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What to expect in grad school


In graduate school, you should expect to put in 60 hour weeks on average. Some weeks (perhaps at the beginning of semesters) may be lighter, around 50 hours. Some weeks (in which manuscripts or grants are due, or in particularly heavy clinical weeks) will require 70 hours or beyond. However, 60 hours comprises a typical work week, and it’s likely the weekends will be included here. I am happy to work with students to work on developing a schedule that will work; if nothing else, we can start with mine as a basis and work around it to fit your demands.

I’m usually at the university for 10 hours each work day; these days feature an average of 2 hours of meetings, 2 hours of clinical responsibilities, 2 hours of teaching, and 1 hour of administrivia. This smooths over a lot of variation in the week; for instance, I endeavor to have all of my research meetings on one or two days in the week to leave concentrated blocks of time for writing. I’ll shoot for an extra 1 hour of work each weeknight before bed. That leaves me either one weekend day completely free for family and another day with about 5 hours of work or 2-3 hours each weekend day. I’m also more of a night owl, so I prefer to go in later in the morning.

However, I don’t expect that you’d keep my schedule. As long as you’re available to run participants when you’re expected and attend lab meetings, I’m happy for you to schedule your work around your other responsibilities. Learn how your body works, when your patterns of optimal activity are, and develop a workflow for yourself that honors those patterns. If that ever becomes a challenge, I’ll be glad to listen and troubleshoot as appropriate.


Year 1

In your first year, you’ll have lots of classes, and you’ll settle into your new lab. You’ll have a new set of experiences being in a highly selected group of people whose intellects and talents may feel like they equal or surpass your own. If you’re moving to a new city, you’ll also have to figure out how to negotiate the basics of living in a novel community.

This year represents a period of profound adjustment. And that’s expected! You belong here. Take what you need from your courses, but don’t let them consume you. For instance, reading one of the initial chapters in my adviser’s second-semester psychopathology course about what made a defensive reflex gave me the insight that the postauricular reflex was likely an appetitive reflex. Engage with your cohort and allow them to support you when you need it – and support them when they need it, in turn. Delve deeply into your lab’s activities. Use this as a time to develop a portfolio of skills and interests that will serve you throughout your graduate career.

You will feel the growing pains of exploration, and the rawness of those pains may feel overwhelming. But please, to the extent you can, lean on your cohort, your labmates, and your mentor to remind you that you are valuable. Not just as a student, not just as a coworker, not just as a mentee – as a human being. I’m open to using our weekly meetings to address those human concerns as well as our research work, helping you to carve out who you want to be and what you want to learn while you’re here. By the end of this year, you may start feeling a greater integration between your personal and professional selves.

Year 2

Your second year will see the addition of clinical work to your schedule, which will severely tax your organizational skills. That’s why I want to start your Master’s proposal in your first year; it’s harder to find the creative headspace to do so when you’re loaded up with all kinds of other obligations. In particular, you may find yourself emotionally overwhelmed if this is the first time you’ve been exposed to clients’ suffering in the clinical realm. You’ll learn coping skills to keep yourself present for your clients, which will also help you in your graduate work.

Perseverance is key here. The first semester will feel like a long slog, ramping up a roller coaster. However, in your second semester, you’ll have a lot of clinical policies under your belt along with a sense of how to integrate clinical work with your research and coursework, so you may feel like you’re able to enjoy the ride down. You’ll likely have the headspace to write on your thesis again in the spring, which is why it’s nice to have data collection proceeding apace in the previous fall. Our weekly meetings will focus on keeping you chugging through, working through manuscript drafts and preparing you for your proposal and defense meetings.

Year 3

By the time you reach your third year, you’ll hit a number of professional milestones. You’ll likely be taking your final coursework, which will entail fewer courses than your previous two years. You’re seeing the light at the end of that educational tunnel! You’ll also have defended or will be defending your Master’s thesis. You’ve created tangible work products! Finally, you’re engaging in practicum experiences you’ve selected for yourself rather than working in the departmental clinic. You’re starting to develop your professional identity! You’ll also start teaching, and you’ll have a course to help you in that process. You’ll be supported instead of thrown to the instructional wolves!

