Opinion: Keys to success in graduate school

Listen to and learn from the masters.

by Abdulrahman Bindamnan

Graduate school is a stressful and mystifying ‎time for most — if not all — students. Yet we ‎don’t need to reinvent the wheel because there ‎are keys that will enable your success in ‎graduate school.

What are the keys to success in graduate school?

I posed this ‎question to a number of leaders and ‎professors in U.S. higher education. The answers are drawn from notable luminaries, representing cognate disciplines that include health, ‎education, psychology, history, economics, ‎law, and religion. The diversity of ‎the contributors matches the diversity of the ‎chosen disciplines. Through their answers, the reader will get a sneak peek into the ‎collective consciousness of some of the most ‎successful scholars and leaders of our day. ‎

Julio Frenk, the current ‎president of the University of Miami (my ‎alma mater) and former dean at Harvard ‎School of Public Health, recommended three keys: (1) ‎‎“select a mentor who inspires you and takes ‎personal interest in your learning process,” (2) “use the opportunity to develop a broad view ‎of your field, but narrow the subject area of ‎possible dissertation topics early” and (3) “set ‎a hard deadline to finish the dissertation. ‎Remember that it is one more requirement of ‎the program, and resist the temptation to make ‎a definitive contribution since you will have ‎time to continue refining your ideas after you ‎graduate.”‎

Daniel A. Wagner, a ‎professor of education at the University of ‎Pennsylvania and the UNESCO chair in ‎Learning and Literacy, answered with a pithy one-liner: “As you might ‎expect, I’d say: Follow your passion, and be ‎persistent!” ‎

George Gopen, professor ‎emeritus of the practice of rhetoric at Duke ‎University and the creator of the ‎groundbreaking writing pedagogy known as ‎the Reader Expectation Approach, provided a really good answer: “While obviously ‎intellectual curiosity, disciplined work ‎methods and a hunger for ‎knowledge are all ‎essential, I would nominate an understanding ‎of self-professionalization as the key ‎ingredient lacking in far too many graduate ‎students. The ‎PhD should not be considered ‎another chance to shine as a student in a ‎classroom; and ‎the PhD thesis should not be ‎considered the candidate’s magnum opus, a ‎piece of ‎exhaustive intellectual self-‎expression. You are there to learn as much of ‎and about your ‎field as you can in the time ‎allotted; and the thesis should be considered a ‎large piece of ‎work done well enough to gain ‎entrance for you into the professional society ‎you wish to ‎join. Very few PhD theses should ‎be published. Most people outgrow their ‎thesis in 10 ‎years.‎”‎

A prolific author of ‎OpEd, an estimable American ‎historian of education and a strong advocate ‎of freedom of speech in academia, Jonathon Zimmerman provided what may seem like “pedestrian” advice: “The key to ‎success in grad school is focus. So my ‎advice, as pedestrian as it sounds, is ‎to turn ‎off all of your devices when you’re reading ‎and writing.‎”‎

Joseph E. Lowry, an associate professor of ‎Arabic and Islamic Studies at the University ‎of Pennsylvania, generously provided two pieces of advice: “I would say that you ‎have to both love (or care deeply about) and ‎be extraordinarily ‎curious about the subject ‎you study — those two qualities (yes, sorry, ‎two — but they ‎function together) will help ‎you succeed.‎”‎

Donovan Schaefer, an assistant ‎professor of religious studies at the ‎University of Pennsylvania, warned against the danger of “burning out” and how that complicates the “creativity” mindset: “If I had one piece ‎of advice, it would be to strike a balance ‎between pushing yourself to ‎work hard at ‎your research, while also giving yourself room ‎to unwind, relax and play. ‎There are health ‎benefits, of course, which are important, but I ‎also think that the ‎creative mindset necessary ‎for academic work requires that you feel a ‎sense of joy in the ‎work that you do, which ‎becomes impossible when you’re burned out.‎”‎

I hope the quotes above will ‎demystify parts of the graduate school ‎journey. Remember: we don’t get any extra ‎credits by reinventing the wheel. Like any ‎worthwhile human activity and achievement, novice students should ‎always learn from the masters. ‎


Abdulrahman Bindamnan is PhD Student at the University of Minnesota College of Education and Human Development.