Surviving Grad School: 3 Tips Before You Even Apply

Dr. Tanya Harrison
7 min readAug 1, 2021

Graduate school is hard. Not going to sugar coat that. But it can also be a truly amazing and unique time in your life, and it doesn’t necessarily have to be miserable on top of being difficult. Here are some things you can do and think about before you even start applying to Ph.D. programs* that can help make the experience better—and hopefully something that makes you grow as a person and as a researcher:

And if you’re on the fence about whether getting a Ph.D. is right for you in the first place, check out this other article.

A student wearing a typical Ph.D. graduation outfit with a red and purple hood, facing away from the camera looking over a lake.
A student wearing a typical Ph.D. graduation outfit. Image credit: @Hsengkeungmurng99 (CC0)

1. Find an advisor who is a good fit for you

In the world of research, we’re taught to dream of studying at prestigious universities under big-name professors. While that may look good on your resume at first glance, it might not necessarily be the best experience for you. There are three big things to consider when looking for the right advisor:

(A) Advising style: How a professor advises their students can play a huge role in your Ph.D. experience. If you are the kind of person who is an independent worker and doesn’t feel like they need to be checked up on much, then an advisor who leans toward a more hands-off style is probably less likely to annoy or frustrate you. Conversely, if you want to meet with your advisor on a regular basis and get a lot of help and mentorship from them along the way, then you’ll want someone with a more hands-on advising style. Some professors—especially big-name folks running large lab groups—can be so busy or have so many students that they just simply don’t have a lot of time to devote individual attention to them all. A good way to learn what style a certain advisor has is to reach out to their current or former students and ask. It’s also a good idea to reach out to current/former students to learn about their experience with the professor in general to see if they would or would not recommend them. They can also tell you about any red flags, like if the professor has a history of harassment or treats gender minorities, people of colour, women, etc., poorly, which are all signs to look elsewhere for an advisor.

(B) Research focus: Find a professor that is working on projects that are well-aligned with your long-term career goals. A great way to…



Dr. Tanya Harrison

Professional Martian who's worked on rocks and robots on the Red Planet on multiple NASA Mars missions