Happy first day of August! It always reminds me of returning to school! I love school and I always feel the sting of nostalgia around this time of year. To earn a PhD, I spent 11 straight years in college and I have a lot of experience from the perspective of the student and the professor! Would you like to earn an advanced degree? There are many right ways to do it! Before you are bombarded with assignments, here are a few tips:
Many people struggle with confidence. It's okay if you aren't a genius, if your family hasn't done it before you, and if you don't know all the steps. Apply, pay attention to detail, and work hard. You will figure it out as you go!
Respect your professors, always. You can politely and respectfully disagree and still learn, it's a sign of maturity. The further along you get in school the more quickly you will recognize the teachers who are up to date, creating exceptional science, providing an amazing framework and experience, and the teachers who've been teaching the identical course material for years. We can learn something from both.
Use their title (Dr., Chair, Director, etc.) when you refer to them. They earned it. My rule of thumb is that if they ask you to call them by their first name, go for it, but when you talk about them (to peers, patients, students, etc) use their title. It's our way of honoring them.
Get to know the administrative staff well. They know what's going on and the details that you need to stay on track. They are usually extraordinary people. Be kind and thoughtful when you talk to them. If you need something done at the last moment, they will work miracles for you.
Submit your work on time. Period. We make time for our priorities and this is a priority in this season of life. If you are overcommitted, truly count the cost and decide which area may need to be put on hold. It's okay to delay or take a semester off if you need to. You are paying a lot of money for this. If you are constantly distracted and pulled in too many directions it may not be worth the price you are paying right now.
Cite your sources, and give credit where it is due, every single time. Make it a habit! Your professors aren't just being picky, plagiarism is plagiarism even when it's an accident. Details matter and the quicker we learn it, the easier our lives will be.
Show up and ask questions. Even if it feels embarrassing, asking questions shows that you are engaged in the material. As your classes start to get small and full of insanely intelligent people, it is easy to avoid asking questions that may show how much we don't know. Ask anyways. Thoughtful questions helps to clarify ambiguous information and may also help the people around you. If you don't know now, it only gets harder later.
If you screw up, own it fully. The quicker the better! Everyone makes mistakes.
Read. Yes, you can pass a class without reading, but you are missing out on context, history, and richness of the knowledge being shared. It isn't something to be proud of that you never opened the book all semester. You robbed yourself of a chance for a new and unique perspective. This is especially easy to do if you nailed a similar class in undergrad. Carve out time each week and read all the material that is assigned. Do you want the degree, to just "pass", or do you want to learn the information so you can flat out nail your career? Excellent students don't rely on their test-takings skills at test time, they've already put in the work in advance and can work through challenges on an exam.
If you get stuck on a question during a test, ask your professor a thoughtful question. I liked to use a version of: "I truly understand the broad topic, but I'm over analyzing the details. Could you ask the same question using different words to help guide my thoughts?" Nearly every time this strategy helped me get out of my own head long enough to hear what they were actually wanting to know.
Approach academic opportunities with clear goals. (Yes, I realize how unrealistic this sounds.) In each class (regardless of the syllabus) identify what YOU want to learn about this topic. Think about it in advance - how does this material apply to your career or knowledge base? Seek the answers to your questions even if the instructor doesn't cover that material specifically. Go to their office hour and have a discussion about it.
Show gratitude to your rockstar instructors. This doesn't mean giving creepy gifts or something inappropriate (I was offered a sensual massage among an array of other weird things...don't do that), but let them know how meaningful their work is to you. The amazing teachers are trying super hard to make your life better, and they have to put up with a ton of bs in the process!
Humility goes a long way. No one likes to be around a know-it-all. Grad school can often bring you to either side of a harmful ditch- one side makes you question everything and makes you feel like you know absolutely nothing, the other side of the ditch can give you a huge head (because you learned xyz already.) Neither side is an excuse to treat other people poorly. Be teachable. There is no need to trample others with our words / ideas / opinions / thoughts ....even if you have to sit through an opinion for the 100th time that you know is inaccurate. Take a tip from Kendrick Lamar- Sit down, be humble.
Try harder than everyone else and figure out what you need. It doesn't matter what other students do, what they read, how they study, it matters how you learn, how you excel, and what lights your fire. I like to write notes by hand. The act of actually writing them out, then putting them in my computer helped me expose myself to the information twice and I rarely forgot it!
Bring your voice to the table. That includes the things you like, your personality, and what makes you who you are. I tried so hard to blend in, be beige, and maintain professionalism at all times. The more I quieted my personality the less I was connected to my material and I felt more robotic. Grad school has a way of encouraging uniformity, but also uniquely celebrates differences. Don't get caught up trying to be the thing they want. Be you. It's way more fun. Ralph Waldo Emerson said that "nothing great was ever achieved without enthusiasm", I like that.
When you have fun, your students have more fun too.
If you are given an opportunity to research (literally anything) TAKE IT. It changes everything. If you aren't sure about this, call me. I could talk about it for longer than I care to type.
Recognize and celebrate when you do something hard! You really can do hard things and when it happens don't blow past it like it was easy.
Did you just get accepted? Freakin’ celebrate that! They CHOSE you!
Did you pass your qualifying exam? Celebrate that, you've worked hard for YEARS!
Did you begin data collection? Umm heck yes! That means you got IRB approval, that takes time and attention to detail!
Did you write your first chapter or your thesis or dissertation? I think you've graduated to boss status. You are SO close to finishing!
Celebrate the beginning of something truly remarkable. Creating a moment of celebration helps to remind ourselves that we not only have the capacity to do difficult things, but we also have the diligence to follow through and make them happen! It can build confidence and solidify behavior patterns that help us do it even better in the future!
You will have a ton of people who want to compare their undergrad to your grad experience, it isn't the same. Listen politely and be kind.
Make friends. They are with you in the fight. Help out, and appreciate when they help you out too! I owe a huge debt to my friends who taught me data analysis tricks, reminded me of formulas, filled in the gaps for me, shared their tips, and encouraged me. Find those people and be those people to someone else!
Imposter syndrome is common. Know that you belong here even if it doesn't feel like it.
Many of us struggle with depression during very challenging academic seasons, especially those of us who tend toward perfectionism. Academics can be full of crazy high highs, and very real lows. The amount of pressure you may face in the future can feel paralyzing. It's okay to say it out loud, even to people you massively respect. They probably have great strategies and ideas that could help you too! Give yourself grace.
There is a unique relationship change that takes place in grad school. You move from a student to a peer in a matter of years. Study to show yourself approved. Make it easy for your professors to say YES to you. Integrity counts at all times. Great peers know when they are new to the table and always bring an addition!
When I would sit and grade an assignment and I got to a really painful project/paper/test etc I would gently move it to the bottom of my pile because I knew I would have to spend a lot of time reviewing and correcting it! As a student, I wanted to be the paper that my teacher wanted to read. I wanted to be the one that never got put on the bottom of a pile.
You are a top-of-the-pile student and a top-of-the-pile person!
You my friend, can do hard things!
With my love,
Dr. Monique Middlekauff
About the author:
Monique Middlekauff is a Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology and is a Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist through the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). She is a certified Higher Education Teaching Specialist (HETs) and has instructed courses ranging from introductory to graduate level.
Monique is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). She has been a certified personal trainer with the NSCA, ACSM, and National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) for over 10 years.
She is a former NCAA DI volleyball athlete. Monique is certified in Advanced Cardiac Life Support (ACLS), and works as a clinical exercise physiologist for a major health system in Idaho.
For more about Monique, you can visit her website at