Improve Your Productivity in Graduate School

Graduate school can be a long and arduous process. It was for me anyway—longer and more arduous than it needed to be, I’ve since concluded. So, in an effort to share any wisdom that I learned from my experiences, successes and failures alike, I’ve put together some suggestions for how science students can ensure a more efficient and productive Ph.D. experience.

Picking a lab

A good lab and a good principal investigator (PI) are the foundation for an efficient and productive Ph.D. experience. The first and most important thing is to find a lab doing work you’re very interested in. Genuine interest is the mind’s best motivator, so if you can find a lab that works on research that you love, productivity will come naturally. So, before choosing a lab, it’s important to recognize the direction the lab’s research is headed in and what the PI’s near-term interests are.

Endeavor to push the boundaries of your field while remaining under the umbrella of your PI’s domain.

Second, find a lab where the culture and the PI’s leadership style align well with your working personality. The ideal PI is a good mentor who will challenge you and promote your development into a professional scientist. The ideal environment is one that supports the exploration and pursuit of your individual scientific path while instilling in you the field’s important disciplines.

To ensure as many choices as possible and ample time to evaluate them, start the process of selecting a lab early, even before lab rotations if you can. The best way to learn about a lab is people’s insights, so meet with the PI and the members of a lab you’re considering and gather outside perspectives from trustworthy students and faculty.

Although you may have identified your lab of choice, how do you make sure that lab chooses you? Show that you work hard, that you are interested and interesting—and don’t be afraid to be yourself. PIs generally like students who aren’t unnecessarily needy and who take plenty of initiative.

Advising relationships

Choosing a PI carefully does not mean that a good relationship will develop automatically. Since PIs are not formally trained to advise or to manage, it’s best to adjust your initial expectations of your adviser and recognize that taking the initiative is the best way to create a successful relationship. While it may be daunting, realistically you will need to create the framework for your mentorship, so consider what type of advising dynamic you are best suited to and seek out the desired guidance. In general, an inclination toward reticence should be supplanted by a proclivity for communication: Ask questions, share data, and probe for ideas. You will find that the more you interact with your PI, the better prepared your PI will be to understand your interests and needs. Similarly, the more you know about your PI—schedule, habits, motivations, current career focus, etc.—the better you can interact with them.

Pay attention. What type of communication evokes the best response from your adviser? It’s important to be perceptive here and not try to force a certain type of relationship. Find an approach that works well for both of you.

In the unfortunate circumstance that you have an intractable adviser, don’t take their behavior personally. Try to focus on the specific things you’d like to take away from the experience. If the situation is bad enough (and hopefully recognized early on), you may want to find a new PI. In any case, a healthy relationship with your adviser will be balanced with support from other mentors:  committee members, postdocs, senior graduate students, or others.

In any situation where advice is offered—including here—it’s important to take a critical approach. Consider the informant’s background and how their experience qualifies their advice.

Intellectual development

Early on in graduate school, there is a relatively easy (yet commonly underutilized) way to promote intellectual growth: Be well read. It’s important not only to stay up to date with research in your field but also to understand the field’s history and the route that has been traversed to arrive at its current state. Good, current papers will ask questions that hint at the direction the field is headed and suggest the most interesting new problems. It’s great to look at the front half of Nature and Science every week and to read topical journals such as The Scientist and Scientific American. Even papers outside of your field can provide perspective and inspire analogous ideas.

Young scientists should be aware that while doing a lot of reading will provide great background knowledge, it can also provide a false impression that so much has been accomplished that further novel contributions are unlikely. Reading should inspire creativity, not quell it.

Once you’ve developed a strong knowledge base, you need to develop ideas for projects that are likely to being successful. The challenge here is that most projects don’t work out that well, so you need to develop an intuition for promising ideas. A great way to do this is to use peers—and especially slightly more experienced scientists (perhaps senior colleagues in the lab)—as a sounding board for vetting ideas and to propel concepts into experiments, moving quickly from mind or desk to bench top. A research plan should be designed well, but graduate students are generally apt to spend too much time planning when they could be gathering results and getting quick feedback on a project’s direction.

An easy antidote for such immobilizing inertia is to ask yourself a question: “What is the worst that can happen by going ahead with the plan?” Once you can answer this question honestly and are prepared to accept the downside as a risk, it’s time to be decisive and move forward. If failure is inevitable then it’s best to fail fast. For better or worse, it will likely be necessary to cycle through many ideas before landing a good one.

Work on science that excites you

To ensure that early success or dependency doesn’t impinge on future productivity, always be working toward leading your own project—one that excites you. Endeavor to push the boundaries of your field while remaining under the umbrella of your PI’s domain. Projects that satisfy Aim 2.2 of a grant proposal, or serve as a logical extension of research previously completed in the lab, will be more likely to work but will not be nearly as impactful as ideas that challenge contemporary thinking. The best projects are usually the ones that tell an interesting and novel story, and these projects are also the most fun to explore.

