Strategies for Grad School

Grad Textbooks: Buy or Rent

Acquiring textbooks for grad school is a little different than when you were an undergraduate. Undergraduates take a wide array of “core” courses, so many of your required books were not pertinent to your major field of study. As a grad student, however, most likely all of your classes pertain to your field and career, which significantly increases the likelihood that you will want to reference your textbooks in other classes you take or teach, when writing and defending your thesis, and even on the job. On the other hand, you already eat more than enough ramen as it is and the bookshelves in your tiny apartment are overloaded.

It’s a grad school dilemma. Buying is expensive, but the reference material may be worth it. Renting is cheaper, but you may wish you had that book a year from now. Let’s examine your options.

Option 1: Buy the Book

Owning the textbook allows you to highlight and take notes and then keep those notes for future reference. If you buy a physical textbook, you can choose between a new or used copy and you may be able to resell the book if you decide you no longer want it. If you buy an eTextbook, you can save space and money and there’s no shipping cost or delay; however, eTextbooks lack page numbers and graphics can be displaced, which can cause problems when communicating with your professor or classmates.

It is also important to note that as you progress higher in your education and as your field becomes more specialized, buying a book may be your only option. The books required for your grad classes or comps may be scholarly works published by university presses in limited runs, texts meant to be sold to libraries instead of individuals, or books by leaders in your field. You’ll have a hard time renting these kinds of books from a bookstore or online, and you’ll probably want to hang on to them. In the case of books written by leaders in your field, it could be particularly beneficial to hold on to these as you may be able to get the author to sign them at a future conference.

Option 2: Rent the Book

If you want to rent your textbooks, quite a few options exist for doing so. Most rental book providers allow highlighting and note-taking in the rented books, but you lose those notes when you return the books.

  1. Renting the book from a campus affiliated bookstore. This option is easily the most convenient. The campus bookstore and surrounding bookstores affiliated with your university are close by and make for easy pick up and drop off. The downsides to this option are that the university sets the prices for the books, which stores must adhere to, and that bookstores often don’t carry the more specialized books.
  2. Renting the book online. This option has the potential to have the most competitive rental prices and programs because of the sheer number of sites that offer online book rentals. These sites include Amazon, Campus Book Rentals, Book Renter, Skyo, and Chegg. If you have the time to compare sites, you can get better prices than in the bookstores. However, you usually have to know which books you need and for how long you need them ahead of time.
  3. Going paperless. If you own an eReader, this option can be the most flexible. With an eTextbook rental, you can’t forget to return the book, and there is no risk of damaging or losing the book and being forced to pay its full price. You also still retain the ability to highlight and to take notes in the text. Some providers, such as Amazon, even provide day-to-day rentals and keep your notes accessible to you online even after the rental has expired. The downsides to this option are the same as the downsides to owning an eTextbook, and, as eTextbooks are always “new,” it may be cheaper to rent a used physical copy.

Joining Research Teams

One of the fundamental principles of graduate school is to produce educated researchers who have strong, reliable, and ethical research skills that they can use to benefit their fields in some way. Because research is so fundamental to graduate school, graduate students can improve their chances of succeeding academically and professionally by joining research groups at their universities. The following is some advice about why you will benefit from joining a research group and how you can join a research team.

Why You Should Join a Research Group

Graduate students benefit in many ways from joining research teams. Firstly, graduate students can receive financial aid through research or teaching assistantships if they obtain funded research positions. Secondly, graduate students who join a research team can gain experience and insight into their chosen fields, which will give them better foundations to choose between career options after graduate school. Thirdly, graduate students who join research groups can fortify their CVs and can gain new skills to offer future employers. Fourthly, graduate students who join research teams may have more opportunities to present and publish their work and to network with peers in their fields than will those who do not join research groups. Finally, graduate students may gain more confidence in themselves and their abilities as researchers and team members if they join research group.

How You Can Join a Research Group

To join a research team, you must first determine what research groups and positions are available within your department and which groups and positions align best with your own research interests. Next, you will need to research the faculty members running the research group to determine whom you would want to be your research advisors based on the faculty members’ experience, mentorship styles, research interests, etc. Then, you will need to meet faculty members with whom you are interested in working; you may need to schedule multiple meetings with faculty before making your final decision because, much like going to graduate school, joining a research group is a big commitment that requires significant forethought.

