Graduate School Advice Series: 10 Things You Should Know Before Starting A PhD

Graduate School Advice Series: 10 Things You Should Know Before Starting A PhDFrom a senior PhD student to a starting PhD student, this is the graduate school advice nobody will tell you but that you need to succeed and get your PhD title.

We all join graduate school with rainbows and butterfly ideas in our minds. We will cure cancer, do research in interesting topics, learn a lot, oh! the scientific method, meet smart people.

That’s cute.

Guess what? Life as a PhD student is much different.

Here’s what I discovered during my PhD that was totally different from what I had imagined. This is my graduate school advice for new PhD students.

Graduate School Advice 1: Your #1 Goal Is To Publish Peer Reviewed Articles

Assuming that you want to finish your PhD and become a “doctor”, you have to publish peer reviewed articles. This is the one thing that if you do, you will get your title hands down.

Isn’t the goal to be an expert in your field?

Being an expert without peer reviewed publications equals to being an expert without a PhD. Click to tweet

It sounds materialistic, specially when compared to this romantic idea of doing science for the progress of human knowledge. Sadly it is how the game is played. This is the rule. Publish or perish.

People are trying to change the game with Open Access, Open Data, Open Science, and writing their results in blogs (if you do not have one, start a science blog right now). These are all very needed initiatives that are changing the scientific game. But still, in order to win the game you need publications (in The Netherlands, where I do my PhD, you need 4).

So the best graduate school advice you could get is write, write, and write some more.

Graduate School Advice 2: The Most Difficult Part Is To Stay Motivated

Since a PhD involves diving very deep into a topic, one might expect that learning very complicated stuff would be the hardest part. If you don’t learn fast enough and well enough, you will not finish your PhD. Right? Not true.

The most likely reason for not finishing a PhD, despite not having publications, is … don’t laugh … quitting your PhD. Click to tweet

What can make you quit your PhD?

It happens usually half way a PhD’s duration. You won’t feel you had enough progress. You will be lost in the middle of an ocean of uncertainty. You will still have in front of you a couple of painful years to endure. The alternative of a bigger pay-check in industry will look really tempting at that point.

That period is called the Valley Of Shit or the Phase 3 of PhD Motivation, the “Crisis of Meaning” . Almost every graduate student goes through this existential crisis.

You just need to realise that it happens to everybody and that you can overcome it. Focusing on constant little progress helps more than evaluating if a bigger goal has been achieved.

Something that worked for me was to start your science blog and share with others my experiences (see how a science blog saved my PhD). It helps to put all your troubles in perspective. If you need help starting a science blog and growing your academic footprint check our videotutorial.

Graduate School Advice 3: You’d Better Finish Your PhD Fast

As you see it sucks to quit your PhD half way. Such a waste of time for going away without a PhD tittle.

Do you know what sucks even more? To spend 4, 5, 6 years and not finish your PhD. Ouch!

I have seen this happening to many people and it has to do with two causes.

One, you realise a bit, just a bit, too late that this is not going to work. Seriously, do you really need 5 years to decide you won’t have enough results and papers to defend your thesis?

Please, evaluate every 6 months if you are still on track, if you are going to make it and correct direction if needed.

In a PhD you should track progress and correct direction regularly, don’t wait till it is too late. Click to tweet

Two, after 4 years you are almost there, you have enough data to write those two last articles and the introduction of your thesis. It feels so close and obvious you are going to get your PhD title that you decide to start a postdoc or a new job. Excellent Wrong choice, Sir!!!!

The stress and pressure to integrate in the new position won’t leave enough room for you to write those last pages. Sure, you are Superman and you are going to write after dinner and during the weekends. I have seen many people failing at this to believe it is a good strategy.

So finish your PhD fast and on time, avoid delaying it. And please, do not start  new job until you really finish your PhD.

Graduate School Advice 4: You Are The Expert In Your Field Of Research

We all regard our supervisors, principal investigators and promotors as a source of infinite knowledge. They are like superhumans.

