Graduate School Essentials for Doctoral Students in STEM

Graduate School Essentials provides a framework for understanding what is expected of doctoral students at every phase of grad school. If grad school is a journey, Graduate School Essentials meets you where you are, and points you in the right direction.

Essential Components

Communicating with Advisors

Your advisor is your academic point person and advocate: together, you can use Grad School Essentials to chart requirements and milestones. 

At the start of graduate school

Expand all

If you are not assigned an advisor

  • Contact your Graduate Program Coordinator (GPC) and Director Graduate Studies (DGS) to inquire about the advisor selection process. 
  • Browse the faculty and staff page on your department websites and look for faculty research topics that interest you. Contact them and ask for their availability to advise new graduate students. 
  • If a prospective advisor is available to advise new students, ask about their communication style and expectations.
  • Ask for an Advising Statement if they have one. 
  • Talk to the current advisees of your potential advisor. Ask them about the potential advisor's advising and communication style, availability, approach to supporting research, etc.
  • Inquire about attending a group meeting or seminar to learn more about the prospective advisor’s research if there is dual research.
  • Attend research talks hosted by the prospective advisor to learn about their research.

Once an advisor is assigned/selected

Expand all

Ask yourself if your advisor is a good fit

  • Ask yourself, is your advisor a good fit overall? Will they be supportive of your research interests? Will they support your academic and professional development? Will they support your career goals and pathway?
  • Reflect on your experience thus far and determine if you have had a positive and supportive relationship with your advisor.
  • Contact your Graduate Program Coordinator (GPC) or the equivalent (Associate DGS, etc.) if you do need to have a confidential discussion about changing your advisor.
  • Consider finding another advisor before proceeding with your degree milestones, if you feel that your advisor is not a good fit for your research interests, or if you have reservations (e.g. communication style, personality, accessibility, etc.).

Draft an Individual Development Plan (IDP)

  • Watch the student perspective Individual Development (IDP) video, browse examples, then make a copy of a blank IDP template
  • Reflect on your long and short-term goals, and add those to your IDP. 
  • Share your IDP with your advisor and/or mentor(s) to seek feedback. Getting feedback on your IDP is important but don't be discouraged if your advisor is only interested in select parts of your IDP. Your IDP is your development plan for yourself. It is up to you to decide which portions of your IDP you share when soliciting feedback from others.

Communicate with your advisor about their research and goals

  • Talk to your advisor about publications and their expectations for you.
  • Ask your advisor about their research career. What have been the different focuses of their research over their career? How did they end up doing their current research? What are their future research interests? 

Understand personalities, positive communication styles, and discuss expectations early in your advising relationship


  • Decide which of these questions would be helpful in setting up a positive and open working relationship with your advisor: 
    • Do you have an Advising Statement?
    • Do you use an Individual Development (IDP) or career planning tool with your advisees?
    • How often should we meet with each other?
    • In what ways would you like to collaborate with me?
    • Besides the departmental requirements, what unique requirements do you have for me? 
    • How can you help support my degree progress, professional development, and career goals? 
    • In what ways will you support my overall wellbeing? 
    • What is your preferred way of communicating?
    • What does the feedback process on research and writing look like?
    • What does feedback on research and lab work look like? 
    • Would you be open to discussing different ways to provide feedback if I don't find these helpful?
    • What are your expectations in terms of me applying for fellowships and research grants? 
    • Are there funds for travel, fellowships, or teaching opportunities that fit me? How do I prepare for the fellowships? 
    • What do I need to do to be competitive for these fellowships and  teaching opportunities?

Develop timeline to degree completion

  • Draft a timeline to complete your degree, with guidance from your advisor and the Graduate Planning & Audit System (GPAS).
  • Familiarize yourself with requirements and milestones specific to your graduate program.
  • Break down academic goals into manageable tasks.
  • Establish a visual aid to make the journey seem less daunting.

Discuss publishing and authorship protocols

  • Discuss with your advisor and classmates about different types of publications or expectations for publishing in your field. 
  • Discuss with your advisor what the expectations are for you to publish.
  • Discuss with your advisor what the expectations are for co-publishing. Publishing with your advisor is sometimes required in STEM fields.
  • Discuss with your advisor and DGS what the lab or department requirements are for different levels of authorship on publications.
  • If applicable to your research, ask your advisor about interdisciplinary opportunities to publish with faculty outside your department, if this is applicable to your field.