Sometimes your expectations for your graduate work don’t align with your PI’s expectations. Therefore, you should figure out what your adviser wants and how to execute that, without having to compromise significantly on your own scientific vision. Finding a project and approach that appeals to both you and your adviser can be complex, but you’ll be much more successful at gaining support for your ideas if you can demonstrate aptitude and independent motivation for driving a project to completion. Producing preliminary data doesn’t hurt either. In general, being cognizant of your adviser’s individual goals and pitching a project accordingly will increase your opportunities to work on projects that you find especially exciting, helping to secure an enjoyable and productive educational process.

And if your PI has a preordained course for you and doesn’t allow as much freedom and independence as you might wish, make the most of it. This can be an opportunity for structured productivity and a time to develop superior skills. You can always keep a notebook of your original ideas to pursue later in your career.

Project evolution

Establishing concrete goals and keeping them in sight is essential in the meandering, elusive process of scientific research. Share progress toward these goals (or your lack of progress) with your adviser, and communicate continually instead of waiting for a definitive success or failure. Another good habit is to stay mindful of how experiments fit within the outline of a publication, since data can often be superfluous or tangential to a story. However, even (or especially) tangential results can suggest new directions and alternative hypotheses, and it’s important to be open to productive digressions, which may advance the understanding of different scientific questions than the one originally posed. So, if a project isn’t going quite as expected, look for the positive side of your results, and try to extract value from them. Ideas can sometimes be repackaged, and data can be spun as a solution to a different problem, similar to the entrepreneurial concept of adjacency.  

Staying on a productive course also requires recognizing when a project isn’t working. Although it can be very difficult to let go of something that has taken a large investment of time and energy, if experiments haven’t been going well for a while despite considerable effort—or if the direction of the project has deviated too far from likely significance—it may be time to move to a different project. Stepping back and reevaluating the research process, while taking on outside perspectives, will help guide the productive evolution of a project.

Maintaining motivation

Remaining motivated while completing a Ph.D. can be a challenge, not only because of the difficulty of the requirements but also because of all the hindrances and setbacks along the way. Science rarely works on the first try, and mental enervation can ensue from frequent encounters with failure. However, success will generally lie in finding the grit to try again and having the resilience to accept failure and move on in spite of it.

As a result, managing expectations is imperative. You shouldn’t necessarily anticipate that the most likely hypothesis will be vindicated, or even that your experiment will yield the right results for your controls, but you should nevertheless stay positive and hopeful throughout your research. Try to think of your graduate experience as academic playtime, considering that the effort you put in will be much more relevant to your education than publication status. Embracing this perspective will take some of the pressure off and allow you to take more scientific risks, and it will help you enjoy the process of discovery without being so consumed by how things pan out.

Additionally, you can maintain momentum in the face of failure if you do your research in parallel, making and hedging multiple bets, with a comfortable flow of new experiments and projects. Keep an even keel as much as you can, regardless of how results unfold. It helps to recognize failure as an opportunity, whether it’s a chance to try something new or an occasion to identify the mistakes that, once corrected, will enable future success.


Throughout this process, it’s really important to communicate with others about your research, openly and frequently. Ph.D. projects are inherently independent, and as a result they can be isolating, rendering students reluctant to talk openly and share their experiences with one another. But labmates and colleagues are key resources—for brainstorming, vetting ideas, conveying new skills and knowledge, and serving as companions. The social part of graduate school can be a great experience, an opportunity that shouldn’t be lightly dismissed.

Mostly on account of my diffidence, I hope that all graduate students can strive to be active participants in their research environments and educate one another by discussing their ideas, data, and questions while dispelling notions of competitiveness. It’s also important to take opportunities to present your research whenever and wherever you can, whether at department seminars or conferences. (Go to a Gordon conference or other small conference in your field if you get the opportunity.)

Also, try to talk to people outside your narrow community and the scientific community—great practice for conveying information to nonspecialists and in layman’s terms and for understanding what the public is interested in. Being receptive to new ideas and different ways at looking at our own science improves efficiency and increases the total output—and relevance—of research.

Think about your future

Finally, it’s important for students to incorporate graduate school productively in the context of their careers. Career paths are often unknown and can always change, but graduate school is a great time to explore options and to develop skills for prospective careers. Whether you are interested in a career in academia, industry, teaching, or science communication (among many possibilities), try to obtain relevant experience during graduate school: grant writing, entrepreneurial projects, guest lecturing, outreach, writing for nonspecialists, and so on. Graduate school should be a time for students to progress toward their individual goals. But since most PIs are biased toward the academic path, you probably will need to gain exposure on your own to nonacademic routes.  

The expectations of you as a graduate student are daunting, and time management can be challenging. It helps to adjust your own expectations about the pace of research, and to recognize that there will be long periods that produce little in spite of the work you put in. Stay open to chance learning, and rest assured that the process builds on itself. Contain the perfectionist, remembering that sometimes done is better than perfect, and to the extent that you can, spend your time doing interesting science and cultivating your ability to do interesting science.

Every student is different, and every Ph.D. is a unique experience—of which wandering exploration undoubtedly will be a part. I hope that you can use these comments and suggestions to develop your own guidelines, and possibly provoke greater examination and discussion, for what you find to be the most productive course toward your doctorate.

I am largely indebted to my Ph.D. adviser, James J. Collins, for the insights and teachings that I’ve shared here. I also thank the members of thefor their advice throughout my time in graduate school.

Elsewhere in Science, 13 December 2013

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