If you’re starting grad school this year, I have some very simple advice for you: wear a helmet. And if you see anyone coming, duck. If that’s not enough, here are a few other tips. Basically, success in grad school is like success in preschool: be patient, be careful, and try to listen.
In my 10 years as a grad student and then post-doc, here’s the most important thing I learned: successful researchers really listen to their advisers (and collaborators).
It might sound obvious, but it wasn’t for me or many other students I’ve observed. Like many of us, I started grad school thinking I was ready for the big time. I wasn't. My overconfidence wasn’t necessarily bad in the long run—it’s no coincidence that a lot of top researchers (and business leaders) have Kanye-like confidence. Overconfidence can help your career. The balance to be struck is between believing you’re smart (good) and believing everyone is stupid except you (bad). Believe in yourself but recognize that the people around you were like you once, but then they spent decades getting better at their craft.
I wasn’t ready for big-time success as a researcher, but I was ready for big-time learning. And that’s the bottom line. If you want to produce in grad school, listen. If you have a great new research idea and your adviser is bored when you describe it, take that as a sign! If he or she says, "but hey, what about this other related idea that is really interesting?" pay attention! Change gears and pursue that avenue—or at least give doing so very serious consideration—even if it isn't immediately apparent why it's a good idea. Just because you don’t know why it’s a good idea doesn’t mean you won’t see why later. I've been blessed with good advisers, but in my experience you won't regret it.