One common source of frustration is to ask your PhD supervisors for help and realise they know as much as aunt Martha does. If these brilliant guys can’t answer your problems, how are you expected to answer them?

This is why you are here. To answer those questions your bosses cannot answer.

At the end of your PhD you should be the expert on your topic, and not your professor. Click to tweet

You can very well approach your superiors with a problem and propose several solutions. Give arguments for each one. In this context, they might be able to use their scientific instinct, the so called educated guess, to give you a hand.

Graduate School Advice 5: You Won’t Make A (Big) Dent In The Universe

We know you are not in graduate school for the money. Probably you want to contribute to the knowledge of mankind, fix a problem or discover something new. Fair enough.

The sad truth is that for the majority of PhDs, their research will get noticed and used by a handful of other researchers. And that is fine. Most of scientists make big contributions after a lifetime of research, not in a couple years.

The contribution of your PhD to science will be as noticeable as a fart in the middle of a tornado. Click to tweet

Then why do it a PhD in the first place? Well, you need to start somewhere and a PhD can give you the tools and skills necessary for achieving higher scientific goals.

Graduate School Advice 6: Key Skills In Graduate School: Reading, Writing, Networking

In kindergarden you learn to read, write, paint and play with other children. Ah those relaxed days when your only worries were choosing the colour of the crayon or if you were going to play hide and seek.

Graduate school is the kindergarden of scientists. You learn again to read, write and interact with others. Click to tweet

That’s what you need to learn as a PhD school.

  • Reading: you need to skim over a scientific paper and in a few seconds decide if you should invest the next 30 minutes reading it in depth. If you do, you should easily find what is the novelty of the research presented, if it can be useful for your work, and how does it compare to what you are doing.
  • Writing: in academic papers you need to get to the point. You need to be comprehensive and concise at the same time. You need to be technical yet readable. And if your mother tongue is not English you should work hard not to sound like Google Translate.
  • Networking: although some scientists would love to work in a cave away from the rest of the community, you should interact with other peers. Networking can bring you possible collaborators and chances of writing more papers, your new postdoc position, new ideas, or understanding form fellow PhD students that are also going through the Valley of Shit.

Graduate School Advice 7: Pimp Your Online Reputation And Grow Your Academic Footprint

Traditionally scientists would grow their network and get exposure by publishing papers and attending conference. In this new world, a great piece of graduate school advice is to take care of your online presence.

A PhD student should take care of his online reputation from day 1. Click to tweet

While you should still do these things during your PhD, you could make use of some digital tools to be a better scientist and to grow your online reputation, visibility and academic footprint.

There are 3 key online tools that you can use to grow your online presence as a scientist: a science blog, Twitter, and LinkedIn, aka the social media trinity for scientists.

If you use these three tools you will stop being invisible for Google. People will find you and discover what your research is about.

You can use a science blog to share your opinion about your field of research. You can also share materials like posters and presentations. Or even a description of your papers in simple words.

If you what to start a science blog but don’t know how, check check our videotutorial “Grow Your Academic Footprint With A Science Blog”.

With Twitter you can connect with fellow scientists, share your news and also discover new research related stuff.

LinkedIn can become your online CV, a place where others can easily see your skills, publications and education.

In Next Scientist we are crazy about the digital world, but do not forget to transfer some of these online relations to the physical world. Try to meet face to face with some of your online buddies, either invite them to visit your group, go for a coffee, or arrange that you will meet in a scientific conference.

Graduate School Advice 8: Time Management Rules From The 4 Hour Workweek That Change The Game

If you haven’t read The 4 Hour Workweek yet, buy it, devour it and apply it to your PhD. It is stuffed with great ideas that you can turn into graduate school advice, it will revolutionise the way you see the world.

