Student Notebook

Tipping the Scale: Strategies for Research Productivity in Grad School

February 2014 Student Notebook Announcements

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Like most graduate students, I have productive days and less-than-productive days. But as long as my productivity scale generally tips in favor of getting work done, all is well. In this article, I share some of the strategies that help me ensure that, on average, the productive days outweigh the less-than-productive ones. I first provide advice that coincides with bigger-picture research goals, followed by strategies that I turn to when I’m having one of those less-than-productive days.

Strategies for Long-Term Success

Use the buddy system. One of the most helpful and fun things you can do for yourself is to get a “productivity buddy” to help you plan, look forward to, and follow through on your research. It works best if that person is another grad student because he or she will sympathize with your plight but can give you an extra push when things get tough. You can also keep each other company and have “working parties” to boost both of your productivity levels. Importantly, your buddy should understand and support your research goals. It is to this person that you are accountable — so if you’re having an “off day,” anticipate your buddy’s disappointment when you confess that you did not meet your goal.

Celebrate every single win. As academics, our lives are filled with criticism and rejection, which makes it especially important to stop and celebrate the good times. We are in the habit of pushing ourselves to the limit, and, consequently, getting a paper accepted or even receiving a positive comment from our advisers has the potential to get lost among all the other things we still need to do. I urge you to break this habit before it breaks you! Pause to give yourself a pat on the back when you succeed, and for bigger wins, take time out to celebrate with others. Progress is a powerful motivator (Amabile & Kramer, 2011). Recognizing and internalizing your victories can give you a renewed sense of momentum, which then helps propel you toward your next win.

Compare favorably. Speaking of internalizing victories, it can also be beneficial to look within yourself to get a sense of the progress you’re making. Although it’s tempting to compare ourselves to senior grad students, the reality is that it can sometimes produce discouragement (e.g., if we feel that they are far superior to us; see Cheryan et al., 2011). At times like these, try comparing your current self to your past self instead. Read something you wrote as an undergrad or as a new grad student and simply admire how far you’ve come. Channeling academic heroes can be another source of motivation because it inspires us to achieve the same greatness we see in them. In this case, though, it is important not to directly compare ourselves to these people — since they have had much more experience and practice than us — but rather to think of them as role models and focus on using them as a source of inspiration.

Listen to your data. The odds of every study working perfectly are slim. But if your initial hypothesis turns out to be flawed, follow up on interesting and unexpected findings. There is much to learn from “failed studies,” so keep at it even if you don’t find what you were looking for at first. Talk to others about the data, especially researchers who are not in your lab or area of psychology. Think outside the box: How might the data be related to other work you haven’t yet considered? Can the data tell us something new about a different phenomenon? You never know where unexpected findings might lead. After all, several scientific breakthroughs were accidents (e.g., penicillin, microwaves).

Talk about research. Take advantage of every opportunity to talk about research (and your own work, in particular). There are several reasons why this is a good idea. First, presenting at conferences (and other public speaking engagements) is a big part of what we do as academics, and practice makes perfect. Second, talking about research can be highly generative of new ideas and hypotheses, which you can then test in your own work. Third, because research success sometimes means being in the business of selling yourself, speaking to large audiences about your work gets the word out and puts a face to your name.

Harness motivation. Motivation is fleeting, so take advantage of it when it’s there. One of the beautiful things about being a grad student is that we are basically self-employed, and our time is generally flexible, especially as we get further along in our grad programs and finish coursework requirements. Harness that flexibility for good. Don’t force yourself to work a 9–5 schedule if that isn’t how you work best. Take breaks during the day if needed; then return to tasks later in the evening if that’s when you are more driven. When you are excited about a project or have momentum going, capitalize on it.

Procrastinate productively. If you are having one of those times when you just can’t get into an article or are facing writer’s block, instead of wasting time beating your head against a wall, use that time to do less effortful tasks you need to do anyway. Some of my favorite productive procrastination tasks include submitting ethics application renewals and writing reference letters. This can also be a good time to take care of chores (e.g., laundry, finances).

Collaborate deliberately. If you’re feeling particularly weak in one area, keep in mind that you don’t have to be amazing at everything. Research collaborations are a wonderful thing. Figure out what your signature research strengths are and then deliberately team up with collaborators who have complementary strengths. Such collaborations can provide an informal opportunity to develop additional expertise and skills. Plus, more work gets done faster, and everyone has more fun.

Strategies for a Quick Pick-Me-Up

Read or watch something that inspires you. This might be empirical or theoretical papers written by people you look up to and want to emulate. Also try blog posts or op-eds that will motivate you while simultaneously validating your feelings towards grad school (some personal favorites are and I also find books on writing and research very inspirational (e.g., Darley, Zanna & Roediger, 2003; Kahneman, 2011; Halvorsen, 2011; Silva, 2007).

Update your CV. This is a great motivator. Filling in lines on your CV allows you to see tangible evidence that you’re moving forward, making you want to keep going.

Trick yourself. Set a timer and work on your task for only 2 minutes. Often the hardest part of doing something is getting started. You can do anything for 2 minutes, and usually once you surmount the initial hurdle of actually opening that document, article, or dataset, you will have gained enough momentum to keep going.

Look at a picture of your adviser. I leave you with this last strategy, which comes from a highly successful tenured professor who used to put a picture of her adviser next to her desk in grad school and imagine their next meeting in order to light a fire under her, ahem, chair and work efficiently. Perhaps this could give you the jolt you need, too.

I encourage you to try a few of these strategies, as some might suit you better than others. Figure out what works for you, make the steps your own, and tip your productivity scale in favor of getting things done!


Amabile, T. & Kramer, S. (2011). The progress principle. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review.

Cheryan, S., Siy, J. O., Vichayapai, M., Drury, B.J., & Kim, S. (2011). Do female and male role models who embody STEM stereotypes hinder women’s anticipated success in STEM? Social Psychological and Personality Science, 2, 656–664.

Darley, J. M., Zanna, M. P., & Roediger, H. L., III (Eds.). (2003). The compleat academic: A career guide (2nd ed.). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.

Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, fast and slow. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

Halvorson, H. G. (2011). Nine things successful people do differently. Boston, MA: Harvard Business Review.

Silva, P. J. (2007). How to write a lot. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.


Great job, Alyssa. While keeping things light, you gave some seriously useful tips that can be used for many daily tasks. No wonder you are doing great! Keep up the good work!


This is a wonderful article. It transcends its target audience and appeals to such a a very broad spectrum of human circumstance. I applaud you and am grateful for the inspiration you offer.

I think the idea of doing “deep work”, as introduced by Cal Newport, suits perfectly PhD’s that want to produce more in less time. This leads to either quicker results or the same results but feeling less stressed. We wrote more about deep work post for PhD productivity here.

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