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Ten Unwritten Rules for Success in Graduate School

10 unwritten rules for acquiring (and being) a great mentor

As a second year graduate student, I started conducting individual therapy, videotaped behind a one-way mirror to be dissected by my supervisor. The therapy session seemed to go well. The client and I laughed together a few times which I thought was impressive because he had crippling social anxiety. As soon as my fellow students and I walked into our clinical supervisor's office, I knew I did something wrong. 

"Todd, I am going to play 30 seconds of videotape and you tell me what you did wrong. Ready?"

I paid close attention to my words, the client's words, my body posture, the client's body posture, but nothing came to mind. What did I do wrong? This internal dialogue must have been observable to my supervisor who jumped in front of me.

"So you have no idea what the problem is? Do you? Well, why the hell is there a bottle of water on the table? Why are you so nervous that you need a bottle of water to protect you? Do you think this will help your client? Do you think this is going to calm your nerves?"

I didn't want to sound like a smart ass so I kept my secret to myself. I was parched. Water helps. Day one of clinical supervision began, and the days of being self-conscious free were over.

Everyone has a story about ugly mentorship and this is because most of us who are faculty mentors never received training on how to mentor someone. Somehow it was assumed that if you were a strong researcher with good teaching evaluations in classroom settings, you would naturally know how to wisely spend 4-5 years training a graduate student. Unfortunately, mentorship is not simple and thus, finding and cultivating a good mentorship relationship is not simple.

There are things I wish I knew 16 years ago, when I was choosing graduate school mentors. There are things I wish I knew 10 years ago, when I was hired as faculty. I've had my share of amazing mentors, evil mentors, and a wide range of characters in-between, some that had a net zero effect on my work and life. As a mentor, I made many mistakes and there are more to come. With this history, I wanted to provide a forum of wisdom about how graduate students can create an ideal working environment. Even though you are a student, you are not impotent. You can create the best atmosphere possible to become a great thinker, writer, speaker, and leader. Crucial to graduate school success is an excellent relationship with your mentor.

The person who can advocate on your behalf when there is static with other faculty or students.

The person who can ensure there is a balance of success at work with healthy relationships and self-care.

The person who can teach you how to tolerate distress, ambiguity, and uncertainty.

The person who offers access to their skills and wisdom while simultaneously pushing you toward independence.

The person who will write letters of recommendations for years (and even if you don't ask for them, they will be contacted).

The person who has the power to ruin your reputation and career.

So let's jump into 10 tips.

1. Be visible. Forget the notion of virtue as what you do when nobody else is watching. Your mentor only knows what they observe and hear about. One thing we do in our laboratory is use google drive and dropbox. When you use google drive, any document that is shared with a research team retains a record of when someone makes changes. When using dropbox, any changes made to a document will be visible to anyone with shared access to that document. Without having to say a word, everyone knows what each person contributes. Some of your work will be intellectual and creative, other work will be essential drudgery (e.g., cleaning data, editing grammar, organizing folders so that it is easier to find documents on a computer). Let your contributors know how hard you work. Sweat equity earns trust and opportunities.

2. Make reasonable deadlines and hit them. As soon as I delegate a task, my body feels a sense of relief, allowing me to turn my energies elsewhere. Nothing is more annoying than people who say they are going to do something and don't follow through. This means I have to track people down and my confidence in them drops. Every mentor needs students who are autonomous, able to execute plans that have been discussed ad nauseam. Failing to ship reduces opportunities. Learn how to ship on a regular basis.

3. Show gratitude, even if you don't feel it. When I left Wall Street for a career in psychology, I began as a research assistant at Stony Brook University, trying to get some experience to get into graduate school. I spent over a year, alone in a windowless office, coding videotapes of parent-child interactions for eight hours per day. Hundreds of hours of tedium that led to a single fifth author poster. I was ecstatic. I was honored to be part of an intellectual contribution to the field. I had a celebratory dinner. I told the first four authors how much I appreciated the bone they threw at me.

Things have changed in the past 15 years. When I review graduate school applications, I often find students who are authors on 10 conference presentations and some who are the lead author of a journal article. Using today's standards, I would never have been accepted into graduate school (my peers share the same sentiment). I do not believe students work harder now than they did back then. I think the bar has been lowered for authorship. I think the bar for publication has been lowered with the advent of a larger number of second, third, and fourth tier journal outlets (see my prior blog post about how anything can be published). I think the average scientist is more obsessed with the size of their vitae; the sheer quantity of conference submissions and publications. Taken together, there is greater generosity with authorship. Remember this: you are not entitled to authorship unless you make a significant intellectual contribution to a project. If you are the recipient of a mentor's generosity, express your gratitude. Be effusive. If you feel nothing, question why. You might be in the wrong profession. You might need some emotional intelligence training. 

4. As a caveat to the last point, there is a power imbalance with mentors. Authorship is the third rail of academia. Do not let your mentors take your ideas without appropriate credit. This credit could come in the form of an acknowledgment or an opportunity to transform those ideas into a grant application or research project that might eventually lead to conference presentations and publications. I know faculty members who as grad students had their mentors steal their ideas, write million dollar grants based on them, and never informed them (much less included them in the intellectual and monetary riches). I know faculty members who conducted entire research projects, ran the statistical analyses, wrote the full manuscript, and at the end, were told they would be second author behind their mentor. You do not have to defer to your mentor as if the relationship is a dictatorship. My suggestion is to talk about authorship before projects begin, and regularly throughout the process. Make sure authorship expectations are clear and transparent. Make sure everyone remains flexible; the types of contributions each person makes changes as the project unfolds. These conversations can be incredibly uncomfortable. There is nothing wrong with stating that the conversation is painful and you are in uncharted waters. There are great resources on this topic such as this and this and this and read this for an authorship determination worksheet and contract. Dive into the discomfort and talk about a topic that will be of fundamental importance throughout your career. Assertiveness is one of those skills that you can never get enough practice in. You will never be an expert. Enjoy the good pain of talking about something that matters to you.

