Planning for Academic Success

Planning your path to graduate school success

The expandable list below highlights some of the keys to success in graduate school.

During the course of your graduate career, you will work with a faculty advisor. While the nature of relationship between the faculty advisor and the graduate student advisee depends greatly on the individuals involved, the primary purpose of this is relationship is to ensure that each graduate student has a faculty member to provide advice about the academic aspects of the graduate degree and to oversee the trajectory of a student’s academic career.

Advisors are centrally important to ensuring your academic success. At the beginning of your graduate career, they provide advice on course selection and may assist in finding research and funding opportunities. Your advisor will most likely chair your dissertation committee, and will be a primary source for letters of recommendation when you are on the job market. Moreover, you are required by the UW-Madison Graduate School to have an advisor – failure to have an advisor can result in academic suspension.

Unlike the undergraduate advisor-advisee relationship, your relationship with your faculty advisor is more complex and requires much more from both parties. Your faculty advisor can have a significant impact on the trajectory of your academic career – in both positive and negative ways. It is your responsibility to actively seek out the mentoring you need to be successful. This includes building a positive, professional relationship with an advisor who is able to facilitate your academic success. Below are a few tips on how to find an advisor, to develop a productive working relationship with him/her, and to change advisors, if the relationship is not productive.

Identifying the ‘right’ advisor for you: whether you are assigned a faculty advisor when you arrive, or select a faculty advisor at the beginning of your academic career, it is advisable to consider what you personally require in order to thrive at graduate school, and what kind of advisor can be most helpful in assisting you achieve your goals. Consider the following:

  • What do I want to accomplish as a graduate student?
  • What are my strengths and weaknesses as a graduate student?
  • What skills do I still need to develop to succeed in graduate school?
  • What type of training do I require for my doctoral career?
  • What kind of career to I want to pursue upon completing my degree?

The ‘right’ advisor should complement your skill set and have the resources to help you obtain the tools you need to succeed. However, you should also be able to develop a productive interpersonal rapport with your advisor – if you have difficulty communicating effectively with a faculty member in a seminar situation, this person may not be the right individual to act as your advisor.

Building a productive relationship with your advisor: Once you have found a faculty member who has agreed to act as your advisor, it is important to invest time and effort into making this relationship productive. One important aspect of your relationship is effective communication. Consider clarifying the following points of communication with your advisor:

  • How frequently do you like to be in contact with your advisees?
  • What type of contact do you prefer: email, phone, one-on-one appointments, etc.?
  • How far in advance should I notify you if I require letters of recommendation, help with applications, IRB approval, etc.?
  • How should I submit writing to you (only polished drafts, rough drafts, chunks of writing)?

Your relationship with your advisor is a two-way street. That said, it is in your best interest to actively ensure that this relationship is productive and amiable. Here are some concrete suggestions on ways you can foster your relationship with your advisor:

  • Be specific in your requests
  • Prepare for meetings and follow-up afterwards
  • Be realistic about the amount of time you are requesting
  • Keep your advisor updated on your progress
  • Ask for feedback
  • Accept criticism and defend ideas professionally
  • Express thanks
  • Be interested in your advisor’s work

The Graduate School strongly recommends that graduate students utilize an Individual Development Plan(IDP) throughout their graduate careers.  An IDP will help you assess your skills and areas needing development, set specific and measurable goals pertaining to both your academic/research responsibilities and career aspirations, and serve as a mechanism by which to have productive conversations with your faculty advisor.  You don’t need to share all of your IDP with your faculty advisor if you choose not to.  However, the IDP process gives you a way to demonstrate to your advisor that you’re taking the lead on your own professional development, and provides you a mechanism through which to seek his/her advice on specific topics related to your success.  The Graduate School offers online resources and workshops to guide you and your advisor in the process.

Changing advisors: despite the efforts of both parties, not all advisor-advisee relationships are productive. This may be especially true when your advisor is assigned rather than selected. Graduate students are most likely to change advisors at the beginning of their graduate careers, as their academic interests and research agendas consolidate. However, other circumstances may also make it necessary to select a new advisor (e.g. your current advisor is changing institutions or retiring).

If you decide that it is necessary to change advisors, it is your best interest to approach the matter professionally. Set up a face-to-face meeting (if possible) and indicate the reasons why you believe it is in your best interest to work with another faculty member, providing academic justification for this decision. It is especially important to capitalize as far as possible on the investment you have already made in this relationship. If feasible, consider asking this person to (continue to) serve as a member of your dissertation committee. Remember, your advisor is a potential future colleague in your field. Maintaining a professional relationship with faculty is important to career success. The advisor-advisee relationship may be terminated by either party.

