Information for Current Students

Surviving and Thriving in Graduate School

Beginning Your Studies

  1. How are your financial needs going to be met? Will you be supported with fellowships, Graduate Student Research or Graduate Student Instructor or Reader positions, loans, or will you have an outside job? It’s good to ascertain, if possible, how you will be able to finance your graduate study for the duration of your stay at Cal. Ask your department or advisor if they can provide financial support if you did not receive a fellowship. You will probably need to keep applying for fellowships during the duration of your graduate studies to augment current support or limited time fellowships.
  2. Given the goals of your intended degree, know the coursework required as well as other requirements (including particulars of prelim/master’s qualifying exams) to complete the degree. Find out the normative time to complete the degree. Find out what it takes to enter the Ph.D. program if you’ve been admitted to the MS/MA degree and would like to continue. Find out if you need 1 or 2 minors and what the limitations are.
  3. Meet with a Diversity Officer if the department/division has one, and also speak with current students, supportive faculty, and the Graduate Student Affairs Officer (GSAO) about what courses to take. If possible, avoid professors who have reputations for being non-supportive to students during your first semester. Adjusting to graduate school is difficult enough without having to contend with these kinds of difficulties.
  4. Attend the Department orientations at the beginning of the school year. They can be very informative.

Your First Semester

  1. It is important to do well during your first semester (3.5+ GPA) if you can, so the type of courses you select, and the number of courses you select, have to be carefully thought out. You don’t want to overload your first semester but you also want to show you’re cut out for the program. Consult with your diversity officer, faculty advisor, graduate assistant, or current graduate students for advice. Consider taking a seminar, or 299/601 units to lessen the load.
  2. If you’re planning on pursuing the Ph.D., and have to take either a prelim/Master’s exam, ask around about good classes to take to help prepare you. The graduate students and faculty usually know these answers. There may also be old exams to study from.
  3. Learn what your weaknesses are, or where you have limited knowledge and take the proper courses to rectify. (Note, this may encompass taking an undergraduate class--possibly more than one.) This is being strategic about insuring your graduate school success.
  4. During the first semester begin speaking with professors and their graduate students about their research to see if you are interested in working with that particular professor for your research project. Look up the professor’s work on the web and read a couple of their publications before you speak with them.
  5. Focus on your intellectual passions, the topic you’re really excited about. This is your driving force and will propel you to greater happiness in grad school. Hopefully you’ll find a match of your intellectual passion and what you’re good at. Graduate students are the chief innovators of invention and thought on this campus. They often inspire their very own research advisors!

During the First Year

  1. If you have any difficulty with midterms or final exams, see the professor to discuss how you did and what you can do to improve and learn from your mistakes.
  2. Try to have a research project picked out by the end of the first semester or the beginning of the second semester. (This may not pertain to all departments.) If you will be working with human subjects, make sure to fill out an application with the Office for the Protection of Human Subjects at least 3 months prior to your research.
  3. If taking prelims/Master’s exams, anticipate studying a significant amount of time (20-30 hrs  per week) to prepare. Try to get copies of old tests (some depts. provide them), and have study partners. Try not to prepare for this test alone. Also, find out how many chances you get to take the prelim/MS exam.
  4. When choosing a research advisor, look for a match of the advisor’s research/project, personality, his or her support and most importantly, belief in you. This is very important to your happiness and success at Berkeley. You may also need a co-advisor if your research bridges the expertise of your primary advisor. Make sure to communicate well with both advisors.
  5. Have an agenda when you meet with your advisor. This way you get all your questions answered and issues covered.

