Advice for students from students

Often times senior graduate students will pass along tips to newer graduate students in a relatively informal fashion.  Here's our attempt to formalize it.  The Social and Cognitive area students have been requested to pass along helpful tips on anything and everything related to graduate school, career, and living in Lincoln.  You'll find these below sorted by general topic area and you'll also find some important links throughout (these can also be found on the links page).  Note that not all of these tips will work or be applicable to each individual, but hearing advice from multiple different sources will help you to figure out which things are likely to work for you and which things are unlikely to work for you.  If you are a student who is looking for advice on a specific topic, feel free to email and suggest it so I can add to this page.  If you're a current or former graduate student, please pass along any helpful tips that you think would be worthwhile to have added.

General tips for success/guidance

-Feel free to (respectfully) ask older graduate students for help. Often they understand the process a lot better than your advisor. And we're usually happy to help. The worst that could happen is that they say no and you find someone else. Senior grad students usually can help you determine the classes you should take based on what worked for them with their committee and others they know. Of course check with your advisor after to confirm, but often going in to a meeting with your advisor after your graduate student mentor has helped you is a lot better.

-UNL has lots of resources you might not be aware of. Grad studies has links for different paperwork and timeline requirements (make sure you check it out before you're finishing your MA or PhD). Grad studies will also review your CV and cover letter before you apply for jobs (give them 4 weeks to review it) or help you with grant writing. Career Services is also available, but they are not as specialized and might not be able to help you with academic jobs. 

-If you don't update your CV as things come up (publications, teaching, etc.), it is a good practice to update your CV at the end of every semester or at least at the end of every year. You have to provide the information to the Psychology Department anyhow in the Activity Report you have to fill out every semester. Adding information to your CV at the same time is really helpful so you don't forget anything when you go back to do it before your job hunt! And it saves time - Future You will not be less busy than Present You.

-The faster you understand that your schedule in graduate school ebbs and flows, the better off you'll be.  Sometimes you'll have so many deadlines and things to do that you'll be working a ridiculous number of hours in a given week.  Other times, you might have a slight down period with less to do.  When in a down time it's important to enjoy it and not panic that you're not busy and end up committing to a bunch of new things.  When things pick up again you'll regret it if you've overextended yourself.

-I had a graduate student who has been in the program for a while tell me to stop comparing myself to others, and it might be the best advice I have gotten so far. I think it is really easy to compare yourself to other lab members, cohort members, etc, but it is important to keep in mind that everyone is on a different track and they have different career goals. Once I stopped focusing on whether or not I was on track with other people, I began to focus more on my work and research and was more productive. 

-Don’t compare yourself to others.  People have a natural tendency to define their current status based upon their peers. Using others as a basis for comparison may lead to feeling that you aren’t like the other students or “don’t fit”. This is commonly referred to as  “imposter syndrome”, a feeling that you are not qualified for graduate school and that you somehow “slipped through the cracks”. The truth is, you were selected for a reason. You worked hard to get where you are and you are just as capable as your peers. Perhaps you operate a bit differently, but different doesn’t equate to lesser-than.  At the risk of sounding like an after-school special, everyone is unique. Individuals will thrive in different environments and circumstances. Most importantly, everyone has their own set of skills that they bring to the table. Although being well rounded and trained in all aspects of your field is an important part of graduate school, there is no denying that some people are simply better at some tasks than others. Embrace this fact and use it to your advantage. Perhaps your skill set is such that you can generate an idea and plan a project, but the person you are collaborating with is better at writing and synthesizing ideas in a more succinct and coherent way. 

-It is always beneficial to be working on multiple research projects at once.  This doesn't mean you have to take the lead on every single project, but not everything works out as anticipated.  If you put all of your efforts into 1-2 projects and they don't work out, it will hurt your publication record and prospects beyond grad school.  Try to get involved in as many things as you can reasonably handle and make good use of collaborations and smaller opportunities with other labs.

-Interpersonal relationships are key within your department.  Interpersonal relationships are important within your department and your field. Not only can such relationships yield ideas and potential collaborations, but these folks are likely your most readily available support system. They are the people you can call upon when you’re stuck, need feedback, or just need a set of fresh eyes on a project. Most importantly, these folks are the most familiar with your circumstances and experiences. 

