Advice to myself before starting grad school

18 Dec, 2018

What do I wish I could have told myself before starting grad school?

What advice would I give my younger self, looking for a PhD position in 2010?  Which experience-based recommendations would have benefitted me? I wrote them all down!

Until a time-machine is discovered and I can share these insights with my younger self, I will content myself in knowing this advice will be available to other people making this important decision.

So here is my advice before starting grad school.

  1. Find a topic that’s really close to your heart. Don’t accept a project that’s only mildly interesting. If it is not a YES, it is a NO! There’s no ‘maybe’.
  • It will be much easier to stay motivated for four years when you are working on your dream project! ‘Maybe’ will not cut it when you need that extra boost. See also my blog on internal motivation.
  1. Make sure you approve of the quality of the research proposal underlying your project. It should be scientifically sound, structurally complete, and sufficiently detailed. Do not accept vague, inconsistent or irrelevant proposals.
  • A bad proposal will lead to a difficult project. A good proposal will offer your project a direction, and a framework to work within. It will give you a flying start.
  1. Consider whether you want to start up a completely new project, or if you want to take over a running & successful project. The latter will be much more efficient.
  • If you have two amazing opportunities, and one is a new project whilst the other is a follow-up, the latter will give you a head start. Do not underestimate the time and effort needed to set up a new project, no matter how exciting or promising.
  1. Consider the position of the project within the research group. Make sure your project shares techniques with other projects so you can cooperate easily. This way you will feel less lonely, and you can rely on other’s experience and support.
  • You will be trouble-shooting your research a lot. Finding solutions will be easier when you can have constructive discussions with your colleagues.
  1. Know your supervisors before accepting a project, especially whether they will be able to motivate you in hard times. You will work closely with them, they are your first line of support, and they will determine if and when you graduate.
  • If you and your supervisors do not have a ‘vibe’ you will have a harder time asking for their help. You need to feel safe and supported by them. They should not trigger negative feelings, or bring their own issues to the table.
  1. Determine whether your supervisors are knowledgeable on the topic and techniques of your project. You may want to take this for granted (it should be), but don’t.
  • Assuming the research proposal is sound, you should be able to check the expertise of the professors against the content of the proposal. You should be able to rely on them for support on both the content of and techniques used in your project.
  1. Think about the reason you have for starting grad school. Do not start a PhD because it is simply the most convenient or obvious step after your undergrad studies. Do not start if you do not know what you want to do after receiving your doctorate.
  • Most PhD’s do not become professors. Be informed on all the other options out there, and know what it is that you want. This will motivate you to finish the project!
  1. Check your self-esteem and fear of failure. Since research is inherently unpredictable you will face many moments of failure. So be prepared to be your own biggest supporter.
  • Many PhD candidates are perfectionists and are not accepting of their own mistakes. This is a personal trait that gets you far in research. It can also get you burned-out. So learn to be kind to yourself!
  1. Recognize the signs of stress and fatigue in your body and mind. Grad school will stress you out and make you tired. Knowing your own signs of stress and fatigue is vital to protect your boundaries.
  • When you recognize the physical or mental signs of stress and fatigue, allow yourself to rest. Possible signs: procrastination, ruminating, impatience, inefficiency, tense muscles, constant negative thoughts, headaches, feeling rushed, heart palpitations, indecisiveness, being tired in the morning, not being able to fall asleep at night, generalized anxiety, eating significantly more or less than usual, irritability. Know your own signs, recognize your boundaries and respect them. See also my blogs on coping with stress.
  1. Decide which limits you will not cross for the sake of this job. This job will push you past your limits whenever you let it, so be prepared. Does your vision match with that of your supervisor?
  • Think about limits like time, energy, physical health, mental health, relationships, and happiness. Decide how you will combine the request from your job with your own wishes for your evenings, weekends, and holidays. And how you want to combine your work with the wishes of your partner, family and friends. When will enough be enough?


If you are currently looking for a PhD position, I hope these suggestions will help you in your decision-making process. You might also be interested to read similar blogs here, here and here.

If you are already in grad school, I hope they may help you change your experience for the better.

And if you’ve finished grad school, I hope you will share this message with master students and PhD candidates in your network.


Image by AbsolutVision on Pixabay

If it is not a YES, it is a NO!

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