Tips for Success

A chinese student being photographed at graduation with Pioneer Pete

First Year Skills

Most graduate students spend the majority of their time reading papers, discussing ideas with colleagues, and writing and revising papers. You will be becoming part of a larger research community, which is a critical aspect of being a successful graduate student. Keeping a journal of your research activities and ideas is very useful. Write down speculations, interesting problems, possible solutions, random ideas, references to look up, notes on papers you've read, outlines of papers to write, and interesting quotes. Read back through it periodically. You'll notice that the bits of random thoughts start to come together and form a pattern, often turning into a research project or seminar paper topic.

Graduate students typically have to read a lot of articles to become familiar with any field, and to stay current once you've caught up. You may find yourself spending over half of your time reading, especially at the beginning. This is normal. It's also normal to be overwhelmed by the amount of reading you think you “should” do. Try to remember that it's impossible to read everything that might be relevant: instead, read selectively. When you first start reading up on a new field, ask your advisor or a fellow student what the most useful journals and conference proceedings are in your field, and ask for a list of seminal or “classic” literature that you should definitely read.

Some more “studying advice”: How to read research articles and “difficult” texts

Read the Preface

Most students skip the preface. Don't! Read the preface and you'll get essential information for understanding the author's perspective. The preface usually provides information about the author's objective, the organizational plan of the book, how the book is different from others on the market, and the author's background and qualifications. Once you know the author's objective or goal, it's easier to see relationships among the facts presented.

Read the Introduction

Read the introduction to the book. The introduction lays the foundation for the rest of the text in the form of an overview and background. This information will make it easier to digest ideas in the subsequent chapters.

Read and Re-read Again

Reading articles and textbooks often requires more than one pass. It usually takes two, three, or even more readings to grasp difficult concepts. You should always preview the material to be read. Skim the table of contents, preface, headings, and conclusions. Stop and think about the author's intent as well the instructor's purpose in making the assignment and purpose for reading.

Take Notes

In early readings, take the briefest of notes while reading by adding brackets in margins or underlining minimally. Mark pages where you might want to take formal notes. After reading, take more extensive notes. When reading and note taking are complete, reread all of your notes, think about what you've read, and add more notes based on your reflections. Your goal is to have notes that are concise, capture the reading—and replace it so that you don't have to go back and re-read.

Use Highlighting Sparingly

If you underline text, do so minimally and stay focused on the important details. Avoid the temptation to highlight every line. Heavy highlighting is a procrastination tool because usually you're marking what you should learn instead of focusing on learning it.

Read Before Class

Read the chapter before attending class so that you're familiar with the material beforehand. Note unanswered questions or particularly difficult material, and seek answers during class. Don’t hesitate to ask questions.

Keep the papers, handouts, and Xeroxed articles you read filed away so you can find them again later. Find a filing system that works for you.

Second Year

Staying Motivated

It can be very hard to maintain a positive attitude and stay motivated. Many graduate students suffer from insecurity, anxiety, and even depression. First of all, realize that these are normal feelings. Try to find a sympathetic ear—another graduate student, your advisor, or a friend outside of school. Next, try to identify why you're having trouble and identify concrete steps that you can take to improve the situation. Be realistic about what you can accomplish, and try to concentrate on giving yourself positive feedback for tasks you do complete, instead of negative feedback for those you don't.

Setting daily, weekly, and monthly goals is a good idea, and works even better if you use a "buddy system'' where you and another student meet at regular intervals to review your progress. Try to find people to work with: graduate school becomes much easier if you have someone to bounce ideas off of and to give you feedback.

Breaking down any project into smaller pieces is always a good tactic when things seem unmanageable. Remember, every task you complete gets you closer to finishing. Even if you don't make any obvious progress, you'll have learned something, although it may be "don't waste your time on this task again!"

Getting to the Seminar Paper

The hardest part of getting a Master’s degree is, of course, writing the research project. The process of finding a seminar paper topic, doing the research, and writing the seminar paper is different from anything most students have done before. If you have a good advisor and support network, you'll be able to get advice and help in setting directions and goals. If not, you may need to be more independent. If this is the case, don't just isolate yourself from the world: try to go out and find the resources and support you need from professors, other graduate students, friends, and family.