-Collaborating with others is fantastic when it's working out, less so if it's not.  When you have a successful collaboration you should hold onto it and keep it going as long as it's fruitful.  If something isn't working out (e.g. different work styles, different personality types, different expectations) then you should not feel obligated to continue a collaboration just so you don't hurt someone's feelings.  Wrap up whatever you've committed to and then move on.

-Figure out what works for you.  In what setting and under what circumstances do you study, write, and concentrate best in? Do you need complete and total quiet? Try one of the secluded areas in one of the libraries. Do you need others to help keep you on track? Find a study/accountability buddy that you can regularly meet with—just make sure they will actually hold you accountable! If you’re one of those folks that need a TV show or movie on while you work, well you’re on your own there. Maybe invest in a dual monitor and Netflix. Regardless of your personal preferences, I recommend spending time trying different environments to find your niche. Personally, I thrive in quiet places with minimal distractions, so my office in the basement works well. However, that can get a bit monotonous and I find it necessary to change scenery from time to time. For example, when it is nice out, I try to do any of my reading outside—Vitamin D is glorious. When I need to write, I find it helpful to set up in a coffee shop, pop in some ear buds and throw a Spotify Focus playlist on.  Speaking of, Spotify and Amazon Prime offer 50% student discount—consider this your reward for making it this far.

-Keep lists to feel productive.  I have always been a “list” person. If nothing else, a list reminds me that I have stuff to do when I really just want to take a “mental health day”. At first this was helpful, but I realized that I was knocking out the smaller tasks and avoiding larger tasks, like writing an article. Early on, an advanced graduate student advised that lists are great, but you have to use them wisely. Specifically, you should break down large tasks into more manageable parts to help change a mountain back to actual molehill size.  Moreover, I feel like checking things off a “to-do” list helps you realize just how much you have accomplished and can help build momentum to tackle bigger projects.

-Recognize your accomplishments and reward yourself.  Grad school is a time of growth—both professionally and personally. Because you’re so involved in your academic responsibilities, it can be easy to overlook just how much you have accomplished. From time to time, take a minute to reflect on your personal growth. Moreover, don’t be afraid to reward yourself for achievements.  I find it helpful to have events or activities that you can look forward to. So make goals and self-imposed deadlines—then reward yourself for accomplishing those goals. I think it is helpful to do this on both a short-term and long-term basis. Looking forward to the Husker game on Saturday? Use that as your reward for completing a task. Larger events (e.g., concerts, a trip out-of-town, extended break) can serve as benchmarks for larger goals, like the completion of a manuscript (or a portion of a manuscript). Meeting these benchmarks is not only rewarding because you’ve accomplished a goal but it will also free your mind so you can enjoy your reward!

-When it comes to time-management, let your schedule dictate your work, not the other way around.  Put differently, embrace and try to master time-management. Nothing will help you become more effective than recognizing then planning for what is ahead of you. If you rely upon deadlines to dictate your plans, you’re constantly working from behind. This is a recipe for burnout. Learn to utilize your time efficiently. Use tools like Google Calendar to manage your schedule. Actually block out specific times for specific projects (e.g., 1.5 hours of research on a project, 1 hour of data analysis, etc.). Use different calendars and colors to correspond to different types of tasks (e.g., green= class time, blue= research, purple= assistantship/work). Don’t forget to schedule in time for yourself! It may sound silly to be so meticulous with your schedule but it can pay dividends in the long run. 

-Don't work all the time! Exercise. Cook. Take some time off and hang out with your cohort or other friends. It might actually improve your productivity and reduce burnout. It is also nice to have friends outside of the psychology department, or outside grad school completely so you are not constantly thinking or talking about school.


-Motivation can be hard to find. Most of us struggle sometimes. It is OK to talk to other students or your advisor about it. Some techniques that have worked for me can be found in the book How to Write a Lot. Setting up a writing group with other students to keep you accountable is great.

