Graduate School Essentials for Doctoral Students in the Humanities and Social Sciences 

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. 

Tasks for Years 1-2: Communicating with Advisors

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Understand expectations and work styles

  • Get to know yourself.
    • Assess your own culture, personality and preferences.
      • How do you prefer to work (e.g., which hours of the day, which days of the week, which location)?
      • How do you prefer to communicate (e.g., directly vs. indirectly, email vs. in-person)? 
      • How do you prefer to receive feedback (e.g., written vs. verbal, consistently vs. intermittently)? 
      • What do you think you need from an advisor to succeed?
      • What expectations do you have for yourself as a graduate student? 
      • What do you hope to do with your degree? 
    • Ask your family, peers, friends, and mentors for their perspectives on your work style.
  • Get to know your advisor. Keep in mind that in some programs, a temporary advisor may be assigned, initially, until a student chooses a permanent advisor.
    • Ask if your advisor has an Advising Statement so you are aware of how they prefer to work and communicate, how they approach advising, and what they expect of their advisees. If they have an advising statement, read it, take notes, and have a meeting to discuss questions. If they don’t, schedule a meeting within your first month to discuss these topics. By reviewing the statements of other professors, you may get an idea of what topics to cover. 
  • Explore how you and your advisor can work together effectively. 
  • As you and your advisor get to know each other, you may notice some differences in preferences. Discuss which of your preferences are negotiable and which are not. For example, your advisor suggests you teach a course.  You’re willing to try it, but you’re not willing to work after 5 pm to spend time with your kids. Communicate as much as possible to create an advising relationship that works for you both!  
  • Establish a regular meeting schedule (monthly or bi-monthly) at the beginning of each semester. 
    • Use these meetings to discuss topics such as your research, funding, coursework, practica, degree progress, professional development, career goals, teaching, internal/environmental difficulties (e.g., imposter syndrome, experiences of discrimination), and needed resources (e.g., testing accommodations, mental health services). 
    • Be prepared by writing down major points and questions prior to  meeting. Keeping track of meeting agendas and notes in a shared Google Doc with your advisor can be helpful as well. 
  • Communicate well with the Director of Graduate Studies (DGS) and the Graduate Program Coordinator (GPC). These individuals are knowledgeable about policies and procedures of your graduate program as well as with funding and professional development opportunities that may be of interest to you. 
  • Begin a conversation about your research interests.
    • Share your research interest(s) with your advisor. Be transparent  if you are not yet certain of the topic you want to pursue. Ask if there are opportunities for you to explore (e.g., helping with existing projects or performing a literature review.  Brainstorm ideas with your advisor.
    • Be open to feedback and suggestions on narrowing the scope or modifying the topic, but make sure you are comfortable with the direction of YOUR research.
  • Find and/or create spaces to support and nurture your research interests (cross link to research/writing).  As your research interests might change so will the faculty with whom you will collaborate.
  • Choose courses that help develop your methodology, research and overall scholarship.

Draft an Individual Development Plan (IDP)

  • Watch the student perspective Individual Development (IDP) video, then download and save a blank IDP template
  • Reflect on your long and short-term goals and develop an IDP. 
  • Share your IDP with your advisor to seek feedback. You should, however, share content you feel comfortable discussing with your advisor. Use the same discernment when you ask others to provide feedback on your IDP.

Develop timeline to degree completion

  • With guidance from your advisor and the Graduate Planning & Audit System (GPAS), draft a timeline to complete your degree.
    • Set and meet major milestones in the graduate program.
    • Break down major goals into manageable tasks.
    • Establish a visual aid to make the journey seem less daunting.

Discuss process and timeline for preliminary and oral exams

  • Ask your advisor about the process and timeline for taking the preliminary written and oral examinations so you are familiar with the process in advance.

