Gearing up for Summer

For kids, the summer’s all about freedom: playing outside until it gets dark and riding bikes with friends. Those three months off of school stretch out with promise. By vacation’s end, however, kids wonder where those precious months went. While you aren't a kid on vacation anymore, you also enjoy some freedoms as a graduate student during the summer. And like those kids, it’s all too easy to get to the end of the summer and wonder where your time went.

A plan will help you make the most of your summer and the time that seems endless. At summer’s end, you’ll be able to look back with a sense of accomplishment and you'll be ready for the new academic year.

Plan for the summer—and beyond

To make the most of the coming months (and to make sure you get a break in!), take time to organize your summer and set goals.

First, think about what your academic, professional, and career goals are (an Individual Development Plan can help you with this). Then figure out your short and mid-range goals, the stepping stones you need to get on the right track. These goals may be gaining another experience or developing specific skills. Take those goals and consider what can be done during the summer versus what you’ll work on in the next few years.

Do yourself a favor—be sure to set SMART goals.

SMART goals are:

Get a lot of writing done on my dissertation is a very common summertime goal for graduate students, but stated that way, it isn't very SMART. A specific, measurable, and time-bound goal reads more clearly. You can chart and track your progress with this goal: Write a 25-page draft of Chapter 2 within four weeks. Of course, you're the best judge of whether the benchmarks in a goal like this are attainable.

The number of goals you make matters. Make too few, and you'll get half-way through the summer and not know what else to do. Make too many, and you'll feel overwhelmed with what you need to do. We recommend two to three medium sized goals, like building your knowledge base in a new academic area, or maybe one larger goal, like writing an article for publication or preparing for your comprehensive exams. Consider having a few smaller goals, like updating your CV. Remember, come August, you’ll want to feel like you’ve achieved something, but not like you need a vacation!

Next, break summer goals into monthly and weekly goals, and even into daily tasks. Take that large, specific goal: Write a 25-page draft of Chapter 2 within four weeks. If you break it down into smaller goals, you can take action more effectively. Time to work on small goals is easy to schedule, and blocking off  regular times to work on your goal gives your summer structure. GradHacker’s Kelly Hanson sets measurable and achievable writing goals to organize the work she wants to accomplish over the summer. She breaks large goals into daily writing goals, like editing topic sentences or adding a footnote. Each task gets scheduled on her calendar. Scheduling those smaller tasks helps her take charge of the larger project and make good progress toward her summer goal.

After a week of work, look at your short- and medium-range goals and adjust as needed. If your goals weren't realistic and they weren't achievable, you’ll be left feeling bad and you'll be reluctant to sit down to your work the next day—and you don’t want that! The whole point of setting goals is to make progress and feel good about what you’ve accomplished.

Set and make progress on academic goals

Use your newfound knowledge about goal setting to make an academic goal or two for the summer. Here are some examples of reading goals for different stages of the graduate school career:

All graduate students

Whether you’ve just completed your first or your fourth year of graduate school, you're always reading about seminal research in your field or keeping up on the latest publications. If you’re relatively new to graduate school, speak with your advisor about what books and articles you should be reading as you progress through your program. Also ask for specific recommendations for the summer.

To keep track of what you’ve read (and make notes easy to access later!), use citation management software. When you need to jog your memory studying for comps or if you remember an article you want to cite when you're writing your dissertation, you don’t have to look far—or for long. The little bit of extra time it takes to learn how to manage your reading list now will pay off in the long run!

Mid-career graduate students

When you prepare for comprehensive exams (or comps), you’re building on reading you’ve already done in the early stages of your graduate school career. If you can, meet with your advisor early in the summer to go over your reading list.

Once you’ve agreed on a reading list, make goals related to making progress on the list. Then, in addition to reading new articles and books, it's your job to remember what you’ve read and synthesize arguments. Use these eight tips to help you keep track of what you've read, plan follow-up meetings with your advisors, and get advice from more advanced graduate students on how to tackle comps.

Advanced graduate students

Summer’s a great time to make progress on writing your dissertation. Decide what section you’re going to work on and find a dedicated time to write.  Scheduling a regular time to write helps you build those good writing habits that see you through to the project's end. (Tip: Learn more about how writing goals help you make progress on your project.)

If your goal is to finish a chapter, break that into smaller goals: decide on the sections you need to draft (and edit, revise, and get feedback on), and then figure out what content belongs in each of those sections. Create an outline of the sections to give you an overview of the project. An outline helps you create those medium-sized and smaller goals. Then, like Kelly Hanson recommends, schedule when you’ll work on each goal. 

Use the buddy system to keep from getting lost in the details. We’re social animals, and it’s hard to write in a vacuum. Your buddy can keep you accountable. Use the University of Michigan guide to forming writing groups to get emotional and technical support when you’re writing.

Get “real world” experience

While you earn your degree, you’re building lots of transferable skills (skills that you use in a number of careers), like research and writing. To develop a set of skills that complement what you learn in graduate school, look for another experience, inside or outside of academe.

To get publishing experience, for example, consider volunteering to edit your neighborhood’s quarterly newsletter. Along the way, you’d develop editing skills, gain experience in using publishing software like InDesign, build your network, and possibly get budgeting experience.

Similarly, you might look for an internship or summer position. Local businesses might be interested in your statistical acumen or research skills. They'll benefit from the skill set you’ve honed in graduate school, and you’ll gain new skills and learn about new careers.

You don’t need to look outside of the university to get these "real world" experiences. A professor may be looking for a research assistant or project manager. These opportunities exist in or outside of your home department—don’t be shy about finding out where the skills you’ve developed in your department are helpful to another. Your interdisciplinary experience will help you in your future career, and you’ll be strengthening your academic network.

Getting additional experience doesn’t need to be a full-time job! You might spend just five hours a week in your internship or volunteering. That’s enough of a time investment to build skills while still making good progress toward your degree.

Before you take on outside work, talk about your long-term career goals with your advisor. Explain how getting an additional experience helps you toward that goal and get your advisor's blessing. When you talk about the skills you want to develop, be sure to identify which ones will help you succeed in graduate school, too!


Summer’s a great time to focus your energy and accomplish a few items from your to-do list. Set SMART goals that measure your progress during the summer. Revisiting those goals regularly will help you stay on track and manage your time effectively.

Next month, we’ll look at continuing to build some academic and professional skills: sharing your research and finding external funding.