Continuing On

  1. Make sure you meet regularly with your diversity officer, the Graduate Diversity Program Director, or someone you can trust to bounce off ideas. Join student groups for other kinds of support. Berkeley has many different student groups. Go to the Graduate Assembly to get the current list of graduate student social groups. They are a great organization.
  2. Don’t isolate yourself from the department. Go to social functions, retreats, serve on committees, and so on. Form groups to co-support each other—especially if you’re learning theory, taking exams, or writing your thesis/dissertation.
  3. When conducting your research, make sure you put in the time required (or more), work hard, consistently, independently, but also as a team player. Don’t be afraid to be innovative and creative in your thoughts. Sometimes the best innovations occur by accident. Learn new data or language programs as necessary. Do supplemental reading if you think it will help you. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake. Some of the best innovations occur from people taking risks, making errors, and learning from them.
  4. Make sure you get a desk/office space once you’ve got a research advisor.
  5. Go to conferences and present your research. Have your advisor see your paper before you present it. Do an excellent job when presenting your work. Graduate students presenting a paper can apply for funding from the Graduate Division through Tango.
  6. Learn to write grant proposals to fund your work. This is good preparation for funding your work in the future and very important for pursuing life in academia and elsewhere.
  7. If applicable, begin writing up your results in conjunction with your advisor for publication in research journals. It is very impressive to have publications as a graduate student. These are looked upon as an indicator of your future potential.
  8. Prepare for your oral/qualifying examination. Know your subject area(s) and your research project well. Understand how and why things work. Professors on your exam committee will be testing you on conceptual understanding of the material, and may ask you about specific books/ topics/ journal articles. Be prepared to speak well about the research you’re undertaking for your dissertation.
  9. Conduct practice sessions for your qualifying exam with a team of graduate students or sympathetic faculty, so you become adept at answering questions orally. Do this several times until you are comfortable with this process. (Note: taking an oral exam is very different than taking a written one—practice is essential.) Find out the particulars of your qualifying exam, as it varies by department. Practicing ahead of time is very important to passing oral exams.

The Dissertation

  1. Seek a dissertation fellowship, if available, the year prior to your final year. This frees your time to write. It’s much harder to try to work and write your dissertation.
  2. Put yourself on a timeline to finish. Get buy-in from your advisor regarding this so that you both agree on the timeline.
  3. Anticipate delays. Machines break down, things often don’t work as planned. Be patient but persistent.
  4. Be nice to the GSAO in your department. It can make a world of a difference in how pleasant your graduate school experience goes.
  5. Work one day at a time. Try not to look too far ahead. Tell yourself to do work today for today.
  6. Consider joining a dissertation support group. These can help keep you on track and motivated.
  7. Have fun; play an intramural sport, start a new hobby. We have fabulous hiking trails in the hills, and an amazing Cal Recreational Sports Program. Find a sense of community whether on or off campus.

Planning Beyond

  1. Before your last year, think about what kind of job you want or where you’d like to teach so that you can begin preparing for the job market. Berkeley has great advisors and workshops for graduate students at the Career Center.
  2. If pursuing an academic position, you’ll need a C.V. (curriculum vitae), an application letter, a statement of research interests and future research plans, a statement of teaching interests, and teaching evaluations. You should be able to give a one hour lecture on a topic related to your research. Academic interviews often take at least a day. Consider signing up for the Grad Division Summer Institute to learn more about applying to a faculty position. The GSI Teaching and Resource Center has numerous resources.
  3. Make sure you find a mentor to help you through the tenure/new professor process if possible. Or, if you fail to find one, stay in contact with your former advisor. You may also have contacts in other schools to speak with. Try to stay in touch with your fellow alums in case you need to help each other in some way.
  4. Post-docs may also be an appropriate undertaking in some departments. Consider applying to both post-docs and teaching jobs to maximize your options.

Enjoy your time at Cal!

Getting What You Need From Your Research Advisor

  1. Focus on your intellectual passions: Seek topics you’re really excited about. This is your driving force and will propel you toward greater happiness in grad school. Graduate school is tough. It’s better to work on something that you’re passionate about rather than something to please others.
  2. Speak to Professors: During the first semester (or earlier), begin speaking with professors and their graduate students about their research to see if you are interested in working with that particular professor for your research project. Look up the professor’s work on the web and read a couple of their publications before you speak with them. Find out what their current research topics are.
  3. Approach faculty: Approach faculty you’d like to work with. However, realize they may not know you and will want to learn more about your skills and interests. They may ask you a variety of questions about your proposed area of research. Be prepared to answer basic questions about your topics.