Inquire about co-authoring protocols

  • Inquire about departmental/collegiate co-authorship protocols. Publishing co-authored papers or articles is an opportunity to collaborate with your advisor or other faculty in your department.
    • If you and your advisor share similar research interests, discuss possibilities for co-publishing.
    • If your research is interdisciplinary, ask your advisor about faculty in other departments who have similar research interests and with whom you can publish. 
    • Inquire about departmental,  and collegiate, or field co-authoring protocols with which you should be familiar. Check with your advisor or Director of Graduate Studies (DGS).
    • Discuss with advisor/DGS different types of publications/culture of publication in your field. Consider book chapters or peer reviewed articles. What is weighed more in your field?

Ask yourself if your advisor is a good fit

  • Check in with yourself about whether your advisor is a good fit for your research interests and would be supportive of your overall academic development
    • Reflect on your experience thus far and determine if you have had a positive and supportive relationship. 
    • If you feel that your advisor is not a good fit for your research interests or you have reservations (e.g. communication style, personality, accessibility, etc.), you should consider finding another advisor, sooner than later, before proceeding with your research and writing.
    • If you do need to change your advisor, contact your Graduate Program Coordinator (GPC) or the equivalent (Associate DGS, etc.).

Begin building relationships with faculty

  • Build relationships with faculty (coursework, committees, seminars) who might serve on your preliminary exam committee.

Tasks for Years 3-4: Communicating with Advisors

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Narrow your research topic and review methodology options

  • Discuss how to narrow and refine your research topic to make sure it is manageable within the degree completion timeline you have developed. These discussions are critical in order to move forward with selecting a dissertation committee, and to prepare for future presentations and publications to further your scholarly and career goals.  
  • Discuss the type of methodology(s) in your field that would be appropriate for your research. 
  • If you are unfamiliar with a methodology that is strongly recommended by your advisor, you may need to take a course or additional training.
    • Ask your advisor, other faculty, staff or peers for resources to help you gain proficiency in the recommended methodology(s).
  • Explore the Research and Writing component for more research and methodology resources. 

Discuss dissertation committee selection

  • Start discussing the committee selection process.
  • Discuss methodology strengths 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.
  • Become familiar with the research of suggested faculty within and outside your department.
  • In some cases, students have found it helpful to have faculty on the committee who may not have expertise directly related to the research but may share perspectives that complement their work.

Keep advisor updated on professional goals and accomplishments

  • Keep advisor updated on professional goals and accomplishments so they can write effective reference letters.
  • Reference letters are often required when seeking fellowships, internships and employment after the degree. Make sure to communicate with your advisor and other faculty/staff whom you wish to serve as referees about your career goals  and professional accomplishments so they can write effective reference letters. 
  • Provide a copy of your CV, and the job or fellowship description so they can specifically address how your experience or research fits with the opportunity for which you are applying.

Create a timeline to degree completion after passing the preliminary exams

  • Develop a timeline by setting a tentative date for defense and work backwards.  
  • Identify major steps to accomplish (e.g. data collection, archive work, text analysis, draft 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.

Tasks for Years 5+: Communicating with Advisors 

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Discuss career options with your advisor

  • Discuss career options with your advisor. 
  • What support might you need with the job application process?

Plan for feedback on your writing

  • Decide how to ask for feedback and from whom.
  • Communicate with your advisor to identify faculty (other than those on your committee) who may have expertise in your research topic and can provide feedback on your dissertation or other scholarly writings such as publications.
  • Have a specific plan to request for their input.

Write a cover letter to request specific feedback from readers

  • Write a cover letter to your readers; attach the draft to be reviewed. 
  • 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 before 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 draft to dissertation advisor and circulate to committee members

  • After you have received feedback from your readers, make necessary changes to the draft and submit it to your advisor for final approval before submitting it to committee members. 
  • Set a deadline to get their feedback and send reminders.

Set defense date

  • Meet with your advisor to set the date for the defense based on your advisor’s availability and that of your 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. 
  • Make sure the departmental conference room or other venue is available. 