Identifying a mentor is critical not only to your success in graduate school but also to the overall quality of your experience at UW-Madison.  Additionally, a good mentor will help you build your professional network and may even be instrumental in a successful job search after graduation. 

Your mentor could be your faculty advisor – but doesn’t have to be.  In fact, building connections with more than one mentor/advisor may be a great benefit to you.  You’ll receive a diversity of perspectives and expertise, build a larger professional network through their connections, and have multiple people to serve as job references when the time comes.

How to Get the Mentoring You Want: A Guide for Graduate Students at a Diverse University includes chapters on forming a mentoring team, how to be a good protégé, and addressing problems with your advisor.  (Thanks to the University of Michigan, Horace H. Rackham School of Graduate Studies.)

UW-Madison is a member of MentorNet, an e-mentoring network aimed particularly at women and other underrepresented groups in math, engineering, and science.  It features topics such as work/life balance and job searching.

One of your most valuable assets as a graduate student is your time – so use it well.  Not only should you have an understanding of the big picture (see What to Do and When), but you need to manage your time well on a day-to-day basis as well. 

Consider these time management tips:

Know yourself, when and where you are most productive.  If you are a morning person and write best at 8:00am, get up early and tackle your hardest work then.  If you get distracted at home, go to the library to write.  And equally important, know when you need a break or when you are tired and need to start fresh the next day.

Commit to your work and eliminate distractions.  Turn off your phone, resist the urge to check email, and find a spot where interruptions from friends or work are unlikely.

Track your progress and set your own deadlines.  Read How to Write a Lot by Paul Silvia.  Silvia shows a great example of tracking your writing progress in a spreadsheet.

Use a calendar to set goals: yearly (grant proposals, meetings with your dissertation committee, etc.), monthly (class assignments, tests), and weekly (appointments, presentations, and deadlines).  And of course, if you haven’t done so yet, create an Individual Development Plan with your advisor or mentor – myIDP will even email you reminders about important tasks and goals.

Maintain a daily to-do list and prioritize tasks on it.  Don’t discourage yourself with huge tasks (e.g. write paper); instead, break these into simple segments that can be accomplished within one or two days.  Not only will you have a better sense of your progress on the huge task, you’ll also feel a sense of accomplishment when you can check off the smaller tasks.

Know that you are not alone.  For perspective, read a great article on Time Management, at  If you are a dissertator, consider participating in Dissertation Writing Camp, hosted by the Graduate School each summer.  You might also benefit from UW-Health’s online resources on stress and time management helpful.

One of the benefits of a huge campus like UW-Madison is the vast number of support systems, which ensure that all students receive the help they need, grad students included.

Think GUTS is just for undergrads?  Think again.  The Greater University Tutoring Service (GUTS) gladly serves grad students in its Study Skills program, which will help you address problems like time management, note-taking, and concentration.  Grad students use this service for tutoring in 100-300 level statistics, chemistry, math, economics, and foreign languages, as well as conversational English for international students.

Student Activity Center (SAC)
Office #4413 (4th Floor)
333 East Campus Mall

The Writing Center assists hundreds of graduate students each semester by providing individual consultations, workshops, and other services.

Library workshops help you become more efficient and effective in your research, and address topics such as finding information, using citation managers such as EndNote or Refworks, publishing your research, and copyright. You may also contact the subject librarian for your department for an individual research consultation.

Learn new software applications through free classes offered on campus and on-line by DoIt’s Software Training for Students (STS) program.  You can also “Ask a Trainer” for specific questions on technology-related projects.

McBurney Disability Resource Center works with students with disabilities including learning, mobility, visual, hearing, attentional, chronic health, psychological and Autism/Asperger’s Syndrome. The Center provides classroom services and accommodations such as print conversion to audio, large print, or Braille; note taking; and sign language interpreting.  McBurney staff assist in test accommodations, mobility assistance, enrollment and financial aid assistance, accessible parking and transportation, and access to adaptive technology.

702 W. Johnson Street, Suite 2104
(608) 263-2741 voice
(608) 263-6393 TTY

Dissertators, click here for even more opportunities.

Be sure to explore our online resources about writing an Individual Development Plan and attend a workshop on IDPs offered by the Graduate School each semester.

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