You may feel yourself re-energized as you crest this professional hump. Use that energy to push your Master’s thesis into the publication pipeline. You might also want to explore additional projects to expand your portfolio of research content and skills. If there’s a project or dataset in the lab that will allow you to do that, make it so! If another faculty member’s research program is a good fit, coordinate with me to bring it to fruition (if I haven’t already started that process)! If someone at another institution has data that would be helpful, ask me to make a professional connection so that we can get access!

However, if you’ve not hit your milestones yet, fear not. My Master’s thesis defense slipped to the spring of my 4th year because I was actively working on publications that laid the groundwork for examining the psychophysiology of two MPQ-predicted factors of the Psychopathic Personality Inventory rather than just predicting one total score. We’ll work actively to keep you on track. We might use our weekly meetings to sit together and work directly on your thesis. We might also plot out how to budget time to ensure you can balance clinical, teaching, course, and research work.

Year 4

At this point in your career, you’ll have developed your scholarly interests sufficiently to come up with a dissertation idea that represents your genuine scholarly interests and still fits within the lab’s aegis. I want you to be passionate about your dissertation work, and I want you to feel like you own it. If you can propose it in the fall semester of your 4th year, you’ll have two years to crank through a deep study or set of three papers. You may choose to conduct it within the lab itself, or you might engage some of your committee members as genuine collaborators who will end up co-authoring at least some of the publications that arise from your dissertation.

Whatever model you use for your dissertation, I want to ensure you’ve proposed it this year so you have ample time to collect data and write it up. By this time, you may be supporting yourself through teaching rather than GA positions. That’s a different kind of time allocation, and you’ll be in another practicum site, which entails its own demands. Our weekly meetings may shorten if needed, reflecting an increased efficiency on our part to crank through your training goals. They may stay hour-long if you need that to work through minutiae or any other professional issues.

Year 5 and beyond

This is it! The year in which it all comes together. In the fall, you’ll be researching internship sites and applying (to no more than 15, I hope). In the spring, your January and February may be taken up with lots of internship site interviews. As you can see, it’s a busy time to arrange the next step of your clinical training, even as you’re working on another practicum site. That’s why I want your proposal to be approved by your committee by the end of your 4th year, so that the lab’s infrastructure can support your dissertation work as much as possible while you’re preparing for internship.

Hopefully, you’ll defend your dissertation by the end of your 5th year, which will focus on your clinical training during the entirety of your internship. We’ll still work on publishing your work at a distance, but we’ll hopefully have developed a rhythm to our work such that we can just email drafts back and forth, having occasional meetings outside your internship time as needed to keep the work going.

If you’re proposing your dissertation while preparing for internship, you’ll need to propose your work successfully by October 1st to be approved to apply for internship. I went on this model, finishing the writing of my dissertation while on internship because I wrote all the programs for my dissertation in the fall of the 5th year, collecting all the data in the spring of my 5th year (and finding through pilot data collection that I needed to rewrite my entire trigger scheme to accommodate unexpected hardware limitations). We can use our weekly meetings (or less often, if we both agree) to ensure you’re proceeding apace and still able to get your analyses programmed. We’ll also talk about your career goals and how the various internship sites you’ve visited would fit therein.


Expected length of stay: 5 years in lab (4 years for those coming in with a Master’s thesis), 1 year for internship

Thesis idea: We’ll discuss this over email or video conferencing after admission (March-April). This is likely to reflect ongoing work in the lab.

Thesis data type: Archival or original data collections are OK, depending on your interests and training goals. For original data collections, learn PsychoPy to program your study. Also, anticipate 6-8 weeks of psychophysiological training in the fall of your 1st year with 2-3 four-hour runs that year. You will train RAs to help collect data in the spring of your 1st year and during your 2nd year.