Request feedback on your writing and research

  • Identify faculty (other than your committee members) who have expertise in your research area and can provide feedback on your scholarly work.
  • Develop a plan for requesting input, think about what you want to specifically ask these faculty experts and what kind of feedback you are looking for (e.g., conceptual, technical, rhetorical).

Discuss committee selection for your preliminary exam and dissertation

  • Discuss expectations for the preliminary exam(s) and dissertation committee selection process with your advisor.
  • Consider the expertise of the faculty who would be appropriate to serve on the committee. Seek suggestions from your advisor, other faculty and peers on who they would recommend to be a good fit for your committee.
  • Think about faculty who may not have expertise directly related to your research but may share perspectives that could  be complementary.
  • Become familiar with the research of suggested faculty within and outside your department.

Once you've passed your preliminary exam

Expand all

Update your advisor on your career goals and milestones

  • Schedule regular meetings to communicate your career goals and professional accomplishments with your advisor and other faculty/staff whom you wish to serve as references for professional development opportunities so they can write effective reference letters. 
  • Provide a copy of your CV, resume, and the description of the funding or professional development so they can address how your experience or research fits with the opportunity for which you are applying.

Update your timeline for degree completion

  • Develop a timeline by setting a tentative date for defense and work backwards.  
  • Identify major steps to accomplish (e.g. data collection, dissertation chapters, etc.) and assign a completion date for each task. 
  • Break down major tasks into smaller steps and assign completion dates for each step.

Request feedback from expert readers for your scholarly work

  • Write the message as a letter and attach it to the draft to be reviewed. The message should clearly define the aspects of the document you want each reader to critique (technical content, organization, etc.)
  • Consider using Wilber's Five Elements of Effective Writing as an example to ask feedback on specific aspects of your writing (central idea, organization, supporting material, word choice, and grammar).  Attach this form to your draft.
  • Set a deadline to receive the readers’ feedback.  
    • Allow at least three weeks for review and send a courtesy reminder no later than three days prior to  the deadline.  
    • The review period may need to be longer depending on the length of the document.  
    • Make sure your readers are comfortable with the deadline.

Submit dissertation drafts to your advisor and committee members

  • Discuss with your advisor the submission process around drafts of your oral exam,, dissertation chapters, or your entire dissertation looks like.
  • Talk with your advisor what a reasonable amount of time is for feedback from them as well as your committee members. 
  • Send your draft first to your advisor, make any changes needed before sharing with your committee.
  • Share your draft with your committee, along with specific notes for feedback needed and the deadline.
  • Send a few reminders to committee members about feedback deadlines.

Once you've completed your dissertation research and are preparing for the final defense

Expand all

Set defense date

  • Meet with your advisor to set the date for the defense based on availability of your advisor and committee members. 
  • Know ahead of time the dates of major conferences or events in your field at which faculty may be attending to avoid scheduling conflicts. 
  • Reserve space(s) for the public defense and the subsequent committee meeting (if held in person). If virtual format is permitted, select a platform that works for everyone in your committee and reserve an online meeting room.

Evaluate final feedback from readers in preparation for defense

  • Evaluate the feedback on your dissertation draft with your advisor and decide what to incorporate into your final draft.
  • If you did not incorporate a committee member's suggestions, be able to explain why you haven't in case it is raised in the defense.

Consult with advisor about defense format and roles of participants

  • Discuss with your advisor what the defense will look like, what is expected of you, what is expected of your committee members, and what is expected of your advisor.

Research and Writing

Establishing productive research and writing practices is the cornerstone of being successful in graduate school. 

Pre-Preliminary Exam

Expand all

Identify your discipline’s academic and scientific writing styles

  • Watch the UMN Libraries Publishing 101 webinar.
  • Get to know major (and minor) publications, current trends, and experts in your field.
  • Discuss with your advisor important publications in your area of research.
  • Get to know the publishing cycle and expectations in your field. 
  • Explore recommendations of “good, scholarly writing examples” from advisors, faculty, and librarians.
  • Talk with your advisor about your observations from writing examples.
  • Get to know your peers’ interests and publications.

