The best students often demonstrate common characteristics including purpose, working smarter (not harder) and disciplined habits. Collectively, these are known as best practices. Recently, we conducted an informal survey at the University of New Brunswick, asking approximately 50 graduate students to share their best practices. This yielded valuable results and surprises. The findings can be employed by all graduate students to increase their overall productivity and performance.
The best practices can be broken into four large categories. The survey found that the graduate students:
Were goal driven and highly organized
Focused on their well-being
Proactively managed their supervisors and supporting individuals
Applied specific writing techniques
Based on the survey results, the practice of being goal driven was viewed as leading, defining and owning their program. Ideally, they chose research areas they were passionate about, developed specific goals and a plan to achieve them. These plans were realized through strong organizational skills that included time and productivity management. Specifically, they locked in their research and writing time on a regular basis and ensured their work environment was conducive to directing their mind towards serious research. Conversely, they also blocked out and limited non-productive or leisure time, for instance a limit of 15 minutes of Facebook time per day at the same time each day. A common practice was tracking each activity or deliverable in their plan to a high level of detail, for instance on a calendar that was visible daily or hourly in the case of an electronic device. Some students took this practice further and employed formal project management tools such as the Pomodoro methodology. Finally, they disciplined themselves to apply the same rigour to their research as a full-time occupation would require.
The surveyed students placed significant emphasis on physical and mental well-being. Health-related practices were always near the top; these included sleeping well, eating and hydrating properly, as well as regular exercise. Their health practices further included a strong balance between school and life, stress management, and the ability to stay positive or optimistic. Interestingly, experts on health focus on the right amount of sleep as a critical factor in overall performance and success. In her book the WillPower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why it Matters, and What You Can do to Get More of It Dr. Kelly McGonigal explains how closely sleep and willpower are related. Proper rest of the mind and body leads to enhanced willpower or self-discipline, which is a key component of success in research programs where students must manage themselves.
The third best practice category that appeared as a theme was the proactive management of supervisors and supporting individuals. It was recommended that students choose supervisors who are interested in their work and supportive of them. Students function within the constraints they face in the academic environment, including assignment of supervisors and research topics. However, proactively researching the program, supervisors, and their publications before entering the program can alleviate these constraints. Furthermore, best practices to take ownership and manage supervisors and committee members included regular contact, — monthly, not semi-annually — , input in choosing their committee, providing regular (monthly) updates, receiving, assessing and incorporating feedback as appropriate. It was also recommended as a best practice that students lose the fear of asking questions of their supervisory committee. The category also included practices that leveraged and supported additional resources or individuals. For instance, leveraging librarians and becoming experts in research through their knowledge. Finally, continually engaging and supporting individuals, such as family and friends by defining and communicating time for them.
The final best practice category involved writing techniques. A common practice included having a designated work space that focused the mind on work without distractions. Before writing, reading broadly, more than required or recommended, and in a number of different areas was also considered important. Once prepared to write; understanding the audience and recording thoughts was recommended. Furthermore, they fine-tuned their writing skills by writing often, in small pieces, and when possible in different fields. This is reinforced by Dr. Paul Silvia in his book How to Write a Lot: A Practical Guide to Productive Academic Writing. He indicates the secret to writing is to pre-schedule writing activities on a daily basis at a consistent time. He further recommends against occasionally taking occasional, single large timeslots for writing, which he calls binge writing. A final, obvious, but common comment was to back-up their work often and in at least two different systems or locations, even after an hour of work.
Anu Gupta is an instructor at the University of New Brunswick and has taught for over 15 years in the faculty of business.