Evaluate final feedback from readers in preparation for defense

  • Evaluate the feedback on your dissertation draft from readers and, where appropriate, incorporate those in the final draft. 
  • If you did not incorporate a committee member’s suggestions, make a personal note as to your reason for doing so, in case it is raised at the defense.

Consult with advisor about defense format and roles of participants

  • Discuss the nature of the defense with your advisor and make sure you are clear on your role and that of the committee members. 

Research and Writing

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

Tasks for Years 1-2: Research and Writing

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Explore campus writing resources

Explore campus library resources and best practices

Identify your discipline’s academic writing styles and expectations

  • Watch Publishing 101 webinar.
  • Get to know major (and minor) publications, current trends, and experts in your field.
    • Discuss major publications with your advisor.
    • Get to know publications and interests of your peers.
  • 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 observations from writing examples.
  • Explore potential research methodologies within your discipline.
    • Idea generation
    • Research design
    • Basic/applied research
    • Qualitative/quantitative
    • Data collection
    • Data visualization

Assess your own research and writing practices

  • After exploring campus resources, assess your own research and writing practices
    • What is your writing history? 
      • What has formed your own knowledge, dissemination and writing practice?
        • Undergraduate experience, influences, methods, etc
        • How has your culture influenced your ways of knowing and dissemination?
        • How can you assess your strengths? 
        • What are areas to develop and grow? 
      • Develop new writing and research skills practices and routines.
      • Work with advisor and faculty to discuss how to actively engage in academic reading and writing in your discipline.

Discuss expectations of the preliminary exams with your advisor

  • Discuss expectations of the preliminary exams with your advisor to get an overall perspective of the process and logistics.

Subscribe to free online research and writing platforms

Tasks for Years 3-4: Research and Writing

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Understand your department's preliminary exam expectations

  • Discover key components and characteristics of recent prelims.
  • Search prelim examples from past grads / peers if available.
  • Discover your best practices and preparation for prelim.
  • Navigate stress and impostor syndrome related to exams.

Reflect on your research and writing goals and routines

  • After completing major writing projects (e.g., seminar papers, prelims), reflect on what worked and what didn't, in terms of your writing process and routines.
  • Determine writing support needed for on-going development of scholarly writing.
  • Set and share writing goals and schedules with your Individual Development Plan (IDP).

Seek writing feedback from peers

  • Explore writing groups.
  • Explore and join interdisciplinary writing groups and retreats. 
  • Create your own writing group if you can’t attend others or if there isn’t any.
  • Join or form a peer writing support group to move beyond discussing course papers into development of research questions and other advanced scholarly writing and thinking practices.
  • Practice using feedback to improve writing / new drafts.

Examine past dissertations in your genre

  • Discover key components and characteristics of recent dissertations in your discipline(s).
  • Add dissertation writing practice into your schedule.
  • Be familiar with Dissertation Calculator
  • Discuss with advisor and mentors writing samples in your field, and how they pertain to your dissertation:  
    • Grants
    • Teaching materials
    • Field/lab/research note
    • Conference papers
    • Presentations and posters
    • Websites
    • Writing and presenting to wide audience 
  • Consider the Three-Minute Thesis competition (3MT)

Refine your reading, notation, writing, research, and citation techniques

  • Start discussing the committee selection process and the research areas.
  • Discuss methodology strengths of the faculty who would be appropriate to serve on the committee. 
  • Become familiar with the research of suggested faculty within and outside your department.
  • Connect, inquire, and form relationships with faculty you want to have on your committee. 
    • Attend a lecture or workshop.
    • Explore their courses.

Discuss dissertation committee selection with advisor

  • Start discussing the committee selection process and the research areas.
  • Discuss methodology strengths of the faculty who would be appropriate to serve on the committee. 
  • Become familiar with the research of suggested faculty within and outside your department.
  • Connect, inquire, and form relationships with faculty you want to have on your committee. 
    • Attend a lecture or workshop.
    • Explore their courses.