Thesis length: Aim for a typical journal article style (~35-40 pages; 6-10 pages for intro, method, results, discussion).

Thesis analyses: Your first-year stats should be sufficient, and I expect the analyses will be done in R.

Propose by: Fall of 2nd year. The proposal entails a complete intro and method. You’ll upload your proposal to Open Science Framework to register it.

Defend by: Spring of 2nd year-Fall of 3rd year. You should just need to update the thesis document with your results and discussion to proposal document, though you may need to update the intro and method to reflect changes in your analytic plan or the broader literature.

Submit for publication by: 3 months after defense. I expect it should take about 1 month to revise text, 1 month to pare down any extraneous information, and 1 month to finalize.

Dissertation idea: Summer of 3rd year. Bridge your interests and the lab’s interests to answer a question near and dear to your heart.

Dissertation data type: Absent exceptional needs that can be addressed through archival data collection, you must have at least one study involving original data collection. I hope this will include psychophysiology, though it might include other data collection methods. Plan on your dissertation being a single big document; three-paper dissertations are hard to pull off if you don’t start collecting original data by fall of your 4th year. Be prepared to program an experiment in PsychoPy. You will train RAs to collect most of your data, though you may need to collect some yourself.

Dissertation length: 70 (shortest single project)-120 (three-paper or three-study dissertation) pages

Dissertation analyses: As needed, learn Python enough to perform psychophysiological data reduction. The dissertation will likely extend your stats beyond 1st year basics; those looking for a research career should look for advanced stats training in this project. Again, you will use R for data cleaning and analyses.

Propose by: Spring of 4th year. This will entail a complete intro and method uploaded to Open Science Framework for a single project. If you’re planning for a three-paper dissertation, have at least one paper within 3 months of being submitted. Use the remaining spring and summer to address any revisions your committee gives you.

Defend by: Summer of 6th year (but ideally summer of 5th year). Again, you’ll be adding results and discussion into your proposal here, with appropriate tweaks to the intro(s) and method(s) to reflect developments in the literature and changes you had to make to your registered plan.

Submit for publication by: 6 months after defense. It’s likely to take 1 month to revise text, 2 months to separate studies into different papers, 2 months to update literature and analyses further, and 1 month to finalize the drafts.


Yes, it’s real. Yes, it’s nearly ubiquitous. Yes, you’ll experience it at least once during your graduate career. Yes, it’s normal.

Yes, you still belong here. Many times, we compare every element of our performance (to which we have constant access) to the most outstanding elements of outward performance of those around us (to which we have only intermittent and limited access). That process makes us feel like we’re inadequate to all of that aggregated excellence. One classmate may have great academic skills, another might have hit the ground running in research, and another might have figured out the social scene to seem grounded.

What you don’t see are the ways in which your classmates might not excel, ways that they keep hidden to save face. You’re intimately acquainted with all your successes and failures, sometimes highlighting the latter and downplaying the former. We accepted the whole professional you are, not just one aspect of you. We value you. I value you.

If you ever doubt that, ask me directly. I write this to make this talkable, in part to share that I still suffer from it at times when I see the scholarly productivity, grant money, or awards my colleagues and coauthors win that I don’t. But those metrics aren’t everything, nor do they represent me as a spouse, a father, a son, or a friend. Your profession is not the whole of you, and I don’t expect it to be.

You may also question how you could ever fit in among the faculty under whom you’re studying. Remember: If you knew everything they did and were as accomplished as they are, you’d already be a faculty member, not a graduate student. We expect that you don’t know everything; that’s why we want to train you in your graduate education! One trick you can perform to help you feel less overwhelmed is to look on your faculty member’s Google Scholar profile and trace back how many citations they had at the time they started graduate school. You can also subtract out all the activities they list on their CVs since the year they began their graduate training. You’ll find that with that eye, we started out the same as you: lots to learn, lots to do, and lots of room to grow!

1 Comment

  1. Hi Dr. Benning,

    Thank you for sharing – this made a WORLD of difference. What wonderful reminders!

    Have a lovely evening,

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