Explore potential research methods/protocols within your discipline

  • Discuss with your advisor about research methods/protocols/techniques within your field. 
  • Talk to senior students about their research. 
  • Take research methods and data management courses or training, if applicable. 
  • Attend departmental talks, seminars and conferences to engage with faculty, staff and peers about their research.
  • Seek training and mentorship opportunities to get feedback from your own research and writing ideas.

Explore campus library resources

Explore campus writing resources

Learn to use a good citation manager and keep good notes on relevant papers

Discuss expectations of the preliminary exam with your advisor

  • Discuss expectations of the preliminary exam to get an overall perspective of the process and logistics.
    • Discuss your advisor’s role in the preliminary exam.
    • Ask your advisor the extent to which they can offer support to prepare for the exam (providing sample questions, suggesting specific strategies or resources).

Prepare for the Preliminary Exam

  • Read your program website/handbook for exam requirements.
  • Identify key components and characteristics from recent preliminary exams, if available.
  • Get to know what constitutes an academic paper and practice synthesizing the information. 
  • Begin preparing for the exam as early as possible.
  • Talk to your advisor about taking the preliminary exam and program expectations.
  • Seek guidance from senior students about exam expectations, but be sure to check with your program about the extent to which peers can assist with the prelim prep to make sure you and your peers are not inadvertently going against departmental policy 
    • If permitted by the program, ask senior students  for sample drafts, ‘cheat sheets’, previous exam work,  and sample proposals. 
    • Ask them to set up a mock oral exam for your practice answering questions.
  • Review non-academic resources like Wikipedia and YouTube if there are concepts that you don't need to learn from an academic paper. 
  • Practice your oral exam with your advisor, peers, and other members in your lab.

Begin committee selection

  • Identify prospective faculty who might be a good fit for your committee. 
    • Identify faculty who you already know you would want on your committee.
    • Ask your advisor to help you identify faculty members who may be a good fit for your committee. 
    • Explore faculty webpages on department websites.
  • Send emails to ask prospective members if they are willing to discuss with you about your research and committee. If so, schedule meetings with the prospective committee members, but be clear that the meeting is to determine if there is a fit and NOT to confirm that they are a fit.
    • Discuss your research interest, methods, and publication goals with the prospective committee member.
    • Get to know their communication style and personality. 
    • Briefly discuss your timeline with your prospective committee member.
    • Discuss their role on the committee.
  • Ask the following questions to help you decide whether a faculty is a good fit to your committee.
    • Is the faculty member familiar with my study?
    • Does my research topic align with their research interests? 
    • How have they contributed to my area of study?
    • Do I need help from them to improve my research?
    • Are they collaborative? 
    • Will they be generous with their time and support?  
  • Select your committee members and send confirmation emails to them.

Post-Preliminary Exam

Expand all

Prioritize your time and efforts

  • Discuss and finalize your dissertation topic with your advisor.
  • Reevaluate your research and writing goals and update your IDP to prioritize efforts.
  • Take only classes that are necessary and learn to say no if an opportunity doesn’t fit your plan/goal.
  • Discuss with your advisor how to develop a strategy for prioritizing feedback from multiple readers and incorporate key feedback into the revision process.

Begin your concentrated focus on the dissertation

  • Be familiar with Dissertation Calculator
  • Develop and maintain a dissertation writing schedule.
  • Determine from whom and how you will seek advice on next steps/feedback on emerging drafts.
  • Attend public presentations of a dissertation/thesis defense to know what the process is like.
  • Set up a mock presentation for your own dissertation/thesis defense with peers to practice.

Assess your degree timeline and completion

  • Begin discussing with your advisor the dissertation/thesis committee selection process, as the composition of the prelim committee and the dissertation committee can often change.  If you need to change one (or more) of your members from your oral preliminary exam committee, refer to the committee selection in the pre-prelim phase.
    • If you plan to keep the same committee as your oral preliminary exam committee, send emails or schedule meetings with all of your committee members to update your plan with them and make sure they will be available.
  • Get to know the key faculty in your area of research, both within and outside the UMN by attending lectures/workshops, reading articles or taking classes.
  • Discuss with your advisor research strengths of the faculty who would be appropriate to serve on your dissertation/thesis committee. 
    • Discuss with your advisor on whether the committee member can help you with your dissertation and how they can help.
  • Form relationships with faculty you want to have on your committee.