    1. Not all faculty operate the same way, so you have to honestly ascertain whether being with someone famous will be worth the possible price, as they may not be available to you in the manner you seek.
    2. Some faculty are more hands on, requiring weekly meetings, some may only see you semi-regularly, some only a couple times a semester. Most faculty are very busy so you have to be organized when you do go to see them.
    3. New vs. Tenured vs. Near retirement. Newer faculty are under pressure since they are usually seeking tenure. They sometimes push students to work long hours, produce significant results, write grants, etc. Tenured faculty are usually busy keeping their research going, giving talks, etc. They are usually slightly easier to deal with regarding their expectations of you and your productivity. Faculty near retirement vary. Some remain active in research even after they retire. Some slow down considerably, so there may not be as strong a push from them to get you a job, publications, conference presentations, financial support. Try to politely inquire what their plans are if you’re approaching a faculty member near retirement.
    4. The Faculty member’s belief in you is very important. This is one of the most significant components to a successful advisor relationship. (Your belief in them is equally important.)
  4. Create a Timeline
    1. Create an academic timeline and get “buy-in” from your advisor regarding your academic goals. Observe what senior level students are doing. Ask questions. If appropriate, create additional goals and timelines. Some advisors will be active in guiding you, some won’t.
    2. Find other faculty or academic mentors you trust to give you advice & see them regularly. Your advisor may be too busy to give you all that you’ll need.
  5. Communicate with Advisors
    1. What if you are not getting what you need from your advisor, and it’s impacting your progress, or your health? You could possibly stick with it, but may need to find a different faculty member to serve as a co-advisor. Make sure to communicate well with both advisors. You may need to switch advisors, but this takes careful planning. Get advice from a trusted source before proceeding.
    2. How to manage co-advisors? This is an increasingly common practice, but takes extra communication by you to make sure everyone agrees with your project, methodology, details, etc.
    3. Have an agenda when you meet with your advisor. This way you get all your questions answered and issues covered. Discuss your goals, interests, exams, problems, interest in doing research talks, attending research conferences & doing additional collaborations. Follow up with an email to clarify what was discussed.
    4. Keep your advisor up to date on your progress (emails and regular meetings).
  6. Learn to write well
    1. Take extra writing classes if necessary. (Try UC Extension.) This will enable you to better accomplish things necessary for current and future success (presentations, publications, grant proposals, etc.).
    2. Learn how to write grant proposals for funding your work or the work in the lab. This can help support your graduate studies and is good preparation for funding your work in the future--very important for pursuing life in academia. 
    3. If applicable, begin writing up your results in conjunction with your advisor for publication in research journals. It is very impressive to have publications as a graduate student. These are looked upon as an indicator of your future potential.
  7. Don't isolate yourself from the department
    1. Go to social functions, retreats, serve on committees, etc. It’s important to stay visible to the faculty & staff, as well as other students in the department. This may be difficult at times, but could help you in the long run.
    2. Have friends/allies in your department and outside your department for advice, mentoring or fun. These contacts are important for dealing with an absent or difficult advisor and will make your graduate school experience more fulfilling.
  8. Take your work seriously: When doing a research project, make sure you put in the time required (or more), work hard, consistently, independently, but also as a team player. Don’t be afraid to be innovative and creative in your thoughts. Sometimes the best innovations occur by accident. Learn new data or language programs as necessary. Do supplemental reading if you think it will help you. Don’t be afraid to make a mistake or take a risk. Some of the best innovations occur from people taking risks, making errors, and learning from them.  Take your work seriously.  Take yourself seriously.
  9. Go to conferences and present your research: Graduate students presenting a paper can apply for funding from the Graduate Division. Have your advisor review your work before you present it. Do a good job when presenting your work at a conference.  People will get to know you and associate your work with the faculty member you’re working with. This will help later with getting a job.
  10. Plan ahead
    1. Plan more than a year in advance to apply for dissertation fellowships.  These fellowships will greatly enhance your progress toward finishing. 
    2. Put yourself on a timeline to finish. Get buy–in from your advisor regarding this so that you both agree on the timeline. Work one day at a time. Try not to look too far ahead. Tell yourself to do the work today for today.  As long as you accomplish something each day, you’ll make progress.
    3. A little before your last year, think about what kind of job you want or where you’d like to teach so that you can begin preparing for the job market.
  11. Career advice: Some advisors will give you good career advice. Some won’t give you any or will give you partial advice. The Graduate Division sponsors a 5 week summer course called the Summer Institute to prepare you for pursuing an academic career. Also the Career Center and the Graduate Diversity Program can help with career advice and post-doc planning.
  12. Public speaking: If you’d like to improve your public speaking skills (good for passing orals, and also for job interviews), consider working as a GSI the semester prior to your exams, or join Toastmasters (an organization that assists with public speaking). Make sure you practice with friends and colleagues in mock exams before taking your qualifying exam.

