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CAREER | Habits of a highly effective graduate student

Road Sign Change ahead

June 12, 2015

By Sarah McPhee

I was chatting with a friend recently about our after-graduation plans, and she said, “Who has a job right after graduation, anyway?”

Me, actually. Every single time, and this is my second master’s degree.

The personal victory begins below the surface.

The personal victory begins below the surface.

I’m far from perfect, but like everyone, I have my talents. Being a strategic planner is one of them, and it is a learned skill that is extremely helpful when it comes to getting through a university program (graduate or undergraduate) and finding “what comes next.” Not everyone will see things my way, but I believe I can offer some basic tips on how to successfully navigate higher education to find a safe harbor in a good first working position.

The truth is, the secret to my success isn’t much of a secret at all. I am an adherent of Stephen Covey’s 7 Habits of Highly Effective People, so much so that I have read several of his 7 Habits books. Covey’s basic premise is that we must experience the personal victories of independence before we can achieve interdependent success. Once we are capable of working effectively with others, then we continue to hone our skills to achieve our goals.

Independence: The Personal Victory

Be Proactive

I’m a single mom of three children. In the last year, I have traveled abroad, held a part-time job, attended graduate school full time, and served as the president of a professional student organization. Sometimes I feel like a professional plate spinner. It’s not always pretty and it’s not always easy, but I get a lot done. My first secret? Accepting that I am responsible for my own life, all of my own choices, and ultimately, the outcome of my master’s degree. I can’t accept failure. Moving back in with family is not an option, and three children depend upon my success. Therefore, I have had to be proactive in every facet of my life, from preparing for the following day every night, to maintaining a detailed planner, to researching opportunities and paying attention to deadlines.

Grad school as a single parent is a lot like spinning plates…

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Know when the deadlines are, break up the process, and get it all done.

One thing I have discovered as a graduate student is that most opportunities for prestigious federal programs have deadlines in October, but some begin accepting applications in the summer. Opportunities like the Presidential Management Fellowship have a very small application window. It is critical to be forward-thinking. If you intend to apply for an unpaid internship, the Jackson School offers scholarships to offset the cost, but only if you apply early in spring quarter. How do you find out about all of this? The Jackson School Career Services Office is a great place to start. Once you learn about a deadline, it helps to find out exactly what you need to do, break up the process, and put it all on your calendar.

Begin with the End in Mind

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 1.03.29 PMWhy go to graduate school? Not for fun, and not simply to learn more about a pet subject. Graduate school is a vehicle to get to another point in life, to become some sort of “expert,” whether it is in academia, government, business, or a non-profit area.
I must admit, my next opportunity is not even remotely related to the essay which I wrote for my admission application, but I knew that I wanted a good job in international relations which leveraged my strengths, and I preferred something in government. I knew that I would have to be on top of my game to get this sort of opportunity, and very often this means joining professional organizations and taking on leadership positions. Still, I only have so much “spare” time, so I adopted a personal mission statement, one I borrowed from CEO and working mother Mary Cranston. I wrote it on the ‘planning’ whiteboard in my bedroom and it has been there for two years.

“If a task does not further my career, or feed a passion, my answer is ‘no’.”

Put First Things First

This statement works for me because I know myself. When I was a high school English teacher, I was often roped into helping or chairing activities which did not further my career or feed a passion. I got everything done, but I was often exhausted and did not take as much pleasure in my work.

When I was offered a Top Scholar Fellowship from the University of Washington Graduate School in 2013, I knew I would have to approach my time at the Jackson School of International Studies very differently. Therefore, rather than overextending myself and doing many things adequately, I worked very hard to do several things (which would give me marketable skills) extremely well. Do you have an “end in mind” and a personal mission statement? If you are not loving the research you are doing, if you are not learning new skills in your student organization, reevaluate why you are doing these things. Life is too short to do things “just because” — the two years in your master’s degree will go by quickly.