  • You want to be effective, not just efficient: being efficient at something unimportant is useless. Being effective at finishing important things makes a big difference.
  • Pareto’s Law 80/20: focus your efforts in that 20% of tasks that bring 80% of the benefits (like writing papers). Remove the 80% of tasks that only contribute to 20% of the results (like revising constantly your time management system).
  • Parkinson’s Law: set tight deadlines, the last minute rush will activate your creativity. If you decide you can do a task in  2 days, guess what? It will take your 2 days to accomplish it. If you would assign 3 hours to it, you would still finish it.
  • You are scared, so is everybody else: when talking to other people, giving presentations, applying for that position, it is scary, but everybody else would be scared.
  • Have near-impossible goals: these are the goals that motivate you and that are worth working hard and walking the extra mile. When would you work harder? When you have to prepare a poster for a regional meeting or when you have to give a talk at an international conference in New York? I thought so.
Read this post if you want to know more about using The 4 Hour Workweek in your PhD.

Graduate School Advice 9: Deliver Fast And Often, Get Feedback

A great piece of graduate school advice I got when I started was:

At the start of a PhD get some little results fast to boost motivation, don’t go first for big results. Click to tweet

This is great advice because having some small results will a) give you a sense of progress, so your motivation will go up and b) give you something to present (maybe as a poster) and discuss with other scientists.

In your daily work, you should aim at “good enough” and “deliver soon” instead of “perfect delivered in a few more days”. If you deliver intermediate results or a draft of a paper, you have the chance of getting feedback soon and correct your direction if needed.

Bear with me: done is better than perfect.

Don’t wait till you have the perfect figures or till you are not ashamed of the quality of your work. You need to make progress and you need the feedback of your supervisors to do so.

Get rid of your shyness and “move fast, break things, deliver, ship” on a daily basis.

Graduate School Advice 10: Enjoy The Ride

The graduate school advice we shared might sound a bit too harsh. We just want to point out how a PhD really is, so you are not surprised later on. But do not let this discourage you.

Graduate school has many perks that make it a great experience. You will meet interesting people and you will have the chance to explore your own ideas and to be creative.

Remember that you are still a student, so enjoy life like a student. Do not take everything too seriously and make use of your free time.

In some cases you might get a salary or stipend. Isn’t it great to be a student but with money?

For those cases where you don’t get paid or your salary is microscopic, you can easily make a second income in graduate school and enjoy the life of a student.

You have the chance to travel. Get results and present them in conferences. Ask your boss to pay for the trip or apply for a travelling stipend for students. Find collaborators and get them to invite you to visit their lab.

Graduate school is a great time, make good use of your chance of being here.


Now you know how it really is at graduate school. You have almost everything you need to succeed in your new PhD life. What’s missing? You will find in the following posts of these series.

You can also have a look at these great books for PhD students.

Thinking Of Applying to Graduate School? Check These Sample Letters For Graduate School

When applying to graduate school you are going to submit several letters. The goal is to give a good impression and get invited for an interview. You should adapt  to your needs a sample letter that has been successfully used.

[note color=”#efdcde”]Check our letters for graduate school, which include a statement of purpose for graduate school and a recommendation letter for graduate school. You can get the letters for graduate school here.[/note]

Additionally you can get sample letters you will need throughout graduate school, for instance when you are submitting your first scientific paper to a journal or when you are applying to a scientific conference.

Check the letters for graduate school here.

Do you want to be better at Academic Writing?

Is “Write Better Scientific Papers” one of your goals? Do you have trouble writing your PhD thesis?

If the answer is yes, I have something good for you. Keep reading..

Marialuisa Aliotta is a scientist, blogger and creator of the course  Hands On Writing: How To Master Academic Writing In The Sciences.

She has helped hundreds of scientists to write better, specially PhD students. She knows exactly where you are struggling with your academic writing.