Improve Test Performance & Reduce Test Anxiety

  1. Optimal Level of Performance: Most people strive for an optimal level of performance whenever we’re doing anything that requires us to demonstrate something about ourselves, whether it be knowledge, a performance, or a sport. If we are too anxious, we exceed our optimal level and perform at a poorer rate due to the inability to concentrate, reason, or remember. On the other hand, if we are not excited enough, for example, due to exhaustion, we perform below our optimal level and perform poorly for similar reasons and with similar results. Therefore, the goal of performance anxiety reduction is to keep your performance level optimal, where you remain alert, attentive, but not over or under stimulated.
  2. Have a Back-up Plan: We must always have a back-up plan. Construct a back-up plan to insure your goal no matter what the consequences are of the test you will be taking. Ask yourself what will happen if you fail this test? What will happen if you fail the class? Will you simply have to repeat the class? Will this mean that you will no longer be able to complete your intended major? Usually not. If you create a back-up plan, or a “worse case scenario,” you know that you have constructed a mechanism that will insure achieving your goal no matter the outcome of a particular test.
  3. Assess Your Study Skills: When studying for a class, assess your knowledge of the material. Do you understand what is being taught in class? Are you studying properly? Do you review your notes after lecture? Do you study with others? Do you speak to the professor or GSI if you’re having any difficulties? Are you assertive about asking questions during class? Do you get extra tutoring help if necessary? Do you tape record lectures where you may be having problems?
    You may need to slow yourself down while studying. When you are reading your textbook, or any readings for the class, outline what you are reading in a careful and concise way in a separate notebook. Make this outline good enough to enable you to review the outline for exam preparation in the future. Sometimes we are anxious when studying, which doesn’t enable us to learn the material properly, so slowing yourself down while you read enables you to absorb the material better. Then you get the added benefit of being able to review really good outlined notes.
  4. Pretend You Are the Professor: If you were teaching your class, what questions would you ask on the test?  What material would like your students to know if they were taking this class from you? Chances are that you will have a 70-80% agreement with your instructor. This enables you to prepare more fully in studying for exams. Does your professor like to incorporate difficult questions using logic and analysis? If so, what kinds of questions do you expect him/her to ask? Are you ready to attempt these questions?
    Keep in mind that professors always ask questions that you may not have studied for, or seen in lectures or reading notes. They are assessing how you analyze and process information. For example, if you are an engineer and you’re told to solve a real-life problem, chances are, you will not have seen that problem in your homework. An engineer has to tackle each problem using accumulated skills. It’s important to think clearly and systematically using logic and common sense. Don’t let these kinds of questions unnerve you. Instead, expect to receive them and approach each question as a challenge or a puzzle to solve.
  5. Positive Visualization: On the night before your exam (right before you go to sleep works well), find a quiet place to relax. Close your eyes. Take two slow, deep breaths. Do this a couple more times to get you more relaxed. Now, visualize yourself in the classroom taking the test. See yourself receiving the test, then calmly, confidently taking the exam. You see many of the questions you had formulated while you pretended you were the professor. You are organized and alert. You are enjoying taking the test because you want to demonstrate how much you know about the material. Create this “movie” in your head. You are in command and in control. Repeat the positive visualization again in the morning. When the test time arrives, you will have already seen yourself confidently taking the test. Refer to this personal “movie” anytime during the test. This positive visualization will help you realize what you are capable of achieving.
