1. Do not compare yourself to other people in your program. I repeat: Do not compare yourself. There will always be someone who has read something that you haven’t read or written and published an article when you haven’t yet. Someone will get that fancy fellowship that you applied for, or that grant, or those research funds.
2. Do not take criticism of your work, ideas, or writing personally. Like acting, academia is filled with criticism. Some nice, some not-so nice. Some of it will make you want to curl up in a ball and not talk to anyone for weeks. Some of it will make you want to punch someone in the kidney. All of it will teach you something. Trust me. Learn to take criticism in a non-personal manner and you are half-way there already.
3. Do something, read something, research something or write something because you are interested in it. Not because someone else – i.e. your advisor, a funding committee, the cute guy in the Rhetoric department that you are dating, etc. – is interested in it. If you do not like what you are doing, researching, reading or writing, you will never finish your PhD.
4. Find the people who write things you are interested in and try to meet them or email them. You’d be surprised how many professors are amenable to getting an email from a graduate student working on interesting things that intersect with their work. I mean, I already love to talk about my work, and I’m not even a full professor yet.
5. Hang out with people in your program, but find some friends outside of it. In other words, do not spend all your time with people in your program. You will be less boring to normal people not spending 6 years or more getting a PhD, and more interesting to those that are. Partially because you will be forced to maintain a relationship with the world outside of the university. This is a good thing. No, really. I swear.
6. Do not obsess about what you are and are not getting done. Create a work schedule and stick to it. Do some work every day, even if it is just filing the 100 articles you downloaded this week. This is your job, not a vacation from the real world. Act accordingly.
7. Always be networking. Knowing other people who do what you do is important. Don’t do it in a self-serving, gross kind of way, but cultivate a keen interest in what other people are doing in similar fields or with a similar topic. This is more generative than constantly having beers with your cohort.
8. Have beers with your cohort, but not that often. Some of the best advice I’ve ever heard is not to hang out with the people who “hang out” all of the time. If you always see them at parties, it’s a bad sign. They are not getting any work done, and neither will you. But you do need to blow off steam sometimes, so don’t be a hermit either.
9. Work out on a regular basis. Or play video games. Something to take your mind completely off your work for a while.
10. Be creative. Don’t just read things that you are expected to read for your PhD. Read a novel or a book of poetry. Learn to play the guitar and go to hear live music. Take an improv class. You’d be surprised at the connections you’ll be able to make in your own work.
11. Don’t think you know everything or that you know nothing. The truth is somewhere in the middle, as it always is. You probably know a lot about a little.
12. Take the advice of successful people around you. They know what they are talking about, since they’ve probably experienced exactly what you are dealing with now. Find role models and mentors.
13. Write the damn dissertation.