Continue improving your writing and getting published

  • Ask for peer feedback to improve your writing practice.
  • Provide feedback on your peer’s writing.
  • Practice communicating your research to different audiences within and outside your field.
  • Advocate for yourself in attending/participating in conferences.
  • Determine writing support needed for on-going development of scholarly writing.
    • Join or form a peer writing group to support your scholarly writing and publishing.
    • Reflect on what worked and what didn't upon completion of major writing projects. 
  • Gather manuscript guidelines of key journals in your field and related areas of study.
  • Discuss with your advisor, senior students, and postdoctoral associates about “good” examples of writing in your field.
  • Prepare a writing plan to guide you in the transition from dissertation writer to  postdoctoral associate, junior faculty, or positions outside academia.

Managing Lab Life

Many students join their program without a pre-assigned lab, but some programs require their students select a lab for themselves. This section provides ways to find a lab and to explore lab culture.

Expand all

When exploring labs, focus on the lab culture in which you will feel comfortable working

  • Assess your overall research goals (topic, methods, etc.) and identify the lab that will provide the best fit and support to reach your goals. 
  • Find a Principal Investigator (PI) whose research topic and methods, personality and communication style, teaching philosophy and mentorship style align with your own.
  • Complete onboarding, training, and required  protocols of your specific lab to make sure you understand procedures.
  • Join social events with your lab colleagues to build community.

Ask your Principal Investigator (PI) and/or lab manager questions about lab culture and expectations

  • What are our regular hours of operation?
  • Which projects are available, and are there students that have worked on these projects previously?
  • Where in the “cycle” will I work on this project if the project was started before I join.  
  • What is the vacation policy? Who do I talk to if I am ill? 
  • What are safety rules in the lab?
  • In what ways will you support my career and professional development?
  • What confirmed funds are available for my tuition/salary for the coming years? 
  • Will I need to secure funding upon joining the lab? 
  • What kind of funding do you offer for professional development?

Ask your cohorts, peers, and senior students in your lab questions about the lab

  • What factors did you consider when joining this lab?
  • How does the PI or lab manager react if you make a mistake?
  • What are group dynamics like in the lab? Do you feel your input is valued ?
  • What are weekend expectations in the lab? 
  • In what ways is your professional/career development supported? In what ways is it not supported?
  • Any other questions that your PI hasn’t answered.

Know your rights and who to talk with for difficult or toxic situations

  • Refer to First Steps Checklist for offices that offer support.

Seeking Financial Support

Years 1-2

Expand all

Plan your financial situation throughout your time in graduate school

  • Explore OneStop budgeting techniques.
  • Discuss the duration and  funding guidelines with whomever offered you the funding source (advisor, PI, Director of Graduate Studies, Graduate Program Coordinator, external fellowship, etc.).
    • Ask your advisor/PI how much funding they can guarantee specifically for you. 
    • Ask your advisor/PI if you are expected to TA all semesters or if there is funding available to support you on an RA.
    • In case you need to supplement your living expenses, ask your advisor/PI whether seeking part-time jobs is allowed and their expectations regarding course or lab research workload.

Seek Graduate Assistantship (GA) opportunities

  • Inquire about teaching, research or administrative assistantships within your graduate program or department by asking your advisor, Graduate Program Coordinator, Director of Graduate Studies, and department chair. 
  • Explore the UMN jobs site for available positions across UMN that would fit your skills and experiences.
  • Talk with faculty, staff, and peers about possible networks/listservs to join so you can receive information about assistantships and funding opportunities.
  • Inquire about summer funding as some departments may  not offer such support.
  • Pay attention to GA opportunities that may be for specific communities (underrepresented, women, first-generation, etc.).