  6. Breathing: If there is anything to take with you in learning test anxiety reduction, take the breathing exercise. You can do breathing exercises at anytime, before, during, and after the test. Breathing helps you stay emotionally grounded and rids the body of excess tension. It is also an effective way of reducing stress of any kind and only takes a moment to do.
    If you can, close your eyes. Inhale through your nose deeply and slowly. Exhale slowly through your mouth. Do this two to three times or whenever you feel excess anxiety building up. This is an easy and effective exercise to do throughout the test.
  7. Progressive Relaxation Exercises: Progressive or isometric relaxation exercises can help offset excess energy that usually comes from anxiety or nervousness. You can do progressive relaxation before and during any part of your test. Before the test, sit outside if you can, in a relatively quiet place. If possible, close your eyes. Starting with your feet, tense the foot muscles for 5-8 seconds. Release, then take a deep breath or two. Tense the calve muscles for 5-8 seconds. Release. Repeat with the different muscle groups: upper legs, abdomen, arms/hands, shoulders, and face/jaw. Then tense your whole body and release. You can repeat this exercise in class before the exam and anytime during the test. This is a simple way to rid your body of excess energy so that you can keep your energy at an optimal performance level. If you wish, you can do isometric hand presses which are easy and offer a quick, concentrated way of releasing excess tension.
  8. When the Test is Handed Out: When the test is handed out, do a quick breathing exercise if necessary. Quickly assess the test. What are the major point items on the test? What do you see expected of you? Were you correct about calculating what the questions were going to be? Consider going for the major point items over smaller points. Work quickly and efficiently. Use your personal positive visualization “movie” to keep up your confidence, and the breathing exercises to keep your energy at the optimal performance level.
  9. Trust What You Know: Always rely on your accumulated knowledge and intuition. More than likely, it will be correct.
  10. Recover Your Academic Self-Esteem: Go back through time and try to remember all your accomplishments since you were a child. Write these down. This will refresh your memory regarding how smart you are and will continue to be.
  11. Bringing Yourself To Consciousness During an Exam: If, during an exam, you find yourself starting to blank out or panic, stop and ask yourself these questions. By answering these questions, you will hopefully come to some sense of consciousness during the moment you are panicking or blanking out. This will enable you to feel calmer as you are consciously recognizing what you are doing, re-eliciting a sense of control. Regaining control of your thoughts and emotions during an exam is critical to doing well.
    1. What am I doing?
    2. Why am I doing it?
    3. What am I going to do about it?
  12. Learn Entitlement: If you haven’t done so, start learning entitlement. Entitlement is a term for recognizing your rights as equal to anyone in society, and acting on these rights. When we possess a sense of entitlement we can more readily assert ourselves, ask questions, and expect equal treatment and recognition.
  13. Address Personal Issues: Consider counseling to deal with more personally charged test anxiety issues.

Recover Your Academic Self-Esteem

  1. Take a moment to think about all the academic accomplishments you achieved since you began high school—or even earlier—grade school.
    1. Write down the achievements you earned (Dean’s List, CSF Life member, Phi Beta Kappa, etc.)
    2. Follow with honors and scholarships you received.
    3. Add in publications or presentations you were proud of.
    4. Toss in anything you recall professors, teachers, counselors and advisors saying about you.
  2. Look at the list. Study everything you’ve accomplished. What do you think now?
  3. Keep the list handy. Update as necessary.
  4. Bring out the list whenever you need to remind yourself, just how smart you are.

Fellowship Resources on the Web

The Fellowships Office collected the following list of websites to assist students in finding those much-needed support dollars while attending graduate school. We hope it is of some help to you.

General Resources

Education Resources

Humanities Resources

Political Science Resources

Science Resources

Engineering Resources

Social Science Resources

Underrepresented Groups