With this course you will be able to:

  • learn how to ban procrastination and stay on track with your writing project.
  • finally complete a chapter of your thesis in just a few weeks.
  • draft your paper without struggles or anxiety.
  • improve your productivity and experience a sense of real achievement.
  • write efficiently without wasting hour upon hour.
  • gain confidence and enjoy your writing project.

If you want a summary of the details of the course, this is what you will get:

  • All the academic writing know-how you could image delivered via video in easy to follow modules.
  • Worksheets and templates so you don’t have to start writing from scratch.
  • Supporting materials to create tables and figures, because an article is not just text.
  • Plenty of bonus materials (for instance on productivity) for the academic writing die-hards out there.

The response from everyone has been incredible. This is the course I wish I had followed at the beginning of my PhD.

Click here to get the Hands On Writing course now


About Julio Peironcely

Julio Peironcely, PhD is the founder of Next Scientist and a PhD by Leiden University. He helps PhD students to stay motivated, be more productive and finish their PhDs. Follow him on Twitter (@peyron) or read more from him on


  1. These advice all could not be more right, however, I have been wondering whether knowing these would or could make difference. If the answer is a “Yes”, it makes sense, of course; if a “No”, then what else? What really matters if I wanna be better, far better than what I am for the time being? 

  2. Are we relevant and do we make a dent?  Some do, but I do not think it is a drawback or problem.  The point is research is an intellectual pursuit that some enjoy.  When a friend of mine retired, he said he had worked all his life on these novel compounds but, after all, the great applications never came and he said he was disillusioned by it all.

    My response to him is that it is not necessary to make a dent.  All we need to do is maintain knowledge and pass it on. Somewhere down the line, one of the students will make a dent.

    I recall when a large gov. lab closed.  The expertise lost and it would take 5 years minimum to recreate that synergism the day after everyone dispersed.  Point is enjoy your research, try to make a dent but if you do not, be content that we are little cogs in the knowledge wheel and success comes in many forms.  There is nothing wrong in passing on what you know.

    • Joy Yzhong says:

      great points and very inspiring. Thanks a lot for sharing

    • Laeeq Zaman says:

      Thank you, very well stated… we are cogs in the wheel of knowledge.. ! Besides, I can not imagine why anyone would consider himself / herself as unsuccessful. Success in research is not in proving what you thought was right. Success, often is in finding the right track for oneself and others. In your particular example, least of all others would know that those ‘novel compounds’ were either not promising, or had to have that little bit of a ‘different something needed to them’, and whoever will find that, will recognise the importance of the contribution his/her predecessors made. Or so I think.

    • NextScientist says:

      Maintain knowledge and pass it on … that’s really good advice. That’s setting the right expectations. Wanting to make a dent in the universe can lead to severe frustration.
      More often than not we only hear the stories of those who make a dent, who more often than not, are the exceptions.

  3. that great advice for any new blogger

  4. Dwheelerau says:

    The biggest problem is there are no jobs for you when you finish. Even if you get a postdoc job progession from their is statistically very unlikely, you’ll be a glorified tech at best.

  5. Hello,

    I have just stopped by to give some feedback: 

    I was not even looking for tips for grad school application but I found myself reading this blog. It seems your google trick worked perfectly and you are also a good “writer” that your writing skills made me read all of it. Indeed, I will apply for some phd positions in the near future. So, maybe see you around Leiden in a workshop. 


  6. So sad that it’s not about doing good science…

    • In total agreement. Yet this article is accurate in its interpretation of current standards within the scientific community.

      As per Advice No.1, 5, 6, 7 and 9: Its fundamentally wrong that people spin, pimp and gloss their research just to get published. To me these publications reflect poorly of their authors.

      As for publishing 4 papers in 4 years of PhD study…well I think this encourages too many irrelevant publications with too narrow a scope, and likely of little contribution to science.

      “Being an expert without peer reviewed publications equals to being an expert without a PhD” – This of course is true. But taken with the 4 publications in 4 years comment, if everyone is publishing limited and well spun/written work but of little scientific value then the education level drops, with continually lesser and lesser quality of scientist (or researcher) becoming peers.