Gather manuscript/submission guidelines for key periodicals and publishers

Tasks for Years 5+: Research and Writing

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Attend dissertation defense sessions of other students

  • Attend dissertation defense sessions of other students to learn about expectations to prepare for your own defense (even in a related department).

Practice asking for feedback on writing

  • Continue to assess and participate in writing groups.
  • Review conference papers, travel grant applications, preliminary dissertation writing, or materials for a course you have been assigned to as a TA or are developing as a teacher of record.
  • Develop a strategy for prioritizing feedback from multiple readers and incorporating key feedback into the revision process.

Set up a mock defense

  • Identify peers, staff and faculty who could be an audience to help you prepare for the presentation component of the defense.

Update your Individual Development Plan (IDP) to focus on writing and publishing after the dissertation

  • Use the Individual Development Plan (IDP) to guide the transition from dissertation writer to junior faculty, post-doctoral associate, or a position outside academia.
  • Research, analyze, and ask mentors questions about the tenuring guidelines for faculty positions, if you choose a career in academia.
  • Learn ways to write for an audience outside of your discipline.

Building Relationships and Career Development

As a graduate student, you have access to the resources and support you need to prepare for the career pathway you are working towards. 

Tasks for Years 1-2: Building Relationships and Career Development

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Draft an Individual Development Plan (IDP) with input from advisor and/or mentors

  • Draft an Individual Development Plan (IDP) with input from advisor and/or mentors
    • Assess career development areas or skills you want to develop.
    • Define short term goals around career development.
    • Define long terms goals around career development.
    • Begin to discuss career aspirations and plan to monitor them over time.
    • Explore Career Discernment: Begin with the end in mind by imagining your career and happiness (Beth Godbee career discernment resources).
    • Decide how often you will update your Individual Development (IDP) and with whom you will share it. It is strongly encouraged that you share it with your advisor and mentors so they are aware of your needs and can suggest resources to help meet your goals.
    • Subscribe to career development platforms 

Begin the process of professional networking

  • Explore how networking is critical for both your dissertation and your future career.
  • Intimidated by the thought of networking? Watch the Networking for introverts video. 
  • Consider do’s and don’ts of communication and networking on social media.
  • Explore and join professional associations and publications. 

Build relationships across campus and in your field

  • Seek out local opportunities to hear presentations and discuss research.
  • Network with peers, faculty, and staff across departments. 
  • Seek multiple mentors from within and outside the University to offer different perspectives and expertise. It is critical to find support from individuals with whom you can connect for various aspects of your academic, professional and personal growth.
  • Attend talks, workshops and events in departments, centers, institutes, other colleges.
  • Explore and join student organizations.
  • Become familiar academic and career workshops and online resources.
  • Opt into the Graduate School’s workshop calendar and e-newsletters.
  • Understand the benefits of community engagement: 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.
  • Consider collaborating on research, resources, publications, and proposal writing.

Consider developing a job search portfolio and LinkedIn profile

  • Add your professional and academic contacts.
  • Begin thinking about promoting yourself for specific job openings.
  • Explore Beyond the Professoriate's LinkedIn webinars.

Gain an understanding of the importance of transferable skills

Explore your college’s Career Services

  • Find a contact person in your career services office.
  • Explore academic and non-academic career pathways and trends within your discipline.

Find conferences and learn how they operate

  • Identify important conferences in your field of study (and the role the conference plays to the field). 
  • Explore conference program planning, calls for papers/posters, and review of proposals.
    • How can I present? 
    • How often does the conference happen? 
    • Are there funding opportunities? 
  • Learn the research, presentation, communication skills needed for submitting and presenting to the conference.

