Biggest Mistakes Made By PhD Students

What are the biggest mistakes made by PhD students? Well, there are too many to try to list in a single article, but there are some general themes. And in fact, they align well with the mistakes described in many classic personal effectiveness guides. 

The following list is based on doing the opposite of recommendations in the classic “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” book:

  1. Being reactive rather than proactive. Living in your email inbox rather than focusing on your work. Focusing on things fully outside your control, like the weather or national politics, rather than things fully inside your control, like your research and reading of relevant literature.
  2. Not beginning with the end in mind. Having no clear idea of what success looks like (e.g. publishing 3+ peer-reviewed journal articles and graduating in 6 years or less after your bachelors). 
  3. Not putting first things first. Focusing on tasks that may seem critical but are actually not that important (replying to emails, etc.) 
  4. Thinking win-lose / having a scarcity mindset. Trying to protect all your ideas from your colleagues through secrecy and deception, rather than sharing freely and collaborating with those colleagues. Assuming that everyone is trying to beat you to publishing the same ideas, rather than realizing there is plenty of novel contribution available for everyone (even if you have to dig a bit more to find it). 
  5. Seeking first to be understood, and only possibly seeking to understand others later. Rather than seeking first to understand and then be understood. With the latter approach, you are far more likely to learn from those more experienced than you and to make more meaningful and novel contributions to the literature.
  6. Not developing the skills to collaborate effectively with others (“synergizing”, which yes I agree is mostly a silly word these days). Not looking for ways in which a partnership can provide even more value than the sum of your contributions.
  7. Not sharpening the saw. Not taking time off to rest and recuperate. Not taking time to exercise, eat well, sleep, and practice mindfulness.

There are of course many more specific mistakes that grad students make (e.g. trying to show hundreds of equations during a 15 minute conference presentation), but the above seven items provide a nice broad framework that you can use to significantly improve your odds of success in grad school. 

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