Expectations for Graduate Students

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Learning Objectives

  • Learn how being a graduate student is different from being an undergraduate.
  • Learn to recognize what faculty members expect of you as a graduate student.
  • Learn to meet the expectations of graduate school.


“There are no clear cut answers anyway and the thing I realize is that even my advisor doesn’t know them. I’m not solving concrete problems anymore—I’m testing theories and trying to make a small impact in the field. It’s overwhelming and exhilarating all at the same time!”

“My advisor is so critical … he keeps recommending revisions so the document is ‘worthy of publication.’ I’ve been making changes for almost a year. When is this going to end?!”

“Some weeks I’m in the lab from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. If I didn’t have a roommate, I wouldn’t see anyone for days!”


Being in graduate school is no longer about simply attending classes, passing exams and turning in papers. It’s about establishing yourself as a researcher, which at times can be lonely, isolating and frustrating. You’ll be expected to: 1,2

  • Work all the time
  • Keep motivating yourself
  • Take criticism and sometimes refute it
  • Produce original research and publish it
  • Attend conferences to stay updated on topics in your field
  • Produce and present independent and original research
  • Maintain positive relationships with your peers (i.e., future colleagues)
  • Network with academics in the community

Graduate school can be a daunting process. Being criticized during the qualifiers, comprehensive exam and your dissertation defense may be completely foreign to you. Micro-stressors like computer breakdowns, financial problems and sleep deprivation can just make the experience feel more overwhelming.2 You’re not alone—feeling exhausted, emotional and overworked is common; see Stress Triggers to learn how to manage your experience.


As a graduate student, the expectation for you at conferences is NOT to:

Best answer: A. Conferences are opportunities for professional development and networking, B and C. They are also opportunities to present your own research D and attend other presentations in your field.

Work Won’t Stop Because the Semester is Over

The traditional nine-month academic calendar no longer applies. You’ll work harder than you ever thought possible and you’ll infrequently get breaks.1 Your work as a budding researcher doesn’t stop for winter or summer breaks and you’ll be expected to continue your research throughout the year. In fact, winter and summer breaks may simply offer you a reprieve from coursework and an opportunity to get ahead on your publications, conference proposals and the dissertation. There are no written rules, but you’ll certainly be behind if you don’t take advantage of year-round opportunities for research and collaboration.

One recommendation for surviving graduate school is to manage your study habits so you’re not pulling all-nighters. It’s more effective to create a structured approach. Schedule your main work time for when you are most energetic and productive, whether it’s early mornings, mid-day or late evenings. You'll have to keep in mind, however, that you may need to adjust your work habits occasionally so they coincide with your professor’s schedule for meeting and feedback.1

Research suggests that male and female advisors operate differently, with the latter focused on more structured approach to meetings and advisement.3 With a female advisor, you may be expected to attend weekly meetings and by appointment; a male advisor may be more casual and impromptu with his approach to advisement, expecting daily check-ins. Also, female advisors more frequently than males engage in a mentor-mentee relationship with their students and coach their students on a wide range of skills, including conducting research, interacting with professionals at conferences and making presentations.

Getting Ahead Is More Than Coursework and Credits

As a graduate student, the expectation is that you’ll attend and present at discipline-related conferences. Keep in mind that conference attendance is not an excuse for a vacation; it should be seen as an opportunity to network with professionals in your field and build future contacts.4 Additional opportunities for networking include:1,5

  • Approaching influential researchers in your field in formal and informal settings
  • Attending social activities with peers and faculty mentors
  • Participating in structured discussions on hot topics in your field

Some graduate students miscalculate the importance of conference receptions and instead choose to isolate themselves or socialize mainly with their fellow students. Receptions and informal events are an important time for interacting with and making a good impression on the faculty and researchers who attend. You never know. The impression you make in all settings has the potential to impact future letters of recommendation, post-doc opportunities and career positions (See The Impression You Make).

The Focus is on Making a Difference in the Field

The reason to attend classes has changed because you’re no longer being tested on things that have already been done. Rather, you are being challenged to carve out unique questions in order to make an impact in the field. The ultimate test in graduate school is how you choose to apply the knowledge you gain—how you take others' work and build upon it will determine your place in the industry or academic world.

While you’ll be expected to do independent research to establish your uniqueness in the field, you will also be expected to do work similar to that of your advisor. Often your advisor will carve out a research project for you that supports his or her interests and helps you gain research experience.

Balancing Competition With Collaboration

In many science and engineering disciplines, research will be conducted in teams and led by a faculty advisor. You’ll be expected to maintain positive working relationships with your peers. You’ll also be expected to take the initiative on projects and combat any criticism from peers who may view your take-charge attitude as competitive and unfriendly.

Healthy competition is sometimes necessary and even helpful in achieving your goals, but competing just for being on top is neither positive nor rewarding; it can be isolating and turn your colleagues against you. Remember that in the future, your fellow labmates might be referral sources or references.5

Seek Support When You Need It

Academic advisors should be seen as allies—they monitor your progress, help you meet requirements and sign off on important paperwork. Your academic advisor can recommend funding sources and pass along post-doc, industry or academic job openings.5 However, be prepared to seek out support when you need it because it’s easy to get overwhelmed and isolated as you transition from undergraduate to graduate work and as you progress through a Ph.D program. From day one, it’s recommended that you:1,2,5

  • Make contact with your advisor
  • Meet administrative staff
  • Attend social activities with peers, faculty members or senior graduate students
  • Utilize senior graduate student experiences as ways to navigate your own program


  1. Lazarus, B. B., Ritter, L. M., & Ambrose, S. A. (2001). The woman’s guide to navigating the Ph.D. in engineering and science. Piscataway, NJ: IEEE Press.
  2. Rossman, M. H. (2002). Negotiating graduate school: A guide for graduate students. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.
  3. Fox, M. F. (2003). Gender, faculty, and doctoral education in science and engineering. In L.S. Hornig (Ed.), Equal rites, unequal outcomes: Women in American research universities (pp. 91-110). New York: Kluwer Academic/Plenum Publishers.
  4. Fischer, B. A., & Zigmond, M. J. (1998). Survival skills for graduate school and beyond. New Directions for Higher Education, 101, 29-40.
  5. Rittner, B., Trudeau, P. (1997) The women’s guide to surviving graduate school. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications.

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Observations on Women's Safety (Part 1)
Discusses necessary precautions to take as a female student working late nights on campus.

Incidents of Prejudice Due to Married and Pregnant Status
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