Dear Mentor: Succeeding in Grad School

Dear Mentor,

To have the best opportunities, I know that one has to be among the best students at each level of education. In high school and undergrad, a high GPA and a well-rounded extra-curricular life seemed sufficient for success, but I have heard that in grad school B=PhD. If a high GPA is not of the utmost importance for a graduate student, what are the keys to success in graduate school? How do I make the most of my time and my opportunity in graduate school to position myself well for the job market when I am finished?

From Dorothy Boorse and colleagues

The reason people say B=PhD is to keep people from focusing on the grades instead of the goal. The goal is to become a functioning expert in a field. You should be motivated both by your desire to learn and do excellent work and also, at least somewhat, to earn the support of experts in the field.

You should never view B=PhD as the idea that what you do in classes does not matter, just that what you do in classes is only one part of your whole graduate program. Getting a high A in a course might keep you from preparing for your oral exams or planning a good experiment.

So you sift and winnow and weigh, and do what it takes to becomes a valued expert member of your profession. Grades are simply not the major way people measure that; publications, presentations, and other currency of your guild are. 

From guest mentor Lisa Diller

In PhD programs it is much less about the grades and much more about what you are doing. But be aware that those grades usually reflect how your professor thinks your work compares to that of your fellow students. This may predict your ability to take advantage of the opportunities in your program.

In grad school it is crucial to make sure that you are involved in publishing, grant-writing, and editing opportunities, attending conferences, teaching, and taking part in initiatives that your professors are working on and that your department or research center is promoting. These are the things that will make it more possible for you to position yourself for recommendations and jobs after you finish.

It is more likely that your mentors and professors will want to help you have these opportunities if they think you are doing good work, and that is usually reflected in your grades. A high GPA is usually expected because the scale is A or B with few to no Cs given. So B=bad. Yes, you still have the degree, but if you earn a B, it says something about what your professors and mentors think of your work and may very well limit your opportunities for the experiences that really matter.


From Hillary Lum

Being successful in graduate school is going to depend on what you consider to be success, and what field you’re in. As someone who did graduate school in the “hard” sciences and professional school in medicine, my path to a job was very different than my husband’s, who did a Masters of Fine Art.

Here are some general keys to success that I found helpful in my science-based program:

  • Find a good mentor — someone you respect and can work well with.
  • Pick research you like and get into it early. This may well be more important than the grades you get in classwork.
  • Talk with others in your program who are ahead of you. They can help you figure out what pitfalls you need to avoid, and how to prepare early.

Perhaps more importantly, regardless of what field you’re in, there are keys to success from a personal level:

  • Remember what is most important to you (hopefully graduate school is a means to a place you want to be).
  • Seek out friends who know what you’re going through and will be there in hard times.
  • Find ways to rest; avoid being overloaded. Graduate work will expand into all of the space you give it.


From Sylvia Chen

I was never a graduate student in the PhD sense, so I have not experienced the culture of a PhD program. I expect, however, that keys to success in graduate school are not much different than keys to success for life in general:
  • A student can explore academic passions in graduate school.
  • A student can improve self-discipline and enjoy learning.
  • A student can develop relationships with professors, fellow students, and community members.
  • A student can practice leading and following in various groups and situations.
  • A student can learn personal strengths and weaknesses and find partners who fill in the gaps.
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