-Everyone writes differently and the sooner you figure out what works best for you, the better.  Some people need to block off a set period of time to write every week, others need to write when they are inspired/motivated to do so.  Figure out what works best for you.  I tried the blocking off time every week thing and found that it made my writing worse as I'm someone who needs to write in the correct mood/rhythm and then I restructure around when that hits me.  Other people though need to force themselves to write all the time to stay productive.  Whatever you do, don't let writing defeat you as you're going to have to do a lot of it (manuscripts, theses, comps, etc.) so figuring out an ideal writing mode for you is beneficial.


-There are a lot of opportunities to teach (e.g. certain TA positions have lecture/lab requirements, summer teaching, occasional courses through the term for senior grad students) and you should get as many of these as you can reasonably handle.  If you want to teach going forward you'll want a lot of experience to draw from.  Even if you want to focus on research and go to a school with a low teaching load, it's important to know going in how much time it takes to design a course the first time.  When other students I've known have gone straight to a professor job without teaching, they've been overwhelmed with how long teaching took.  Plus if you teach in grad school you'll have a bunch of stuff prepped that might help you at the next level.

-Don't be afraid to TA things like Stats, which can be a lot of work but is really valuable for your own understanding of statistics.  Plus, they are always looking for people willing to teach statistics at universities and it could really benefit you if you're comfortable with it.  Stats can be pretty labor intensive as a T.A. but the extra work/discomfort in the short term can really pay off in the long term.

-If you start to think that you would prefer to focus on teaching for your career it is a good idea to still keep trying to do research and publish in the meantime.  It's much easier job wise to move from a research position to a teaching position than it is to move from a teaching position to a research position.  Sometimes people change their mind about what they want to do so keeping all options open in graduate school is a good thing.  Don't make a rash decision too quickly that could hurt what you want to do going forward.

- Grade efficiently. Talk to professors and senior graduate students who clear their grading load quickly and seem to enjoy teaching. Odds are they'll have ideas on grading rubrics and systems that might save you hours if not days worth of time down the road.

-Most advisors are research focused. If you are interested in a teaching position, talk to your advisor about it. But also take advantage of resources around the school. The Preparing Future Faculty program offered in the summer is great when you are toward the end of your graduate school time. Also, if you teach a class you can get it evaluated by the Teaching Documentation Program


Additional Funding

- Stay up to date on university wide opportunities. There are loads of awards, fellowships and career improvement related workshops with deadlines that often slip by unnoticed. Getting a few more lines on the vitae or funding that lets you allocate more time to research goes a long way to helping advance your prospects.

-Granting agencies such as NIH and NSF often have graduate student fellowships you can apply for but they differ in terms of amount of money, when you are able to apply (e.g. some only allow you to apply up to your second year of graduate school), how many times you can resubmit, etc.  Your advisor may not be aware of all of these opportunities so even if others in your lab have not traditionally applied to these that does not mean that you shouldn't be.  Seek out as many opportunities as you can and talk to your advisor about which ones might be right/ideal for you.

Juggling multiple programs (e.g., if you are a Social and Cognitive Student who is also in the Law Psychology program)

-If you are a law student trying to take a class for dual credit (psych & law), you are instructed to register for the course as a law course and then get grad studies to count it for you. It has been easier for me to register for the class as a psychology class (the one that ends in G) and then talk to Vicky at the law school about switching it. 

-In the psych law program, it might be better to focus more on getting your research done rather than trying to get all the classes done as fast as possible. Most people don't have any problems getting the courses done by the time they are ready to graduate, and often have several semesters after they're course complete.

-The current JD/PhD requirements for those in Law Psychology (if you're interested) can be found HERE though please note that you should always seek out the most up-to-date document from the program to ensure you don't miss anything

-Sometimes when you're in multiple programs you don't always feel "home" in any of them.  It's good to make the most of all of the opportunities provided to you by programs (e.g. brown bags, social events, etc.) so that you are reaping the benefits of all programs you're in rather than feeling like you're missing out on something.


