Photo of chart of accomplishmentsKarra Shimabukuro is a guest author and PhD student specializing in Folkloric Representations in Medieval and Early Modern Literature at the Department of English, Language, and Literature at the University of New Mexico, Albuquerque. You can follow her on twitter at@khkshimabukuro

Much has been written about what tips and strategies graduate students can use to survive their programs. These tips are available to people who search for them, but they are scattered. And the term “survive” is usually featured boldly. There is little written about how to thrive in your graduate school environment. I believe the attitude adjustment from survive to thrive can make all the difference in the world. A lot can depend on the culture of your school, department, and program but here’s my list on how to thrive, not just survive your grad school experience.


If you’re lucky, you’re in a great department and have good mentors. But no matter how supportive your school and department is, there will still be times when it’s just you, and you need to learn to believe in yourself, and remind yourself why you’re here.  Especially as you move from coursework to writing your thesis or dissertation, it is important to be your own cheerleader. I have a note on my bulletin board that says “I am a Rockstar.”  Create a mantra for yourself, and use it to get through hard days, rejections, tough professors, and seemingly insurmountable obstacles.

Social Media

For new scholars, social media can be the single most influential tool in sharing your research, making connections to scholars in your field, and creating a support network. Take advantage of it, but also use common sense in presenting yourself online, and remember the Internet is forever. That concept can be scary, so here are some tips about where you can begin.

  • Start a scholarly oriented blog and an online teaching portfolio. Post about current research projects, reference them at conference presentations, and on Twitter.
  • Regularly Google yourself to make sure that there’s nothing horrific out there that could ruin job prospects down the road.
  • Create a Twitter account if you don’t already have one. Look up, follow, and engage with scholars in your field. Ask questions. Post links to your research on your scholarly blog. Follow hashtags for conferences you can’t afford to attend

For more on building your social media profile see these past GradHacker posts:

○       Your Academic Twidentity: or more about Twitter and Academic Identity

○       Manage Your Digital Identity

○       I’m a Digital Grad in a Digital World

Organization and Planning

Some people love using technology to keep organized. Some people like hard copies. I tend to do both. Whatever you’re most comfortable with, be sure you come up with a way to stay organized and stick to it. Being organized will help you meet deadlines, and this also helps build your reputation as someone who gets things done. I’m a visual person so I tend to create color coded charts and lists, so here are a few strategies you can integrate into your studies:

Photo of color-coded calendar

  • The first semester you start grad school I suggest coming up with your larger plan and try to view everything through that lens. Plan courses around it, conferences, map out articles you want to write. All of these things should act as items necessary for the job market.
  • Create a weekly calendar. Put everything is on it, from the classes you take, and teach, to office hours, to specific times you budget for working on those classes.
  • Create a chart to track word counts for papers/articles
  • Whether it’s a small corner of your apartment, or an entire room dedicated as an office, make sure that you have a well-organized space. And I don’t mean everything has to be Mary Poppins perfect, or color coded- organized for you, so you can track projects, stay on top of work, and have everything you need to work.

Use Your Department

Get to know your department’s office staff. Introduce yourself, be nice, and make sure you meet departmental deadlines for paperwork and grades. These are the people who will assign your classes and help you file necessary paperwork for graduating, comprehensive exams, and your dissertation. Keep that in mind when you interact with them, and make sure that every interaction is not about you asking for something.

Become familiar with your department faculty. Look at their faculty webpages, read their CVs, read the articles/books they’ve published. Use them a resource for your own projects.

Learning your department’s culture is important in other ways as well. There will be people in your department who don’t get along. There will be fellow students who want to complain about professors, classes, or the program in general. The best thing you can do is to stay out of it. You don’t know the dynamics yet, and a misstep can be disastrous.


Part of the transformation of grad school is to move from being a student, to being someone your professors would want as a colleague. Keep that in mind in how you act and dress—you never know where a recommendation or reference will come from. There are some very easy ways you can distinguish yourself from the rest of the pack:

  • Conduct yourself as an adult. Build a reputation as someone who submits work by deadline (if not earlier), responds in a timely manner, and can be counted on.
  • Make sure you’re dressed professionally. Look at the non-tenured professors in your department, and follow their lead (they’re still bucking for tenure, so a better model than tenured professors who may or may not reflect the expected standards at your school).
  • Resist the urge to complain. Everyone has bad days, and you will have at least one day (probably a lot more) where your instinct will be to complain- loudly, and in the department’s main office/lobby about the source of your bad day. Resist this urge. You will also likely feel like posting your scathing thoughts on Twitter or Facebook. Again, resist this urge. The ten second high you get from venting will not make up for the irreparable harm you can do to your reputation.

Grad school is hard. It is hard in ways that you can’t imagine until you’re there. But there are ways to not just survive, but thrive in your program. You can make your own plan, and work hard to see it through. Grad school may not be for everyone, and some of us may not make it to the finish line, but I think taking ownership of what you’re doing, and rooting for yourself can make a big difference in how you experience the next few years.

What are your tips for thriving in grad school? What tricks do you have for acting as your own cheerleader? Share your successes with us!

[Images used with permission of the author.]

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