How Not to Suck at Taking Initiative

The difference in skills and expectations between graduate school and undergraduate is probably larger than the difference between high school and university. In the move from undergraduate to graduate school, the university may be the same. Even the professors may be the same. However, the role, function, and expectations of the student could not be more different. Many students do not understand that. They are still focusing their energies on grades/marks and rely on the work habits that were successful for them as undergraduates. The expectations are qualitatively different in graduate school.

As the Graduate Program Director of a professional program, I can say that the majority of students go on to professional careers as psychologists. A small percentage choose to go on to an academic career. The field of school psychology is also fortunate in that whether students choose to go on to a clinical or academic career, there is a large and growing job market. School psychology may be the only field of academia right now that the present and future is bright. No matter the professional career track that students choose, the primary predictor of success is professionalism.

Successful undergraduates learn many of the requisite skills for becoming a professional. The skills required to earn good grades as an undergraduate are necessary but not sufficient for professionalism. Organization, conscientiousness, timeliness, prioritization, and work habits are often well learned by undergraduate students. In addition, most graduate students learn advanced skills, knowledge, ethics, culture, and systems necessary to be a professional. Again, these are necessary but not sufficient conditions to become a professional. What separates the best and most professional students from good, but not great, students is the ability to take initiative.

The challenges of initiative are to develop an expansive knowledge base, to understand the rules and culture of your lab or graduate program, to be able to make a substantive and creative contribution, to be a team player, to be independent, to communicate, to have energy, and to have a great deal of confidence. Taking initiative means doing more than the minimum. I have had some truly outstanding students who complain that they are getting the exact same degree as students who only do the minimum work. I cannot argue with that concern. However, I can say that the students who have been outstanding and take initiative profited more from graduate school and became more of a professional than any student who only completes the minimum activities and requirements. This is a high bar. Many talented students struggle simply to complete all minimum research, classroom, and clinical activities successfully. To expect all students to take initiative may be too much. Graduate school provides opportunities. To fail to take full advantage of all the opportunities is to fail to take advantage of a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to launch the best possible professional career. There are challenges to negotiate.

Initiative is not the same thing as going off the reservation, being reckless, inciting a revolution against your PI/supervisor, or pretending that you know everything better than your supervisors and experienced professors. Initiative is doing more in service of a larger goal. In order to do more, you must understand the collective goals of your graduate program, your lab, or whatever system with which you are working. Once you understand those goals, then there is an opportunity to find new and creative methods to achieve those goals. Here are several examples I have seen from some of my best students: two students saw the need to create a formal student association to raise funds, provide support for peers, develop methods to financially support students in need, and to publicize the talents of the school psychology program — so they took the energy and initiative to muster support from their peers and create a formal school psychology student association at the university. Several students have looked at data sets that we have collected for some projects and noticed that those same data would be extraordinarily effective to answer research questions that we never considered. Then they repurposed and reanalysed those data to answer a new question and write their own manuscripts. In classes, students are often faced with opaque assigned readings that they were expected to discuss. Rather than surrender, they investigated related readings that strongly support and made clearer the meaning and intent of the original opaque reading, and engaged in team discussions in order to decode the difficult assigned readings. These are simple everyday examples of graduate students going beyond the minimum requirements to do more in a productive way. The secret is to explore, consider, and completely understand the goals of your system; ensure that such initiative also meets your own personal and professional goals; seek support and input from others where possible; acquire all the resources that you require; and make things happen.

Complaining, identifying a problem without supplying a possible solution, thinking that there must be a better way, and waiting to be told what to do are not characteristics of initiative. Identify gaps and areas for improvement in all goal-directed research, classroom, clinical, and other professional areas and then fill gaps and improve the system. When I interview prospective graduate students for our program or people who work under my supervision, I really only want to know the answer to one question: what is it that you will bring to our program in order to make it better? I do not want even the most talented minions, followers, or henchmen; I want leaders and professionals.

The ability to take initiative effectively is a sign of leadership. I work in a doctoral level program that prepares professionals for clinical work addressing the mental health of children. I understand that it is difficult enough simply to survive and complete graduate school. Yet, to provide a lifetime of services to children requires more than knowledge and doing the minimum required amount of work. It requires initiative, leadership, advocacy, and energy. Graduate school is an excellent place to learn these skills. However, the same advice applies no matter what field you are in. Be a professional. Be a leader. Initiate. Do more — with the purpose.

Have an excellent semester and welcome to graduate school.

SR Shaw

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4 thoughts on “How Not to Suck at Taking Initiative

  1. Thank you! This is a great post. I love your perspective on graduate school. I am currently earning my PhD in Neuroscience and everything you speak to resonates so much with me.

  2. I’ll be a PhD student next year and I find your opinion really helpful. Would you mind if I translate this article to Chinese and share it with my friends on the web? If it is OK, I’ll refer to the link to this page. Thank you!

    • I do not mind if you translate and distribute the blog post entitled, “How not to suck at taking initiative.” Please attribute this article to SR Shaw and provide a link to the original source. Thank you for your interest.

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