6 Tips for Psychology Graduate Students

Surviving academic boot camp with a smile!

Posted Apr 03, 2018

If you study psychology these days, let’s face it, you pretty much have to get some kind of graduate degree before you embark on your career in the field. Degrees come in all sorts of areas, such as research psychology, clinical psychology, mental health counseling, school psychology, and more. At the end of the day, most psychology majors can expect to complete some kind of graduate degree that will take another 2-6 years of your life.

For me, I was in a PhD program in social/personality psychology at the University of New Hampshire, back in the 90s. Five years of intensive study, for sure. But you know, I think I made the most of it, and had a lot of fun along the way - learning to ski, hiking the mountains and the coast, experiencing historical New England, and meeting my wonderful wife Kathy (who was also in the program!) along the way.

Glenn Geher (New Paltz Evolutionary Psychology Lab, 2014)
Source: Glenn Geher (New Paltz Evolutionary Psychology Lab, 2014)

I learned then that graduate school, like anything else, is all about balance. And about not taking anything too too seriously. Years later, I am now a professor and am mentoring a whole new generation of psychology graduate students. Let me say that this is a privilege for me and I feel lucky every single day to do the work that I do.

Based on all of my experiences starting from my own days as a graduate student to my current role as a mentor of graduate students, here are 6 tips that, hopefully, will help any graduate student not only survive, but thrive.

1. Realize that it’s not a competition. Graduate school often feels like a competition. What did YOU get on the stats exam? What was HER grade on the paper? Why did THAT STUDENT get asked to give a talk at that conference while I didn’t? etc. etc. If you want to see graduate school as a competition, it’s easy to do. I can tell you all kinds of stories about this from my days back at UNH. But you know, stepping back, it’s not a competition at all. The whole point of any good graduate program is to best develop each student individually. And any individual student is really best off focusing on his or her own work and own path. Be happy for the successes of others in your program. And do your best to advance on your own trajectory.

2. You will never conduct the perfect project. One of the biggest hurdles I have seen for graduate students over the years is perfectionism. Graduate students, by nature, tend to be highly capable, intelligent, and diligent. That’s great. But it sometimes comes with a price. Sometimes a student becomes overly focused on using exactly the right way to measure some construct, even if there are 10 valid measures of the construct that are readily available. Sometimes a student might get so focused on getting a large sample size, that the project never gets completed because he or she never quite hit that N. Sometimes a student won’t hand in his or her thesis proposal quite yet because he or she is just waiting to add a few more current citations to really make it 100% up to date. Sure, you definitely should do your best in your research, but you also need to set up limits. Don’t let your striving for excellence get in the way of your ability to complete the necessary tasks on time. Balance.

3. Take advantage of opportunities. There are all kinds of opportunities that emerge for graduate students. There may be a new research project that a faculty member needs help with. There may be a new student club that needs executive board members. There may be a call for someone to write a book review that can ultimately be published in a scholarly journal. There may be opportunities to attend conferences and meet scholars from other parts of the world. I have never heard a student complain about taking advantage of too many opportunities.

4. Nail down your coursework. Graduate school in psychology is an interesting mixture of advanced classes and collaborative and independent research projects. While the research may be the part of it that you care most about, don’t neglect your coursework. The classes are there to give you skills and important information on the content of the field. Work to ace your classes, even if your main focus in graduate school is on research or internships. You will learn a lot and will benefit in the long term.

5. Build community. Graduate students are typically surrounded by similar others. Others who are in the same boat. Some of my best friends in the world today are people who were in the trenches with me in graduate school years ago. Instead of seeing others as competitors for scarce resources, see others in your program as allies - and as, potentially, lifelong friends. One of the greatest things I have seen among graduate students in the program that I currently teach in has been the formation of lasting research collaborations among members of the same cohort. For instance, my students Rachael Carmen and Mandy Guitar have co-published eight scholarly articles and book chapters together over a five year span (see References section). Wow, right? See your fellow graduate students as collaborators and see yourselves as part of a bigger community, and you will surely be on the path to success. There is strength in numbers.

6. Don’t take it all too seriously. Graduate students are often very serious about their studies. Hey, that is how they got there in the first place! But you will see that taking things too seriously can come at a price. At the end of the day, there are imperfections that surround a graduate education in psychology. Your program is probably not perfect. Your advisor (gulp!) is probably not perfect. The theories that you think are so awesome that guide your work are probably not perfect. And so forth. Make sure to regularly step back and realize that while what you’re working on is probably pretty awesome, it’s not perfect and it’s not more important than the people in your world.

Bottom Line

If you study psychology, graduate school is likely part of your plan. While graduate school is famously stressful and intense, don’t let it get the better of you! If you organize your work well and learn to balance hard work with the ability to step back and see things in a bigger perspective, you should do great. Take advantage of opportunities, work to build a community of scholars among those in your program, and never take any of it too seriously. And, of course, enjoy the ride!


Guitar, A. E., & Carmen, R. A. (2017). Facebook frenemies and selfie-promotion: Women and competition in the Digital Age. In M. Fisher (Ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Women and Competition. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Geher, G., Carmen, R. A., Guitar, A. E., Gangemi, B., & Shimkus, A. (2015). The evolutionary psychology of small-scale versus large-scale politics: Ancestral conditions did not include large-scale politics. European Journal of Social Psychology.

Glass, D. J., Guitar, A. E., & Carmen, R. A. (2014). Evolutionary Studies from the student perspective, EvoS Journal, 6(1), 12-17.

Sokol-Chang, R., Fisher, M. L., Brandon, M., Burch, B., Carmen, R. A., Glass, D. J., Guitar, A. E., Geher, G., Hinshaw, J., Newmark, R. L., Nicolas, S. C., Peterson, A. N., Radtke, S., Tauber, B. R., & Wade, T. J. (2013). Letter of purpose of the Feminist Evolutionary Psychology Society. Journal of Social, Evolution, and Cultural Studies, 7(4), 286-294.

Carmen, R. A., Geher, G., Glass, D. J., Guitar, A. E., Grandis, T. L., Johnsen, L.,Philip, M. M., Newmark, R. L., Trouton, G. T., & Tauber, B. R. (2013). Evolution integrated across all islands of the human behavioral archipelago: All psychology as Evolutionary Psychology. EvoS Journal, 5(1), 108-126.

Trouton, G., Guitar, A. E., Carmen, R. A., Grandis, T. & Geher, G. (2012). Male sexual orientation and the ability to detect female ovulation via olfaction. Journal of Social, Evolution, and Cultural Studies, 6(4), 469-479.

Carmen, R. A., Guitar, A. E., & Dillon, H. M. (2012). Ultimate answers to proximate questions: The evolutionary motivations behind tattoos and body piercings in popular culture. Review of General Psychology, 16(2), 134-143.

Carmen, R. A., Guitar, A. E., & Dillon, H. M. (2012). From accidental ape to walking on the moon: A new theory of human uniqueness [Book Review]. Journal of Social, Evolution, and Cultural Studies, 6(1), 132-136.