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.

Listening skills

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.

If you're a grad student, ask yourself: Do you listen really closely to which ideas your adviser finds interesting and which he or she doesn't? Do you decide which research ideas to pursue based on what your adviser finds interesting?

Be patient

If you get a brilliant idea for a research project, great! The first thing you should do is don't do it.

Think it over, develop it on paper, then wait a few weeks. If you still like it, maybe it’s worth pursuing. Every research project stops you from doing some other one. And of course you have to account for Hofstadter’s law (aka the planning fallacy): It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter's Law. (Douglas Hofstadter, Gödel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braid)

Be careful

If you do decide to do the project, do it right. Ask yourself: is there any way to do this better? Again, you’re going to have to live with this project, so get it right. And realize that the initial decisions you make will follow you for months or years. It’s like forgetting to tie your shoes before the start of a marathon—it’s a huge mistake and you’ll curse yourself a million times over.

Bottom line

Grad school is like preschool in that it’s hard to be patient, be careful, and listen. But a research project is also like a roommate—it can be easy to get excited about someone new, but it’s better to get to know them before you commit to living together. Don’t move in with your research project too quickly. Listen to your adviser, let it simmer for a few weeks, and then make it better before you start. Steve Jobs famously said (paraphrasing), "Saying no can be just as important as saying yes."

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