      We should encourage people to publish only when they are ready, and as little as they wish, with the understanding their own careers/reputation are at risk if they do not produce. I prefer this philosophy over “publish or perish” because it encourages quality rather than quantity.

      • NextScientist says:

        Hey Donkey,

        “As for publishing 4 papers in 4 years of PhD study…well I think this encourages too many irrelevant publications with too narrow a scope, and likely of little contribution to science.”

        I think that big contributions to science rarely come from PhD students. Thos happen later on in their scientific careers when they manage to run labs with big groups. Then impactful publications are possible.

        “We should encourage people to publish only when they are ready, and as little as they wish, with the understanding their own careers/reputation are at risk if they do not produce. ”

        Who would be interested in risking career and reputation in exchange of publishing little? not many. With such a big risk we would have very few PhDs. In the current system, where armies of PhDs sustain the research in universities, the system would collapse.

  7. Constantijn says:

    Thanks. I would mention pick great tools like Mendeley, Evernote, Zotero or

  8. Great thanks! I would advise using a good reference tool like Endnote, Mendeley or

  9. I graduated with a Bsc in Electrical Engineering when I was 23, back then I wanted to pursue my master and Phd. I went off the track a lil and I am not 26 and have a decent paying job. However, the I constantly think about quitting my job and going back to school to do my graduate school ’till I get my Phd and dedicate my life for science and engineering. Is it too late for me (being 26)?

    • NextScientist says:

      I started my PhD when I was almost 26. I have seen people starting (and finishing) PhDs at older ages.
      If you think doing science is your call, go for it!

      • I have another question regarding the “age issue”, since I have been somewhat worried for the last weeks and your advice could well help me. I completed a BSc in Manufacturing Engineering in 2010, then a MSc in Mechanical Engineering in 2011 and I have been working for a private company since then. Now I have just turned 27 (in Spain BSc’s take 6 years…) and I think that academia is what I should be doing for the rest of my life. Do you think it is way too late to have a chance to succeed?

        • NextScientist says:

          I think age won’t be a problem as long as you are good at it and work hard.

          • I hope it won’t, thank you for your reply 😉

          • My advice to you GPC and Khalid is do not rush into a PhD now because you are worried about your age. Have a look around, but wait until the right PhD, not simply the first PhD, comes your way. If you have started the wrong PhD and that is clear to you now, maybe you should quit (less than year one) or try to change it (more than year one). I began a PhD which wasn’t suitable for me partly due to a fear I was getting too old, and I currently believe that was a mistake. If the right choice is not available for you now then I hope you enjoy the one you do select. I wish you good fortune!

          • EXACTLY!

        • I am a 33 yr old woman with 2 kids pursuing my Masters and PhD. Believe me age does not matter; experience does 🙂 and also of course hard work. If you are sure this is your calling, don’t let ‘age’ stop you.

          • I completely AGREE…I am a full-time employee, a wife, and mother of 2 kids and although I completed my Bachelors in 1997, I’ve just completed my Masters degree this year at the age of 37 and I am considering applying to a PhD program as well. The whole thing is, the choice or timing of going to school will vary because grad schools will consist of EXPERIENCED individuals from all walks of life and in various stages of life…it’s not like undergrad where students are fresh out of high school for the most part which even nowadays, there are adults starting a Bachelors program at age 22-24 minimum. I wouldn’t get hung up on age just the INTEREST and desire in achieving your goal or vision and gaining what you want. Whether you complete a graduate program at 19 or 60 is not the factor…it’s completing the program SUCCESSFULLY that matters.