Tasks for Years 3-4: Building Relationships and Career Development

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Update and assess your Individual Development Plan (IDP) with your advisor and/or mentors

  • Update short term goals.
  • Update long terms goals.
  • Discuss career aspirations and trends.

Consider an internship or project work to build skills and network in another sector or professional association

  • Meet with your collegiate career advisor 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.
    • Explore online, talk with peers and other individuals who might connect you with potential internship venues.

Submit/present at conferences

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

Prepare/submit to publications

Search for and connect with people and identify skills needed for fields or positions of interest

Reflect on your career aspirations, skills, interests, and accomplishments

  • Identify primary career path; create multiple options.
  • Focus on academic and non-academic local, national, and international trends.
  • Identify and connect with mentor(s) in fields of interest.

Tasks for Years 5+: Building Relationships and Career Development

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Update areas of your job search portfolio and apply for jobs

Actively network and build relationships in your career field of interest

  • Coffee/reach out: Search LinkedIn for people in a desired career path.
  • Talk with various mentors about day-to-day life in academic and non-academic careers.
  • Meet peers outside of your own department, especially concentrate on building interdisciplinary, cross-cultural and cross-disciplinary connections.
  • Build relationship with alumni in fields of interest.
  • Conduct informational interview with mentors and peers.
  • 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.
  • Become familiar with language and culture of employment sectors. 

Search for jobs

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

Negotiating Job offers

Seeking Financial Support

Graduate assistantships, fellowships, scholarships, and grants offer new and currently enrolled students the opportunity to fund their academic and research endeavors.  

Tasks for Years 1-2: Seeking Financial Support

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Explore grant and fellowship resources internal and external to UMN

  • Inquire about funding sources within your graduate program or department by asking your Graduate Program Coordinator (GPC), advisor, Director of Graduate Studies (DGS), 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 steps and process, guidelines, eligibility each year to be current.
  • Seek 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.
    • Explore social media, such as Twitter, for funding opportunities.

Identify and explore all available graduate assistantships

  • Inquire about teaching, research or administrative assistantships within your graduate program or department by asking your Graduate Program Coordinator, advisor, Director of Graduate Studies, and department chair. 
  • Go to the UMN Job 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 do not offer such support.
  • Pay attention to opportunities that may support specific communities (underrepresented, women, first-generation, etc.).

Attend workshops on proposal writing

  • Explore resources on proposal writing and attend workshops or webinars to learn about components to include in a proposal and the review process.
  • Learn how to write the budget portion of the proposal as outlined by the funding source, if such guidelines are provided. Ask your advisor or mentors for resources on communicating anticipated expenses to make sure you have identified an adequate amount of funding.

Tasks for Years 3-4: Seeking Financial Support

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Identify processes and timelines for fellowships and travel grants

  • 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.

Complete prerequisite trainings such as the Institutional Review Board (IRB)

  • Some fellowships, especially those intended to fund efforts directly related to research, will require proof that all prerequisites to conduct research involving human or animal subjects have been completed. 
    • 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 for UMN grants in addition to external grants. External funders would expect you to have received funding from your own institution prior to seeking external funding. 
  • Apply for travel support, fellowships, residencies in the arts, and teaching opportunities. Make sure your project fits within the parameter of the funding guidelines or Request for Proposal (RFP).
  • If reference letters are required, inform your references in advance that you are applying for funding and provide them with information about the fellowship or grant. 
  • Be considerate of your referees and allow ample time for them to write the letters—minimum of three weeks. 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
    • Contribution to advancing your studies and/or career
    • Budget
    • Evaluation or impact statement

Have a plan for what to do if you don’t get funded

  • Talk to others who have not received funding to inquire about strategies to still achieve goals (field work, etc.). 

Apply for internships

  • Apply for internships, particularly if you are not interested in pursuing a faculty career.

Tasks for Years 5+: Seeking Financial Support

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Apply for postdoctoral fellowships

Apply for job opportunities

Questions or concerns?

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