Explore grant and fellowship resources

  • Inquire about funding sources within your graduate program or department by asking your Graduate Program Coordinator, advisor, Director of Graduate Studies, department chair and advanced graduate students.  
  • Pay close attention to the eligibility requirements, especially international students, as there may be citizenship requirements for certain funding. 
  • Explore opportunities within your college and within central University units. Review eligibility  and proposal submission process each year to be current.
  • Apply to UMN grants
  • Research resources external to the University administered by foundations, government agencies, and professional organizations or associations. 
  • Ask individuals in your department on possible external funding options and names/contacts of specific individuals they recommend you contact directly.
  • Use higher education related social media to explore grant and funding opportunities.
  • Attend workshops or webinars to learn about how to write a grant proposal.
  • Reach out to faculty and peers who have previously applied for the grant to understand what reviewers are looking for and what the review process looks like.
  • Pay close attention to the budget of the grant proposal. Ask you advisor or peers who have previously had experience with the grant you are applying for if you need specific guidance on the budget content and format.
  • Look for opportunities to serve on grant committees.

Years 3-4

Expand all

Identify application processes and timelines for fellowships and travel grants in your field(s)

  • Become familiar with the Request for Proposal (RFP), application processes, selection criteria, and timelines of fellowships and grants for which you would like to apply.
  • Seek out and review successful applications to get an idea of the types of research or topics previously funded.
  • Ask for suggestions from your advisor, mentors, and peers on funding resources.

Identify and complete prerequisite trainings

  • Complete all prerequisites to conduct research involving human or animal subjects, as some fellowships, especially those intended to fund efforts directly related to research, will require proof of prerequisite completion.
  • Make sure to submit the application for the Institutional Review Board (IRB) approval in a timely manner so you do not miss fellowship deadlines.

Apply for fellowships and major travel grants for research and major conferences

  • Start drafting the proposal as early as possible and collect necessary supporting materials. 
  • Apply to UMN grants in addition to external funding. External funders will likely expect you to have applied for funding from your own institution prior to seeking external funding.
  • Apply for travel support, fellowships, and teaching opportunities. Make sure your project fits within the parameters of the funding guidelines or Request for Proposal (RFP).
  • If reference letters are required in an application, seek and inform your references. 
    • Provide references with a copy of your application materials and identify specific content you'd like them to include in a recommendation letter. 
    • Be considerate of your references and allow ample time for them to write the letters.
    • Send a courtesy reminder one week before the deadline.
  • Circulate a draft of the proposal to trusted individuals who can critique for the following:
    • Fit with funding objectives
    • Viability of the project or study
    • Project aims or objectives
    • Overall organization/clarity of the proposal
    • Budget
    • Evaluation or impact statement

Apply for internships

Refer to the Building Relationships and Career Development section.

Years 5+

Refer to the Building Relationships and Career Development section. 

Building Relationships and Career Development

Years 1-2

Expand all

Build Relationships across campus and in your fields

  • Seek out opportunities within and external to the UMN (departments, centers, institutes, professional associations) to hear presentations, lectures, and discussions relevant to your research and professional  interests.
  • Learn how conferences operate, including program planning, calls for papers/posters, review of proposals.
  • Seek out which conferences and professional societies that are important in your field. 
    • Ask your PI or peers the following questions about presenting at these conferences. 
      • Do you have examples of proposals I can look at?
      • Could you review my proposal and provide feedback?
      • Are there funding opportunities for registration and travel? 
  • Consider using social media and web presence/platforms to explore social opportunities
  • Understand the benefits of engaging in the UMN community: learn the range of social, cultural and interest groups available on campus in order to determine which groups to make part of your local support network. Building relationships can expand professional networks that could lead to scholarly collaborations, future funding opportunities and letters of recommendation.
  • Seek multiple mentors from within and outside the University to offer different perspectives and expertise that can support various aspects of your academic, professional and personal growth.
  • Build upon your cross-cultural communication skills by networking with peers, faculty, and staff across departments from cultures and experiences different from your own.
  • Explore and join student organizations.
  • Explore the social, cultural and interest groups available on campus
  • Become familiar with academic and career workshops, online resources and free webinars put on by various professional societies.
  • Opt in to the Graduate School’s workshop calendar and e-newsletters.
  • Taking advantage of opportunities for collaboration if they are offered. Consider collaborating on research, resources, publications, and proposal writing with peers and faculty outside of your lab.

