How New Graduate Students Should Spend Their Summers

Illustration by Mark Shaver for The Chronicle

June 27, 2012

Editor's Note: Julie Miller Vick has been writing for The Chronicle's career section since it debuted in 1998. As of this year, she's published 100 columns with us. Her Career Talk column has been one of our longest-running features. We thank her for her commitment to career development for graduate students and postdocs.

One of the perks that still exist, at least in some parts of academe, is a slower pace of work during summer. For graduate students, it's often a chance to carve out large blocks of time for substantial research projects. Yet August often arrives too quickly, and many students find they haven't accomplished what they set out to do.

Jenny: We've written before about the need for new Ph.D.'s and postdocs who are about to go on the academic job market to use their summers wisely. If you don't start readying your job-search materials now, you may find yourself blindsided by the amount of time it takes away from your other duties in the fall. This summer George David Clark, a Ph.D. student at Texas Tech University, will be blogging about his summer experience for The Chronicle in a regular feature called "On Not Squandering the Summer." With that ground covered, we thought we'd focus this month's column differently, and look at how first- and second-year doctoral students can make the best use of their time.

Julie: Although your classes are over for now, you may not be looking at months of unscheduled free time. You may already be working in a summer research position or teaching assistantship. If you're in a lab-based science, you're still in the lab. But regardless of your commitments, it's important to make a commitment to yourself and your future, and take some time this summer to think and act strategically.

Recently Peter Fiske, a nationally-recognized author and lecturer on leadership and career development for young scientists and engineers, spoke at the University of Pennsylvania and discussed what he called the 80:10:10 rule: 80 percent of your week should be focused on your work itself; 10 percent on personal and professional development; and 10 percent on telling people what a good job you're doing. Even at this early stage you need to spend 10 percent of your time thinking about and working on your career.

Jenny: One of the first things graduate students should consider doing early on is applying for grants—even if you receive full financial support in your program. Begin by identifying grant opportunities that fit your work. In this online era, that's easier than ever before. Your university career center, office of graduate studies, library, or research office should already subscribe to databases that can get you started, such as Pivot.

Even if you don't have access to a subscription database, you can find plenty of other places to look on the Web. is a good starting place. Scientists may find the grants content on to be helpful. Similarly, those in the humanities and social sciences may find the H-Net announcements list to be of use. The Graduate School Funding Handbook is also a great source of information (full disclosure: Julie and I have contributed to various editions of the book).

Julie: When you're just starting out, it's important to become familiar with those who finance research in your field. Grant deadlines often are set a year in advance of the announcement of an award, so it's good to get a sense of the timeline. The grant-application process will help you articulate the importance and scope of your work. And if you receive a grant, it will look terrific on your CV—even a small grant. Every experienced fund raiser knows that small grants often lead to larger ones.

Jenny: Think about where you might get published in the future. To figure out which journals to submit articles to, read widely in your field. Study articles of interest to you not just for the content, but for what lessons they offer about your own future publications. Tell a professor you are interested in reading on a particular topic this summer and ask for good journal suggestions.

Julie: Summer is also a great time to work on your presentation skills. As a relative newcomer to graduate school, you may not have had many chances to present your work in public. You may not even be sure whether you would be any good at it. Either way, being able to speak in public clearly and confidently is an essential skill in academe. During the summer, find ways to practice that skill.

Jenny: For example, set up a study group with your fellow students in which each of you is responsible for presenting to the group on a regular basis. Take the time to identify some upcoming regional conferences—ones that would be fairly easy to travel to—where you could present your work. Calls for papers often have deadlines that are nine months to a year before the conference, which is why it's good to start thinking about this well in advance.

If you find that your presenting skills are particularly weak, or if you are an international scholar and your English is shaky, consider joining your local Toastmasters International group so that you can practice your speaking skills regularly.

Julie: Building your presentation skills will also help your teaching, but that's just one of the skills you will need to be successful in the classroom. If you will be teaching in the fall, perhaps for the first time, explore the resources your campus offers to help you prepare, such as teaching centers. In addition, your graduate school or department may have programs in place to help you get ready for the fall.

Jenny: If you've taught before, and you know that you want to focus your career on teaching, use the summer to find opportunities. How is summer teaching organized in your department? Are there other local colleges and universities that might hire you as an adjunct? If you are in the sciences, summer may be the best time for you to gain teaching experience.

Another way to gain classroom experience is to volunteer as a museum docent, in a science institute, or at a high school. Such experience is unconventional, but it can help you get noticed by teaching-oriented institutions. We know a job candidate who worked regularly with high-school science students during her graduate career—experience that made her stand out to the teaching-focused institution that hired her.

Julie: Many people start to wonder if an academic career is really for them as early as their first or second year of graduate school. If you are one of those people, or even if you just want to make sure you understand all of your options, summer is a great time to do some career exploration. That might mean doing some informational interviews (which we talk about here). Even talking with two or three new people a month can help you to investigate alternate career paths.

In addition, start reading different job descriptions and file away those that interest you. Reading job ads can help you articulate your interests and goals.

Jenny: If you have a bit of extra time, you might consider finding an internship, shadowing someone in a particular job, working in a a short-term contract job, or volunteering. Talk with your university career adviser to get tips on getting started. Most campus career offices have extensive information on internships, but you may also be interested in creating your own which will involve doing some networking.

Julie: Besides looking ahead, summer is also a good time to look backward and assess the skills you have already developed. Did you learn a new computer program? Improve your ability in a language? Develop data analysis skills? Improve your writing? Guide an undergraduate? As a teaching assistant, did you develop a relationship with the professor as well as work with students? Did you learn the basics of field work or of setting up an experiment? Did you have a chance to enhance your public speaking skills?

Identify and assess your skills as they stand, and keep a record of your development. It will come in handy later on in graduate school when you reach the point of drafting a CV or a resume.

Jenny: This may seem like an alarmingly long list of things to do over the summer—in addition to the many things you are already hoping to accomplish. And we both feel that it's important to take some time to relax and daydream a bit.

So think of this list as something from which to pick and choose. What are the one or two areas in which you would most like to develop this summer? Set out a concrete plan for doing so, even if it's just a few hours a week, and you may find that you achieve more over the summer than you ever expected.

Julie: In his talk at Penn, Peter Fiske quoted John A. Shedd as saying, "Opportunities are seldom labeled." Be open.

Julie Miller Vick is senior associate director of career services at the University of Pennsylvania, and Jennifer S. Furlong is associate director of New York University's Office of Faculty Resources. They are the authors of The Academic Job Search Handbook (University of Pennsylvania Press). Have a career question for our columnists? Send in your queries to, or post your question in the comments section below. It will be considered for future columns.