From The Science Student Council

Back to school check-up

Advice for graduate students on starting off strong at the beginning of the academic year

By Azurii Collier

As memories of a festive Labor Day weekend fade away, the reality that summer is over and school is back in session can be met with anticipation or trepidation. There is no need for trepidation because the beginning of fall can be just as sunny as the best of summer with the right mindset.  If you are not sure how to start, the “Back to School Check-Up” below will provide you a prescription for success.

Tie Up Loose Ends

In order to move forward, the past should be in order. At the beginning of the year, focus on tying up loose ends from last year. This will help you get organized and focused. Specifically, be sure to write up at least the methods and results sections from your previous experiments. These are typically the easiest manuscript sections to write and will help remind you of design details and fine grain results.

Also, if you need to collect more data for an experiment that needed additional trials, place this high on the docket at the beginning of the year.  These are the pivotal results that you may need to set the course for the bulk of your upcoming work this year.  Make these experiments your initial priority.

Develop Goals With Your Advisor

As soon as walk on campus, knock on your advisor’s door. Update him/her about your progress during the summer and work together to make detailed goals for the first term of the academic year. Include academic, research and professional goals in this conversation. It is very important that you not only share your ideas with your advisor but also that you solicit his/her input about your ideas and brainstorming together.

Utilize your advisor’s expertise in order to shape a feasible yet forward-moving research plan for the year. Moreover, to continually develop as an independent researcher, ask your advisor about a few developmental areas that you should focus on (i.e., areas that you may need to strategically strengthen your skill set, such as writing, technical communication, or computer programming.). Lastly, discuss starting up lab meetings or formal writing or journal reading groups to keep summer research momentum going.

Organize Your Calendar

The antidote to procrastination is preparation.  Set up a calendar that notes upcoming abstract and conference registration deadlines, special training events and faculty symposia, and departmental requirements (i.e., degree applications, conference funding awards, subject pool calendar etc.).  Related to teaching, start your class preparation early and use previous syllabi as a springboard to design your class schedule.  If you spend an hour at the beginning of the year organizing your calendar, you will save much more time in the future and lower your chances of experiencing a daunting last minute rush.

Network With New Faculty

I recommend scheduling a meeting with one faculty member that you do not know at the beginning of each year. This will help develop a broad network of faculty that are acquainted with you and your research. Never underestimate a fresh perspective. For example, if you are a social psychologist, try meeting with a behavioral neuroscientist or a linguist. Communicating your research ideas to a different audience will sharpen your skills and is likely to spark more creative ideas. One new idea can inspire your entire year.

Live Fully

Graduate school is a full time job and research is often an all-consuming effort, but it is vital to schedule some personal time. Often when school starts, we get immediately overwhelmed due to the sudden shift to a more intense schedule. If we are not careful, we can burn out before Thanksgiving. In addition to your work, be sure to enjoy non-school related activities (e.g., hobbies, social events, quiet time) to help you remain a well-rounded individual and ultimately a better graduate student. Do not forget to invite your lab members or other graduate students out to socialize as well. Live fully and have a dose of fun.

The doctor will see you now. Don’t stick your tongue out just yet, but do say “ah” as you relax and look forward to starting the academic year off strong!


Azurii K. Collier, the cognitive science representative on the APA Science Student Council, is a 5th year PhD student at Northwestern University. Her research focuses on the neural correlates of insight and creative cognition, and the reliability of intuitive decision-making in the problem-solving domain.