Skills of a Successful STEM Grad Student

traits-for-massive-success-in-businessBeing successful in grad school takes a lot of effort and a lot of different skills. Of course, to succeed as a STEM grad student, your knowledge and technical skill set in your specific discipline are definitely important. However, there are many other skills required in order to be a successful grad student that, of course, no one ever seems to tell you about.

So, in no order, here are the skills that I’ve found are needed across the board, in order to get through grad school ad a STEM student.

1. How to be a good writer

Usually when the average person thinks of a science student, they think of someone in a lab coat and safety goggles preparing for the experiment of the day. However, what many people don’t realize is that the success of a scientist is less of how well an experiment goes and more of how well you can convey your findings on paper. In fact, much of your time in grad school is going to be spent in front of the computer, clicking and clacking away. It can be for class papers, proposals for fellowships, abstracts for conferences or simply writing up your thesis–whatever it is, everything that will show how successful you are in grad school will depend on how well you can write it up.

2. Asking the right questions

Particularly in the first few months of grad school, you will become pathetically aware of the difference between how much you thought you knew and how much you actually know. Trust me, that gap feels quite large, sometimes. Though, you should always try to figure things out on your own, at first, there will eventually be a point where you are beyond stuck and simply need to ask for help. I assure you, in grad school, there is no such thing as a stupid question. However, learning which questions to ask and to whom to ask them to is definitely be a much needed skill to have. Not to mention, it will allow your grad school experience to go a lot smoother.

3. Thinking on your feet

Science is one big puzzle. That’s why we love it, right? However, without a little quick thinking and creativity, it’ll be much harder to come up with clear answers to your scientific question. Whether it’s thinking on your feet to prevent an experiment from going awry or a some “out of the box” solutions to a problem, getting those creative juices flowing will most definitely be a great asset as you progress through your research project.

4. Motivating yourself

For me, the hardest thing about transitioning between college and grad school was that the number of hard deadlines become fewer and fewer. In grad school, it seems like you have this giant list of tasks, but it’s completely up to you to check them off in a timely manner. Therefore, learning to motivate yourself to get a little bit done each day will be essential, particularly if you don’t want to add any more years to your grad school sentence.

5. Learning how to fail

Perhaps the most important thing I’ve learned thus far: You’re going to fail at some point. Maybe an experiment goes haywire, or you were rejected for a fellowship, or perhaps you got a poor review on a presentation… Regardless, there is little doubt that there are going to be times when grad school kicks you in the butt and makes you feel completely incompetent. It is times like these that failing well and learning from your mistakes becomes essential to the future success of your remaining grad school years.

So there you have it! This is certainly not a complete list, though, so if you have any others feel free to mention them in the comments section below. 🙂


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