think it's important to find your community, whatever that is," Davis said. "So for me, it was just a small, informal group, and we didn't need to meet on a regular basis. We didn’t even meet very often, but when we did, it was very fruitful."
Follow Your Passion
Donald V. Brown Jr. (Ph.D. ’23, Psychology) applied for just one tenure-track faculty role and landed it. Now an assistant professor of psychology at York University in Toronto, he shares this advice on staying true to your intellectual interests.
“There’s a reason why you’re passionate about what you’re passionate about. In the midst of doing all the requirements, going to the meetings, having the inevitable catastrophes and calamities, you’re not going to be as secure in holding on to what the actual reason or rationale is for why you’re doing what you’re doing. But you know why you’re there. A whole number of conversations will try to throw you off of your center. But it’s important to keep returning to that: What’s driving you. What’s the passion.”
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