In the smaller, daily picture, Habit will make or break all of us. Once again, I am not perfect, but I have three children who need breakfast, clean laundry, homework help, dinner, nightly reading time, permission slips signed, dentist and doctor appointments, etc. Shopping, errands, and chores must be done to accomplish all of this. Children need structure — and so do adults, especially graduate students. So while I am a single mother and that means that my workload is much greater than most of my peers, it also means that my children have been my secret weapon — literally, my reason for getting up in the morning and ultimately, the reason I was in my program.

Therefore, happy hours were strategic. My adult fun was relegated to the weekends, when I could spare the time and get childcare. I rarely indulged in Netflix marathons or pointless Internet browsing. Favorite shows, such as Game of Thrones or the Walking Dead, were also on my iCal, and my school deadlines always took first priority. Did I have crazy finals weeks when I looked and felt stressed, prioritized my emails, made simple meals for the kids (or ordered pizza), and basically fell asleep with my hands on my laptop? Absolutely. Nevertheless, it all got done, because I put first things first.

Interdependence: The Public Victory

Think Win-Win

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 1.11.48 PMThere are a ton of jobs waiting for graduates in certain fields, but in international relations, the situation is pretty competitive. Still, that doesn’t equate to a zero-sum game. Everyone in my cohort was pretty much focused on a different aspect of Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies, which meant that I was not directly competing with any of them, even if we applied for similar fellowships and opportunities. It may not seem obvious now, but everyone in your cohort (and perhaps beyond) is a part of your potential future network.

Selena Soo, founder of self-branding network S2 Groupe, insists that the best way to network is to focus on leading by giving, rather than by taking.

“Build your network way before you need it…over time, if you keep up with these relationships, you’ll find yourself with a solid network of people who trust you and are in your corner.”

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Helping other people win makes us all look good.

The standard networking opportunities still apply, such as going to the departmental happy hours and appropriate conferences, but instead of looking only for opportunities for yourself, it is valuable to see how you can help others. Try to be a connector. Whenever I saw an opportunity that was not quite right for me, but made me think of someone I knew, I forwarded the message to them with a note about how they would be great for it. They might not have agreed, but the gesture was always well-received. On other occasions, I reached out to fellow students about presenting at a conference, or speaking at events for the professional student organization I led — they were doing fascinating research and I knew it would be great for them. I told friends about professors and classes which might help them. I don’t expect a return on these little “good-will” investments, but sometimes it happens, and that is the essence of networking…we all win, together.

Seek First to Understand, Then to Be Understood

This habit is the essence of international relations, the foundation of all learning, and perhaps the most difficult for most people to master. Stephen Covey explains:

“If you’re like most people, you probably seek first to be understood; you want to get your point across. And in doing so, you may ignore the other person completely, pretend that you’re listening, selectively hear only certain parts of the conversation or attentively focus on only the words being said, but miss the meaning entirely. So why does this happen? Because most people listen with the intent to reply, not to understand.”

Do you listen to understand, or just to have an opportunity to speak to someone?

Do you listen to understand, or just to have an opportunity to speak to someone?

Listening “autobiographically” is a natural human trait, yet really listening and actively stepping outside of our own frame of reference is the most important skill we can gain in higher learning. We have something to learn from everyone, and perhaps the most basic element of this habit is humility. Nobody is great at everything, everything can be improved upon, and in a place as diverse as the Jackson School of International Studies, the opportunities to expand your worldview are amazing. By truly listening and valuing other perspectives, we become more tolerant and better at working in groups — a critical “real world” skill.


Only when we begin to master the art of listening are we ready to synergize. Covey describes synergy as the habit of “creative cooperation…teamwork, open-mindedness, and the adventure of finding new solutions to old problems. But it doesn’t just happen on its own. It’s a process, and through that process, people bring all their personal experience and expertise to the table.”

Screen Shot 2015-06-10 at 1.22.18 PMYou can’t synergize with others if you aren’t actively looking for opportunities. Sometimes professors will assign group projects, but graduates are often focused on research that feels very solitary. Here is a secret that I learned my first year of grad school — funding is not your friend. I was funded my first year. I considered my job to be studying and research — after all, wasn’t I being paid to do this? Like many grad students, I felt very lonely in my work. This motivated me to become more involved in the Institute for Nuclear Materials Management at UW (INMM@UW), which I had joined at the beginning of the year. Although that wasn’t what I had come to the University of Washington to study, I really care about nuclear nonproliferation. Very quickly I was filling a leadership role in the group, and by the end of the year I was nominated to be the president.