5. Consider the value-add of multiple mentors. Cultivate strong and consistently maintained mentorship relationships with people other than your graduate advisor. The more mentors you have, the less you depend on any one mentor and the more well-rounded you will be. That way, if your mentor has massive gaps in knowledge that he/she is completely unaware of you can make up for it with other mentors. And you don't walk away with the same holes in your knowledge that your mentor had. You also have the social support to handle challenging situations from the authorship issues mentioned above to bullying and harassment. When I was in graduate school, I was friends with students who questioned the ethics of their research advisor's behavior (in both cases, it was about made up data). This is a huge bind for a graduate student. If you have more than one mentor, you increase the odds of a secure base that will get you through hurdles. As for me, I had four research mentors and I published with each of them multiple times. It was the best thing I ever did in graduate school because I was able to adopt three separate perspectives, three different skill sets, and from this, form my own unique profile. [Lorraine, Bill, Frank, and Chris, you are all amazing human beings and I hope everyone gets mentors of your caliber] 

6. Choose a mentor that is not looking for a clone. Your personal life history, interests, abilities, philosophies, and values ensure that your research career is not interchangeable with anyone else. A mentor should honor these differences and train you to become an independent thinker and researcher. You should be able to question and challenge them. Once you obtain foundational skills, you should be able to pursue projects that are slightly different from what your mentor does. Be careful of mentors that try to own the direction of your thoughts and strivings.

7. Just as your mentor can tell you that you are a poor fit for his/her lab, know that you are not their property and can leave on your terms. Don't get me wrong, this is one of the most stressful things that a graduate student can do. Most graduate programs are mentor-based which means that applicants are chosen by a single faculty member to join their research team. I chose a graduate program because of a single scientist that I wanted to work with. Within one semester, it was readily apparent that the fit was bad. I left their lab, and two other students left the same lab at the same time (what you might call a mass exodus). Without going into details, let's just say that my advisor did not respond kindly and I experienced a backlash for years. In the long-term, for my personal well-being and professional development, it was a great decision (the backlash only reinforced the decision). As one of my beloved supervisors during internship, Dan Smith, will tell you, "the main thing to remember is that, in many cases, graduate school is simply a war of attrition. If you hold out long enough and can eat enough wallpaper paste when starving, you will eventually prevail." In other words, make tough decisions, accept the short-term pain that comes with them, and stay focused on the passionate pursuits that led you to this field. 

8. Be open to feedback but also know when to persist. True story from my colleague, Jim Coan. Step one—Show advisor your latest results. Step two—Listen to their response, "This is a %$# waste of time!  Step three—Wait seven days and show the exact same results to your advisor.  Step four—Listen to their response, "Let's publish this in Emotion!" He had an amazing relationship with his advisor (one of the nicest guys in science); profanity-laden conversations are often a marker of a genuine, candid relationship (and you want candor even though you might think otherwise). There will be moments where you and your advisor have amicable disagreements (only worry if you agree on everything). Be deferential. But also know that they will make mistakes. So don't be reflexive in your deference. Be discerning. 

9. Your mentor should wax ecstatic about your successes. Those successes are not just about finishing grants and publications, they are the small steps along the journey. It could be the third draft of a paper, where you nail down beautiful transitions from one paragraph to the next. It could be your first independent analysis using multilevel modeling software. It could be a theoretically sound explanation of an unpredicted finding. It could be finding a flaw in your mentor's analysis, and showing them the corrected results. A good mentor will show you their flaws which will give you the knowledge that you can be as successful as them (and hopefully even more so). Make sure that your graduate school experience is a celebration of tiny steps. If it isn't, something is wrong. 

10. Friendships trump and supercharge science. In graduate school, it is easy to get caught up in the work and put relationships second. My best advice is to bring these two worlds together. I conduct research and write articles and books with my friends. We share the stress. We have no problem with imbalances in work load, as from one project to the next, it all evens out. We trust each other to do hard work, to do great work. We argue well. We celebrate the wins. The ideas are demonstrably better with two minds (or more) instead of one.

Choose collaborators wisely. Choose a mentor that you want to sit next to on a porch rocking chair, sharing whiskey while talking until the sun goes down. Many of my graduate students have become my closest friends upon graduating. Lifelong collaborators. This is how it should be.

 

Dr. Todd B. Kashdan is a public speaker, psychologist, and professor of psychology and senior scientist at the Center for the Advancement of Well-Being at George Mason University. He authored Curious? Discover the Missing Ingredient to a Fulfilling Life and Designing Positive Psychology and most recently, Mindfulness, Acceptance, and Positive Psychology. His new book with Robert-Biswas-Diener will be released with Hudson Press in September, 2014. If you're interested in speaking engagements or workshops, go to: toddkashdan.com

 

Todd B. Kashdan, Ph.D., is Professor of Psychology at George Mason University and author of The Upside of Your Dark Side: Why Being Your Whole Self–Not Just Your 'Good' Self–Drives Success and Fulfillment more...

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