    • Of course not. Some students go straight into grad school after completing their undergraduate studies, and others become part of the work force to even determine if they want to pursue a grad degree in the field they began, or some individuals start to work AND get married and start families before enrolling and completing grad school (me). School is always there and grad programs/post grad programs will consist of a population of students of ALL ages at various points in their careers/lives or they are in the midst of a career transition. One person that truly inspired me is my friend’s mother who completed her master’s degree and continued to complete her PhD in her 60’s and she has enhanced her career as a result. In other words, while you still have a life and interest, don’t let age be a factor…..just go out and do it.

    • Laeeq Zaman says:

      I am just 43 🙂 graduated at 24 and mastered at 28. Could not find a PhD supervisor in my field in my country, so could not pursue it. Now I have an opportunity that I could start in in the following years, so already thinking about it.

      I know at least one person, a farmer by profession, from the ‘ill famed’ Pakistan, who did his PhD at an age of post-60, from a niche ‘Agricultural University, Faisalabad’. He did not need a PhD for a new job, nor would he get promoted in anyway in his current ‘career’, but thirst for knowledge has no bounds. He is at least in part a reason I am still interested in a PhD. Now it is your call to choose,or not to choose, to be older than 60 at 26.

    • Don’t do it. Leaving a job for grad school is the biggest regret of my life.

  10. Is there anything about the Phd process that encourages perfectionism in particular? I’ve noticed that Phd graduates (working in govt/industry) tend to spend excessive amounts of time on minute details early on in a project, resulting in the last part of a project being too rushed and often either missing deadlines or making major errors, when simply having a “drop-dead” date that allowed reasonable time for the later parts of the project would have prevented this.

    • NextScientist says:

      Hey anon, I am with you here. Most of us get a deadline: a thesis in 4 years. Having intermediate deadlines along the way will help to finish on time. If nobody (aka professor) sets deadlines for you, do it yourself.

  11. I’ve enrolled as part time, self -funded . And spent first year but still have not find a topic ? still no sense 🙁

  12. I liked your Blog….It spoke about most problems faced and good strategies to combat them..Also delivering good enough results quickly v/s perfect ones strikes home cause I procrastinate and make excuse to myself oh i’ll make it better but am just wasting time….
    Thanks for writting the article 🙂

  13. Laeeq Zaman says:

    Thanks Julio. Not all advice need to be correct or to fit everyone. I am not even evaluating. If nothing else, this article is brilliantly written, with a funny twist to the most serious issues. Every negative thing is cleverly wrapped in and concluded with positivity 🙂 I am glad I have read it. Thanks again. God Bless you!

  14. “will TALL you”? And this author has a PhD?

  15. Emerson Meyer says:

    There is just ONE thing you should know before starting a PhD. DO YOU REALLY LOVE WHAT YOU DO? There are no tips, no secrets, no magical formulas.

  16. subscribed to this (twice) and got the emails too, bot no mention of any ebook ?!?

  17. after a year, i decided to drop out of my phd program.

    i have a masters and for what i do, there was no real benefit to getting one.

    i DON’T want to spend my life in academia.

    i did a little video with my reasons why.

  18. CastingCouch says:

    PhD students don’t make theses, but rather dissertations.

  19. A bit of advice that I wanted was. I live in Pakistan and I am interested in Biology. I have just completed my Alevels and I am looking for a Bachelors programme.However at this stage in life I am feeling terrified and anxious. I always though I wanted to do a Phd in Biological sciences. However Now due to being constantly scared I am unsure what I want to do. Therefore I want to ask whether I should continue and do my BS in applied biosciences or do something else? Also are there ANY other WELL paying job options for a BS applied biosciences other than going into research? Also can I get a masters in business or finanace or marketing after my BS in appliedbiosciences (from a good uni) if I decide to go down another path afterwards?

  20. Dear , i read all this. its really informative, and might reflecting , whats that’s really all this is.
    actually i am new, just going to complete MS. now at the moment trying and throwing emails to a wide range of professors for PhD supervision.
    i would be very glad and thankful, if you could give some clear direction, suggestion and some motivation.
    my interest area is text mining, machine learning and bioinformatics.

    thanks once again.


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