How to Get Ahead the Summer Before Graduate School

You did it. You navigated the nebulous maze of graduate school applications, attended interview weekend, and secured an admission. Congratulations on your hard work! And now you ask yourself a question that thousands of incoming graduate students ask themselves every June— What do I do this summer to prepare for graduate school? On top of the logistics of leaving your job or graduating from your university, moving across the country, world, or even across town, many students wonder just how they can get a jump start on a successful graduate school experience.

The bottom line is that you are almost never expected to do anything during the summer, and if you take time off to sit on the beach or binge watch Netflix, you will not be behind. In fact, you should take some time to relax during this important transition. But chances are, you might be itching to get started, and the advice on how to spend the summer is sort of fuzzy and often not that helpful. If you are one of those incoming graduate students who has to dedicate some of your summer to trying to best prepare for graduate school, then this article is for you.

The earlier you develop core skills and educate yourself on the direction psychological science is moving, the easier graduate school will be. Equally important to understand is that graduate school courses will not adequately cover the skills you have to develop to become a successful researcher. YOU need to be the director of your learning. YOU are responsible for developing your skills. Faculty and other mentors will help you, but there is no hand holding. And the earlier you begin to engage in deliberate practice to develop these skills and educate yourself, the easier graduate school will be.

Among the many skills and areas in psychological science you should become educated on, there are four that I believe will serve you the most— scientific writing, programming, statistics, and open science. Below, I discuss these in more detail and provide resources to aid your learning.

Scientific Writing

We all know how to write, and chances are you have written a scientific paper. You know the sections of the research paper, and how to cite any references in APA style. Maybe you even know that the word “as” should always replace “since” if it’s not related to time, or that you should never start a sentence with a number. You might even have been a writing tutor beforehand and have some publications under your belt.

Let me speak from personal experience, it feels like enough, but it won’t be enough. Graduate school requires something far more advanced that the ability to write scientific papers, and that is the ability to write them clearly and efficiently. Most of us barely get two years of experience to ditch all of our bad MLA habits in favor of APA-style writing. After only a little bit of time, we start to feel comfortable in the world of scientific writing and have stood out among our peers for our scientific publications and papers.

But two years of practice isn't enough to be an efficient writer. When you get to graduate school, you will be collecting data, analyzing results, taking classes, and writing several papers at once-- all at different stages. This is when you really need a strong writing process, and the skill to revise well. Luckily for you, there are books, online courses, and websites that can help.

Scientific Writing MOOC

Kristin Sainani has a very good MOOC (self-paced class that is free and open to the public online) on scientific writing. It covers everything from basic grammer to how to break up your writing into different phases to maxmize efficiency. If you can take this class in the summer, it will help improve your writing before your first graduate paper.

How to Write a Lot & Write it Up!

Paul Silvia also has written two excellent books, “How to Write a Lot” and “Write it Up!” These books offer critical insight into both how to write well, and, equally important, how to set up a writing routine and follow it. Most libraries have this book either in paperback or ebook versions, and they are a fun read. 

Persuasive Writing & Communicating Value Lecture

The best lecture I have ever seen on scientific writing comes from the University of Chicago’s Larry McEnerney. Having done a decent amount of research on scientific writing, I can tell you that most resources offer general advice on the writing process, routine, grammar, etc. but this lecture covers something completely new. That is, this lecture is all about persuasive writing in science, and how to communicate value to your audience. I highly recommend watching it.

Reciteworks.com

Although this last resource isn’t so much related to writing, it will save you time on your papers, so you can focus on revising. Reciteworks.com is a website that is free and will automatically do a reference check for your scientific papers. That means it compares all of your in-text citations with your references, highlights discrepancies, APA violations, and all sorts of other things you will never catch at 2AM.

 

Programming

Learn R. Hey guess what you can do right now to improve your programming skills? Learn R. Out of all the programs, which one should you learn? Learn R.

You might be fluent in SPSS, SAS, Stata, but the field uses R. And when it’s midnight and you are working on your dissertation and trying to log onto the university’s VPN to access SPSS/Stata/SAS and it keeps crashing, you’ll be thankful you can download R for free and use it at home.

This isn’t to say other programs are bad. I’m a huge fan of SQL and other graduate students swear by Matlab. But there is an R package for everything, and chances are what you need to do in these programs can be down in R with the right package. Here are some resources to learn R (and you should check for workshops at your future department/library).


Datacamp is a great place to get started:

If you want to learn with datacamp, start with an introduction to the tidyverse here

And work your way to learning R here 

There is also a free textbook here

When it’s time to play, make sure to download R studio (rather than just plain R). It will make your life a lot easier.


Statistics

This one isn’t so much a shocker but having a solid foundation of statistics will only make your life easier. Oftentimes graduate students take advanced courses early on in their graduate career, where you have a million other things going on. To really make that classroom time worth it, be comfortable with the concepts before you go in. To develop a deep understanding of something often means going over it multiple times, and if your first exposure to X topic is in class, you likely won’t absorb it as much as you could have if you did a bit of prep work. Also having some prior knowledge can allow you to make new connections in your statistics classrooms to other concepts and might deepen your understanding.

Basically what I’m saying is pain now or pain later, and it hurts a lot more later. Brush up on your statistics before you head to graduate school. 

Any books you have, or old class notes can be handy to remind you what you’ve learned and help you improve your statistical knowledge. There are a million resources online to get started, but once you hit the intermediate zone of knowledge, it starts to get a bit harder.

For this phase, I recommend Daniel Laken’s MOOC on improving your statistical inferences, and his popular blog that breaks down a lot of niche areas of statistics. You can also check out the Statistical Modeling, Causal Inference, and Social Science blog and the Data Colado blog. 

 

Open Science

If you have not heard of Open science, it’s time to go on Twitter and join the community! Open science generally describes the practice of creating transparent and reproducible science through preregistration, open materials, open data, and open access. There is a Center for Open Science which details many of the initiatives of open science you can learn about here, as well as other organizations such as the Berkeley Initiative for Transparency in the Social Sciences (BITSS) which you can learn more about here.

Although the practices of open science aren’t strictly mandated by every university and journal, the field has moved dramatically in the last few years. When I first came to graduate school in 2015, something like preregistration got you a lot of kudo points but that was it. Now, for example, when you submit an article to Psychological Science, you will be asked if you preregistered your hypotheses and analyses, and if you did not, you will be asked to provide an explanation for why you did not (and rumor has it, ignorance won’t get you very far). If you did preregister, you get now kudos and a nice badge on your article!

In the next few years, open science practices are likely become mandated in various capacities. It is important to understand now that you will have to educate yourself about open science practices (I am unaware of any college that has an open science course requirement for a Ph.D.). Also, when you go into graduate school you will establish a new research routine, and the sooner you adopt open science practices, the easier it will be when the field begins to implement more open science policies.

In addition to learning about open science from organizations like COS and BITSS, there is also a Open Science MOOC in the works which will cover the foundations of open science.

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So, there it is, a brief overview of the big four. Many people feel like their job the summer before their graduate school career begins should be spent “catching up” on the literature. However, you will almost certainly never catch up on the literature, and there is plenty of time for reading in between all your other commitments. However, the earlier you educate yourself and make improvements in these core areas, the better graduate student you can be.