-Everyone does some form of comps prior to graduating with their PhD with the most common being a) a grant proposal, b) a larger review paper, c) an oral or written examination, but that does not mean those are your only options.  I decided I wanted to focus solely on teaching post Ph.D. and so in collaboration with my advisor and supervisory committee, I did a teaching focused comps which consisted of a ramped up version of my teaching portfolio (including written reflections on the courses I've taught, an expanded teaching philosophy, etc.) and a classroom activity that was intended to see if if improved student performance (soliciting evaluative feedback three times through the term and implementing a single change to class each section to see if performance improved).  The classroom activity worked and eventually led to a published paper in a teaching journal on pedagogy (note, however, that if you intend to do this it's best to get IRB approval first, we didn't intend to publish and the process of getting IRB approval after the fact turned out to be complicated).  

Supervisory Committees

-Don't be afraid to search out people in other departments (or even other universities) for your supervisory committee, they can provide valuable perspective.  Advisors will make recommendations for committee members but they might not know individuals with a specific expertise that you're searching for.  There's nothing to stop you from seeking these people out and then conferring with your advisor to determine whether they'd be a worthwhile addition.

-Your supervisory committee meets only a few times as you progress towards your PhD but committee members tend to be very willing to assist via email or individual meetings if you need something extra.  Don't be afraid to ask for help outside of formal meetings.

Work/Life Balance, Personal Tips

-Find a way to relax and take time to do so!  Whether it is yoga, reading a book (for fun!), going for a walk, or rehearsing the “Bye Bye Bye” routine in your living room, only you know what works for you. Figure out how you like to decompress and make time to do so. Even if this means literally blocking out certain times in your Google Calendar, do it. Having time set aside to relax gives you something to look forward to and a fixed stopping point for whatever you’re working on. Some days it may be hard to stop what you are doing mid-project, but I promise it will be there when you get back—just make sure to save it before you step away! 

-Yes, mental health days are a thing. Don’t feel guilty if you need to take a day here or there for yourself. When I first joined our program an advanced graduate student gave me some of the best advice I’ve ever received—take at least one day a week for yourself. No work, just time for yourself. A refreshed and rejuvenated you will probably be more productive anyway.

-Exercise is a must and sleep is probably the greatest thing ever.  Exercise is an excellent stress reliever and a solid excuse to step away from work and clear your head. Your chair needs a break and your computer won’t miss you.  I’m not exaggerating about sleep. Sleep affects your energy level, memory, mood, and attention. Leave the all-nighters for the new parents and undergrads. Do your best to get on a sleep schedule where you are going to bed and waking around the same time each day (yes, this includes weekends). 

-It doesn’t hurt to have friends outside your department.  Sometimes you just need to be around new people. People that aren’t in your program are a nice resource. When you’re around people who are in the same classes or working on the same projects as you, there is an inherent temptation to talk about work and all the experiences that you share. Although this is a valuable, having friends outside your department (perhaps even outside of academia) is nice because you won’t be tempted to discuss school outside of school. They probably don’t care to hear about how many words your wrote that day or the pending conference deadline.

Living in Lincoln, Nebraska 

- Students with license plates from states that police might suspect of smuggling drugs (CA, CO, AZ, maybe others?) should put a University of Nebraska sticker on their car. I got pulled over a lot for no reason, but I spoke to a police officer I knew and they recommended putting on a sticker so the police know why you are in Nebraska. I haven't gotten pulled over since.

-Get out and explore Lincoln/Nebraska—especially outside of campus.  I like to characterize Lincoln as a large small-town. It is large enough that there are activities and things to do, but not so large that you’re in traffic for longer than 30 minutes (except on gamedays, of course!). I didn’t grow up experiencing “seasons” very often, so I regard autumn as particularly gorgeous. The air is brisk, the leaves are changing colors and you can sleep with your windows open. Lincoln offers many walking/biking trails that connect various parks throughout the town. Further, there are a number of resources available to us as students. Don’t have a bike? Rent one from the Outdoor Adventures Center on City campus.

-Although Lincoln is the capital, Omaha is a short car ride away and boasts more events and activities. Social media is a fantastic way to stay informed of events. 

-Lincoln is a really easy city to get around to places if you have a car, but if you don't (or just prefer to go environmentally friendly or get some exercise), the city and surrounding area are well served by the StarTran Bus Service or one of the many Bike Paths.