Seminar Paper Advisor

A good advisor will serve as a mentor as well as a source of writing assistance. A mentor should provide, or help you to find, the resources you need and be available to give you advice on the direction of your seminar paper.

Once your advisor has been assigned, get to know them. Introduce yourself and describe the area you're interested in. Give them a copy of a research proposal if you have a good idea of what you want to work on, and ask for comments. The type of relationship that each student needs with an advisor will be different. Some students prefer to be given more direction, to have frequent contact, and to be “checked up on.” Others are more independent. Some may need contact but be self-conscious about asking for it. Other things that vary include what kinds of feedback is preferred (lots of “random” ideas vs. very direct feedback — or pointers).

Finding a Seminar Paper Topic

In order to do original research, you must be aware of ongoing research in your field. Most students spend several weeks reading and studying current research to identify important open problems. However, you'll never be able to read everything that might be relevant—and new work is always being published.

To finish quickly, it's usually best to pick a narrow, well defined topic. The downside of this approach is that it may not be as exciting to you or to the research community. If you're more of a risk-taker, choose a topic that branches out in a new direction.

In any case, a good topic will address important issues. You should have solid theoretical work, good empirical results or, preferably, both; and the topic will be connected to—but not be a simple variation on or extension of—existing research. It will also be significant yet manageable. Narrowing down your topic can be difficult. A good way to focus on a topic is to write one-sentence and one-paragraph descriptions of the problem you want to address, and do the same for your proposed solution; then write an outline of what a seminar paper that solved this problem would look like (i.e., what chapters or sections would be included).

Sometimes, finding a small problem to work on and building on it in a “bottom up” fashion can work equally well.

Thinking about a seminar paper proposal about a year before you submit it is important. It forces you to define the problem, outline possible solutions, and identify evaluation criteria; and it will help you to get useful feedback from your advisor and other colleagues. Writing a good seminar paper proposal will take up to several months, depending on how much background work and thinking you've already done in the process of choosing the topic.

The proposal should provide a foundation for the seminar paper. First, you must circumscribe the problem and argue convincingly that it needs to be solved, and that you have a methodology for solving it. You must identify and discuss related work: has this problem been addressed before? What are the shortcomings of existing work in the area, and how will your approach differ from and be an improvement over these methods?

Present your ideas for solving the problem in as much detail as possible, and give a detailed plan of the remaining research to be done. The proposal should include, or be structured as a rough outline of the seminar paper itself. In fact, unless your final topic differs significantly from your proposed topic (which many do), you may be able to reuse parts of the proposal in the seminar paper.

Writing the Seminar Paper

Graduate students often think that the seminar paper happens in two distinct phases: doing the research, and writing the seminar paper. This may be the case for some students, but more often, these phases overlap and interact with one another. It is essential that you break this down into manageable stages, both in terms of doing the research and when writing the seminar paper. Tasks that you can finish in a week, a day, or even as little as half an hour are much more realistic goals. Try to come up with a range of tasks, both in terms of duration and difficulty. That way, on days when you feel energetic and enthusiastic, you can get big chunks of writing done, but on days when you're run-down and unmotivated, you work on editing and fine-tuning.

Final Thoughts


"The difference between people who exercise initiative and those who don't is literally the difference between night and day. I'm not talking about a 25 to 50 percent difference in effectiveness; I'm talking about a 5000-plus percent difference, particularly if they are smart, aware, and sensitive to others." - Stephen R. Covey, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People


"Let me tell you the secret that has led me to my goal. My strength lies solely in my tenacity." - Louis Pasteur

Tenacity means sticking with things even when you get depressed or when things aren't going well. If all you have left is writing, then write part of the seminar paper every day. If you still have research to do, then do part of it every day. Don't just do it when you are "in the mood" or feeling productive. This level of discipline will keep you going through the good times and the bad and will ensure that you finish.

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