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Skills that may help you to be successful

Apart from all the typical stuff you might expect (intelligent, works well with others, enthusiastic), here are some other skills that may help you to be successful.


Personal effectiveness is important, not just in grad school. It is shorthand for being a person who gets stuff done. Personally effective people:

  • Get things finished. Personally effective people are goal-oriented. They may plan ahead, anticipate potential problems, and meet deadlines. Sometimes if time is crunched the solution may not be to the standard they wanted, but it gets finished. Learning how to work around problems when solving a task is a good skill to have.

  • Take the next steps. You may be particularly successful if you work out (or find out) what the next step is, after having finished another step early. Because most steps take longer than expected, it is helpful to make up time when you can. Look at big picture aspects too. In addition to looking at what your peers are doing, look at what more senior trainees are doing. See which steps of theirs you can take. Look at the conferences your senior colleagues go to and consider whether they could be something for you too. Are senior lab members attending colloquium talks? Join them and seeing other research may give you new ideas. Are they talking about their research with each other, or with professors informally or at a social gathering after the colloquium talks? Maybe that is something to try.


Some experience with computer programming is a significant plus for any undergraduate volunteer or graduate student. Nearly all behavioral work requires a working knowledge of variables, if/then or for/while loops, counters, and basic variable manipulations. If you are interested in electrophysiology or neuroimaging work, then programming is particularly important. It is difficult to complete a project during a Master’s thesis without some programming knowledge from the beginning or acquired early on. Consider acquiring it as soon as possible. Good programming skills can help you design experiments and analyze data in novel ways, and may help you ask research questions from unique angles. The specific language with which you are familiar is not so important, but Matlab or Python are good starting places. There are huge numbers of online tutorials to get you started. See also Matlab/Programming Basics and more on Programming & Data Analysis.


Scientific progress means entering uncharted territory. Many aspects of your everyday research experience will involve solving a problem in a new way or bringing things together that have been disjoint. Creativity, curiosity, and the drive to figure stuff out are important qualities of a researcher. This involves the right amount of skepticism, stopping for a moment if something seems odd (instead assuming it will be fine) and asking yourself why it is odd. Your experiment may not do exactly what you had planned, your data may look a little not right, the paragraph you wrote may not fully flow. Ask yourself why. Follow up to understand why (e.g., look at the data more in-depth). Being proactive in anticipating problems and solve them before they become a problem will make you faster and with higher quality output.


Of course it is easier for a PI to take a risk on someone who is self-funded (e.g., USRA [undergraduate] or OGS/NSERC/CIHR [graduate]), and the award will look good on your CV and help you get future funding. But seeking out opportunities for external funding will help you to become effective (see above), since you would need to be organized enough to take a step that requires significant advance planning (deadlines are often in September, 1 year prior to your graduate degree starting).


Following up your interest with scholarly action will make you a good scientist who wants to learn and figure things out. Make sure you read papers. You only will know what is going on in a field if you read other people's work. If you are genuinely interested in an area, read scientific papers on the topic (not just blogs and news articles). Being knowledgeable about what is going on in a research area will make you ask insightful research questions and will help you conduct high-quality experiments. 


~ Some of the above with courtesy of Jessica Grahn ~

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