It was through this professional student organization that I learned about the nonproliferation classes at the Jackson School. I went to two INMM conferences on nuclear nonproliferation and learned about the tremendous and exciting opportunities in this field. I applied for everything, following all the advice I could gather to the letter. Before Winter Break of my second year, I was offered a post-graduate fellowship in Washington, D.C. But doing it alone was impossible.

Everyone knows the importance of getting good recommendations. For my future position, NNSA Graduate Fellow, it was possible (and highly advisable) to submit four recommendations. For most students, myself included, this is a pretty big challenge. Our fields are often narrow and we tend to take classes with just a few specialized professors. Furthermore, recommendations need to be specific and meaningful if they are to be valuable.

Get a job or internship. Volunteer. Be a joiner. Your resume or CV will thank you.

I was not funded my second year — there simply was not enough funding to go around in the department. I was fortunate enough to get a job at the Ellison Center, however, and this proved to be a fantastic opportunity to synergize (as well as pay the rent). I was lucky to be a part of a small, dedicated team of professionals with diverse experiences and talents. The skills that I have gained and honed are invaluable, and nothing looks better on a resume or CV than being currently employed. This is why I believe, quite firmly, that funding is not your friend. It’s fantastic, if you can get it, but it is not enough. Students need to prove to future employers that they are capable of synergizing.

Therefore, it is important to “practice like you play,” to act like professional you intend to be someday. It helps to dress business casual, be prepared and ready to participate. Join a professional student organization. Take on leadership roles, and take them seriously. Get a job or an internship. Volunteer to help out with department eventsbe a joiner. Synergizing is what it takes to succeed in the “real world,” and it will be noted in your recommendations.

Sharpen the Saw

Taking Care of Yourself

This is a lot of advice, and a lot of work — that’s grad school. Still, we all run the risk of burnout if we don’t take care of ourselves. This is probably the most difficult habit for an A-type personality…sharpening the saw, or taking care of our own mind, body, and spirit.

Take care of yourself -- you only get one of you.

Take care of yourself — you only get one of you.

I had plenty of good times at the University of Washington and developed some amazing relationships. Seattle was a fun place to live with my kids, especially in the summer. I managed to sharpen the saw, but in truth, not as much as was really necessary. I went to yoga, but I wish I had gone more often — the weeks when I just didn’t have the time were the weeks I need to go the most. I wish that I had taken breaks and gone outside more on beautiful days. I wish that I had spent a little more “quality time” with my kids, instead of focusing on what needed to get done for them. I wish I had called my family more often. I wish that I had kept a container garden. I sacrificed a lot to be a highly effective graduate student — it’s a stressful time and a delicate balancing act, nobody gets it right one hundred percent of the time.

Thus, I truly believe that this is the most critical habit and I would encourage others who are earlier in their life journey to persevere. It’s easy to be hard on yourself, especially in those moments when everything seems like it is going in the wrong direction, but success is a rarely a straight line. Some days I felt as though I was just blindly pushing ahead in what I hoped was the right direction, but as it turns out, the pushing ahead part is the most important aspect of success.


Sarah McPhee graduated with a Master’s of Arts in International Studies in Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies from the University of Washington in 2015. She is the recipient of the 2015 Waugh Prize for Best Thesis and co-recipient of the 2015 Sally Gorton Leadership Award for her participation as a “Global Leader” in the Slade Gorton International Policy Center, part of the National Bureau of Asian Research. She served as President of the Institute for Nuclear Materials Management at the University of Washington (INMM@UW), a student chapter of INMM, and has been selected to serve as a NNSA Graduate Fellow in Washington, D.C for 2015-2016.

Sarah previously earned a Master’s of Arts in History from Texas A&M Central Texas. She completed her B.S. Liberal Studies at Tarleton State University. She was also a certified teacher in Texas with four certificate endorsements and three years of experience.