When you meet with faculty members, you will want to ask about what kind of research the group is doing and what expectations the group will have for you. After meeting with faculty members, you will want to talk with other students who are members of the research group and who share the same advisor(s) in whom you are interested to determine if other students like the research team and advisor(s), if the group’s and the advisor’s(s’) attitudes are aligned with yours, etc. Finally, you will have enough information to decide which group you would like to participate in and whom you would like to be your advisor. You should notify your potential research advisor and group about your interest in participating in their research, and you will complete any other steps that the group deems is necessary for you to join (each group is unique and will have its own requirements for qualification and acceptance).


Increase Your Reading Speed and Comprehension

Almost all students have had some experience like the following: one professor assigned you 800 pages to read, and another assigned you 900 pages to read, both of which must be read by the next class on the same day. Besides the 1700 pages of reading assignments, both of those professors also assigned other homework, such as annotating the content of those 1700 pages. Now, you are left in a quandary because there is no way you can read every word on all 1700 pages and still get the rest of your assignments done.

One of the most prized skills that a graduate student can learn is how to read effectively but quickly. Many graduate students wonder, how can I improve reading speed without missing important information? This is because some students mistakenly believe that reading quickly will impair their comprehension of what they have read, but the opposite is true. The average reader will read at the speed of approximately 250 words per minute but will think at the speed of approximately 500 words per minute; the difference between reading and thinking speeds often leads to distracting thoughts. This forces readers to backtrack and reread, which hinders effective comprehension and recall of information. Learning how to read fast actually enhances comprehension because the brain must concentrate and work harder to understand what the eyes have seen. The following are some reading comprehension strategies that will also help to improve your reading speed:

Understand organization before you begin reading.

Review tables of content, abstracts, introductions, conclusions, and headings before you begin reading so that your brain can anticipate the information it will need to process (as opposed to forcing your brain to process information in the moment). Understand where important information is generally located in basic writing structures—at the beginning and end of chapters, paragraphs, and sentences—and review this information before you begin reading. Take the time to define any words that are new to you either in meaning or in use.

Identify your subvocalizations and internal speech.

Subvocalizations are the auditory sounds that we use to pronounce words, and internal speech is the subconscious images and senses we use to visualize what we are reading or hearing. Internal speech is often related to internal monologue. Subvocalizations and internal speech can sometimes help us understand difficult passages of text but can also slow us down when we are trying to read and comprehend quickly. To suppress your subvocalizations, you can practice counting out loud while reading. Once you have mastered this skill, you can allow your internal speech full reign by involving all your senses in imagining what you are reading. After you identify your internal speech by allowing it full reign while you are reading, you will be better able to suppress your internal speech and to recognize words as concepts without having to rely on visualizations to comprehend the concepts. Practice reading with and without subvocalizations and internal speech, and you will eventually be able to use or suppress those functions as needed.

Refocus your eye movements while reading.

Most people read by focusing their eyes on the left side of a page and fixing their eyes on every word from left to right as they read along. Some readers may move their eyes a little ahead or a little behind of the text they are currently reading to remember what they have already read or to anticipate what they will read next. This method of reading not only slows reading speed but also reduces reading comprehension because this method only engages one hemisphere of the brain at a time. To increase your reading speed and comprehension and to engage both hemispheres of your brain, you should focus your eye on the middle of a line of text and use your peripheral vision to anticipate words at the beginning or end of a line of text; only refocus your eyes on the beginning or end of a line of text if the actual words do not match what you anticipate based on the text in the middle of the line. If this seems difficult at first, you can use a visual guide or pointer (e.g., a notecard, your finger, a pencil) to help you maintain focus on the middle of the line of text. Instead of moving the visual guide or pointer from left to right, move it up and down, constantly positioning it in the middle of a line of text.

Practice speed reading.

How does one learn to read fast? As with any newly learned skill, practice is necessary to break old habits. For most students, speed reading is a new technique that will seem awkward at first. Set aside time each day to practice power reading, even if you must practice with the newspaper that you read over coffee every morning. Determine how many words are in a particular selection of text, and see how many of those words you can read in a given number of minutes. Practice reading that selection of text until you can reduce the number of minutes it takes for you to read the entire selection. You can even use a metronome to help you read at a steady speed.