Explore career services across the University

Develop a professional portfolio and/or LinkedIn profile

Begin professional networking

  • Explore how networking can further your dissertation research and future career.
  • Watch the Networking for Introverts video. 
  • Consider do’s and don’ts of communication and networking on social media.
  • Explore and join professional associations.
  • Conduct informational interviews for careers of interest.
  • Explore career pathways and trends within your discipline.
  • Meet peers outside of your own department, especially concentrate on building  cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary connections.

Draft an Individual Development (IDP)

  • Create or refer to the Graduate School’s Individual Development Plan (IDP) template.
  • Assess career development areas or skills you want to develop.
  • Explore Career Discernment and self-reflection practices.
  • Define long-term goals around career development.
  • Define short-term goals around career development.
  • Discuss career aspirations and plan to monitor them over time.
  • Identify primary career path along with alternate options.
  • Subscribe to career development platforms 
  • Decide how often you will update your Individual Development Plan (IDP) and with whom you will share it. It is strongly encouraged that you share it with your advisor and/or mentors so they are aware of your needs and can suggest resources to help meet your goals. Remember that the IDP is your personal document.  It is up to you which portions of your IDP you share when soliciting feedback from others.

Understand the importance of transferable skills

Years 3-4

Expand all

Consider an internship or project to build skills transferable to other sectors

  • Explore and network in another sector or professional association, particularly if you are interested in pursuing careers outside academia.
  • Meet with your collegiate career advisor/PI to discuss opportunities to apply for short-term semester internships or longer-term summer internships.
  • Conduct your own research into companies or organizations that might have such opportunities.
    • Connect with peers and other individuals who might connect you with potential internship venues.

Assess and update your Individual Development (IDP)

  • Refer to or create the Graduate Schools Individual Development Plan (IDP) template
  • Reflect on your career aspirations, skills, interests, and accomplishments. 
  • Update your long-term career goals. Have they changed?
  • Update your short-term career goals to align with your long-term goals.
  • Discuss career aspirations and current trends in your discipline with mentors in your network.
  • Identify your primary career path but be open to other possibilities that could be equally rewarding.

Submit and present at conferences

  • Ask your advisor about conferences where you should begin presenting your research. Add conference dates to your Individual Development (IDP) .
  • Pay attention to submission guidelines and the selection process.

Search for and connect with alumni in fields or positions of interest

Explore academic opportunities and postdoctoral fellowships

  • Explore whether a postdoctoral position fits within your career goals. 
  • Talk to your advisor about seeking a postdoctoral position and discuss possible options. 
  • Know which research topic(s) you would like to pursue during your postdoctoral.
  • Attend conferences and network with presenters and peers around postdoctoral opportunities.
  • Ask your advisor and or postdoctoral alumni about the qualifications and required skill sets of postdocs in your fields. 
  • Identify universities and research centers that are conducting research or are offering teaching fellowships aligned to your interests.  
  • Use professional society job boards and Twitter to search for post-doc opportunities. 
  • Depending on your discipline and career choice, you may be expected to complete postdoctoral training for one to three  years.
  • Consult with your advisor, mentors or peers about possible postdoctoral programs for which you would be a fit.
  • Be familiar with postdoctoral fellowship announcements, recruitment and selection processes in your field.
  • Be aware of postdoctoral fellowships funded by central units seeking fellows across disciplines.
  • Explore national postdoctoral resources: 

Research the non-academic job market

  • Explore if your department/program has relationships with recruiters in industry.
  • Identify skill sets that recruiters are looking for.
  • Talk to alumni who work in the industry.
  • Explore site … 

Years 5+

Expand all

Update components of your professional job search portfolio and apply for open positions

Actively network and build relationships in your career field of interest

  • Search LinkedIn for people in a desired career path and reach out.
  • Talk with various mentors about day-to-day life in their career path.
  • Keep meeting peers outside of your own department, especially concentrate on building  cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary connections.
  • Build relationships with alumni in fields of interest.
  • Conduct informational interviews with mentors and alumni.
  • Conduct and practice mock interviews
  • Become familiar with language and culture of employment sectors.
  • Familiarize yourself with language and employer expectations in actual job postings.

Search for jobs and postdoctoral opportunities

  • Create a system for tracking job search, including openings and applications.
  • Apply for opportunities of interest.

Negotiate job offers

Questions or concerns?

Contact us at