Message to graduate students: The way you practice is the way you will play

In sports, coaches tell their players that they should treat practices the same way they would treat actually playing in games. They say this because sloughing off in practice, rather than following best practices, can carry over into the game. When a game situation arises, when decisions must be made quickly, people tend to fall back on old habits. If those old habits were reinforced by sloppy practicing, then the player will be sloppy during the game. So, even while practicing, people need to behave as if they were in the real thing. I see a parallel between this advice from coaches and the advice I give to first-year graduate students, with respect to how they should begin developing good habits. Rather than just recommending that they follow the leadership of their mentors and try to imitate their practices, I tried to identify specific habits that students could start practicing, using a technique called “deliberate practicing.”


Never take a play off

Never take a play off. From Steve Gilliland (@SteveGSpeaks)

I came up with a reasonably short list. I first list the professional habit that you are trying to cultivate and then list what you can do in graduate school to “practice” how you will eventually “play.”

  1. Professionals take every opportunity to learn more about their field: go to all open seminars and workshops offered by the department.

  2. Professionals can articulate a point of view and back it up with evidence derived from their expertise, a skill you will need when teaching, as well as when you’re trying to make yourself heard at conference sessions: speak up in class – – don’t just speak when called upon, but rather volunteer to speak; pay attention to what others are saying so that you learn to maintain continuity in the conversation.

  3. Professionals take initiatives to organize their environments to their advantage: start discussion groups outside of what is required by your instructors.

  4. Professionals establish relationships with others who have complementary skills and not just with those with whom they share overlapping interests: befriend not only the junior faculty but also some senior faculty with research interests different from yours. Ask them if they will help coach you.

  5. Professionals don’t just “attend” conferences, they participate in them: at professional meetings, spending your time in coffee shops, sightseeing, and going to clubs will do nothing for your professional development – – go to sessions!

  6. Professionals don’t “take a play off”: if you are a teaching assistant, be a good teaching assistant – – someday you will be responsible for organizing your own course and you would like to have TAs who work as hard as you do

Begin establishing good habits from the moment you enter graduate school. You can do this taking advantage of the many opportunities offered to you to begin acting “as if” you had already earned your PhD. Practice those habits that will stand you in good stead throughout your career: participate, connect, and never take a play off (unless maybe it involves fly fishing). If you are seriously considering graduate school after reading this but you are worried about financing your degree, you can get graduate student loans from SoFi to help you.