Best Laptop for Grad School

From writing term papers to uploading assignments on university network systems (e.g., Blackboard), computers have become an essential school supply for modern students, particularly for graduate students who spend significant amounts of time conducting research online. Because of the limited space in most grad students’ living quarters and the increasingly mobile trend in technology, most grad students prefer portable laptops to stationary desktops. With the overwhelming number of laptops currently available on the market, many grad students (particularly those who are not computer science majors) struggle to determine which laptop is best for grad school. If you are planning to purchase a laptop for grad school but are unsure which laptop is best for you, consider the following:


Most grad students struggle to buy good quality food, much less to buy good quality computers. Spending too little on a laptop can eventually lead to spending more money on costly repairs or upgrades, but spending too much might only get you technological luxuries that you may never use. According to Case (2012), “[t]he sweet spot for performance and durability seems to be between $800 and $1,200” (n.p.). If this price range seems out of your budget, consider saving before you purchase. You could also check with your university to see if you qualify for any technological discounts, deals, or reimbursements.


A typical grad student easily lugs around between 20 and 30 pounds of textbooks and other supplies each day, so you should look for a laptop that not only has all the features necessary for graduate study but also won’t break your back on hour 14 of a 15-hour day. Fortunately, the variety of ultrabooks and other ultraportable laptops currently available provides grad students with a range of options for lightweight laptops (e.g., less than 4 pounds). However, you will also need to consider the durability of the laptop (e.g., sturdiness of the screen and screen hinges, case, etc.), which will likely be in the same backpack with the 20 to 30 pounds of textbooks; only you can determine the right weight-to-durability ratio for your everyday needs.


You should consider the usability/display of a laptop concurrently with its weight/durability. For example, ultrabooks may weigh less than do other laptops, but often the lighter weight of ultrabooks is at the sacrifice of screen and keyboard size, which may not seem like a big deal until you sit down to write a 200-page dissertation. If you are trying to determine what works best for you during your graduate study in terms of laptop usability and display, you could ask yourself the following: Can you easily read text on the laptop screen without eye strain? Can you type efficiently and comfortably on the keyboard?

Operating System

One of the major challenges that grad students face in submitting documents to professors, universities, journals, conferences, etc., is software incompatibility, particularly between Mac and PC operating systems, between Windows-based and other types of operating systems, and between conflicting versions of software in the same operating system (e.g., different versions of Microsoft Word). To avoid software incompatibility, some universities actually prohibit students from using Macs and non-Widows operating systems for university-related submissions. Therefore, you should probably stick to a Windows-based operating system on a PC when you purchase your laptop for grad school.

Other Features

Other features that you might want to consider when purchasing a laptop for grad school include the following: number of USB ports (the more the merrier), graphics/optical/audio capabilities (especially if you plan to stream videos or games), fans to control heat, screen resolution, battery life, memory (but don’t let this be a determining factor because memory is easy to upgrade), and an Ethernet port (in case you don’t have access to Wi-Fi). When you are considering these features, remember that your laptop should be optimized for work, not for play. For example, if you are torn between one laptop with great graphics/optical/audio capabilities that has a short battery life and another laptop without great graphics/optical/audio capabilities that has a longer battery life, you should probably choose the latter to improve the workability of your laptop (unless, of course, your work involves manipulating electronic graphics and audio).

Case, L. (2012). Laptops for back-to-school: How to make the right choice. Retrieved from

How to Submit Papers to Conferences

As a graduate student, you should participate in as many conferences as you can because participating in conferences combines the best of all academic opportunities: networking with other colleagues and professionals in your field, having your work reviewed by peers, and having your work published in conference proceedings. If you already know how to submit a paper for a conference, then you know that submitting papers to conferences is easier than you think, but accepting the amount of rejection you will more than likely face is the hard part. Nevertheless, you should assure yourself ahead of time that being accepted to present at just one conference is worth being rejected for a slew of other conferences. Once you have accepted this, then you can use the following six steps as a guide to how to submit a paper to a conference:

1. Find conferences with open calls for papers.

You can use websites, search engines, and professional organizations to search for conferences with open calls for papers. You can search by conference topic or by area of specialization, conference location, etc. Many organizations will specify on their websites exactly how to submit a paper for their conference.

2. Write proposal.

You will have to write a proposal about your paper. Presentation proposals are similar to paper abstracts (i.e., 350 words or less), but each conference typically has unique requirements for its proposals. You should read all conference requirements for proposals before you begin writing your proposal. You may have to change your proposal to meet the requirements of each conference to which you are submitting.

3. Submit proposal.

You will probably be submitting your proposal electronically, so be sure that you submit any documents in the form required. If you are accepted to present at a conference, someone from the conference will probably contact you by email.

4. Present paper.

Depending on your field of study, you may use a script to help you present your research [link to article, “How to hone your presentation skills”], or you may use visual aids like PowerPoint presentations or posters to help you present. You will need to design and practice your presentation ahead of time, making sure to stay within the time frame that the conference has allotted for your presentation.


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