12 resolutions for grad students

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In graduate school, the emphasis on the current mission can be so constant and so blinding that students forget the tasks without deadlines.

In the spirit of the new year, I've created a list of twelve monthly resolutions for graduate students.

These resolutions round out the graduate experience and prepare students for the long term:

  1. Map out the year
  2. Improve productivity
  3. Embrace the uncomfortable
  4. Upgrade your tools
  5. Stay healthy
  6. Update your CV and web site
  7. Keep your eye on the job market
  8. Network
  9. Say thanks
  10. Volunteer for a talk
  11. Practice writing
  12. Check with your committee

Read on for my explanations.

Map out the year

The relentless focus on the next deadline causes grad students to ignore longer-term planning.

Map out what the next twelve months will look like.

Put major deadlines on your calendar.

Assign tentative topics to publication venues.

Where will the major conferences be? Can you drive to any?

Decide which program milestones (qualifier, proposal, defense) you hope to accomplish in the next twelve months.

If any milestones involve getting a committee to agree on a date, start searching for a date now.

Getting professors to agree on a date and time is cat-herding.

If you're worried you won't stick to the plan, place a reminder of each of the twelve resolutions here (or whatever resolutions you pick) at the start of every month for the next year.

Improve productivity

Take a moment to boost your productivity.

Does your environment encourage a productive workflow?

What measures are you taking to fight procrastination?

Crippling your technology may make you more productive.

Can you automate any tasks you perform regularly?

Having you been wavering on trying out Getting Things Done (GTD) / Inbox 0?

And, if you're trying out GTD / Inbox 0, you may want to consider:

For tips, see my posts related to productivity:

Embrace the uncomfortable

Are you a theorist?

Try application, experimentation or practice.

Are you an experimentalist?

Try theory, formal modeling or theorem-proving.

What topics in your field are outside your comfort zone?

Try those.

You may spot hidden gems in the cracks between areas, it will make you more conversant at conferences, and you will be more flexible as a peer reviewer.

Update: Reader Shae Erisson wrote to relay the "rule of 3" for embracing the uncomfortable: when a third person recommends you try something, you must try it.

He also provide a "15 minute rule": give something (such as a movie or TV show) the benefit of the doubt for 15 minutes. If you don't want to continue after 15 minutes, drop it.

I like both of these rules.

Upgrade your tools

Make sure you have the right tools.

Is there software or hardware that could accelerate your workflow?

Is it time for a new laptop?

Have you recently looked at plugins and extensions for software you regularly use?

Do you know and use the shortcut keys?

Have you optimized your configuration files?

Is it time to set up your LaTeX macros?

Stay healthy

Constant pressure from high-stress milestones like qualifiers, proposals, defenses and paper submission deadlines don't promote healthy habits.

If your wrists are starting to hurt or have been hurting, stop now and take action to combat RSI.

If you sit at keyboard all day, focus on improving your posture, with an emphasis on your shoulders and neck. I use a posture corrector to help.

You can probably get a blood glucose, cholesterol and blood pressure screening annually for little to no cost at your school.

Track these values over time.

Evaluate your diet and exercise habits.

If you're overweight, shape your environment to lose weight.

If you're trim, consider a one-year experiment in gaining strength and muscle.

Exercise is a great time to brainstorm ideas.

Mind and body are connected: a healthy body supports a creative mind.

Grad school is also a uniquely great time to learn new fitness activities. Most universities have broad extramural fitness programs: you can learn a martial art, learn yoga, learn how to lift weights, learn to rock climb, learn to ski, learn to play tennis or learn to dance.

Learn to do something with your body.

You'll make friends in the process, and improve your emotional well-being.

Finally, watch out for mental health.

Depression is widespread in graduate school, and there are people to help you: your advisor and school counselors should be a first line of defense.

It's OK to get depressed. It's not OK to do nothing about it.

Update your CV and web site

If you can't be googled, you don't exist.

At least once a year, update your CV and post it online.

If you haven't bought a personal domain name, do it now.

Maintain a well-designed, professional-looking academic web site.

(I'm a proponent of linode for hosting.)

List the critical elements of your CV on your site, and include links to the pdf of your publications.

If available, upload video of your talks to youtube.

Keep your eye on the job market

Ask around at conferences about the state of the job market.

Look at the hiring areas and check whether your work fits.

If you had to go on the job market as is, how would you fare?

If your school is interviewing, attend hiring talks.

Also see my advice on the academic job hunt.


Your future success an academic will depend in part on networking.

You will need letter-writers, and you will need them to pull you from the crowd when applying for jobs.

Have you been meaning to reach out to a colleague with a question related to their work?

Are there any collaborations you can propose?

Are you planning to attend any major conferences?

What opportunities do you have to see major scientists in your field?

What opportunities can you make?

Say thanks

Thank the giants upon whose shoulders you stand.

Did you recently read a well-written paper or dissertation?

Were you inspired by the insight it contained?

Drop the author(s) a quick note to say thanks.

If you liked a talk, tell the speaker.

Unprompted civility can go a long way in academia.

Volunteer for a talk

Effective public communication is critical to success as an academic.

Read my 10 tips for academic presentations, and take an afternoon to read Even a Geek Can Speak.

Without actively seeking opportunities for public speaking, graduate students will not have enough opportunities to master the skill.

Volunteer to give a talk.

It doesn't have to be on your own research. You can give a talk on a paper you recently read.

It doesn't even have to be about research.

You just need to get up in front of a crowd.

Practice writing

Effective writing is equally critical to success as an academic.

Once again, there will not be enough opportunities to write.

You don't just need to write more, you need to form a writing habit.

If you don't have a professional blog, take time to start one.

It's not hard to convert things you already write into blog posts.

Try one post per month.

Or, commit to writing one thoughtful tweet per day for a month.

If you can't produce 140 characters of syntactically correct thought per day, maybe grad school is not for you.

Check with your committee

Committees routinely go unutilized.

If you don't have a committee, form one earlier rather than later.

If you have a committee, check in with your committee at least once a year to update them on your plan.

They can judge whether or not it seems realistic, and you may uncover opportunities for collaboration.

Your committee may also know related work you and your advisor missed.

Keeping your committee informed eliminates surprises at your defense.

No one wants a surprise at her defense.

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