June 9, 2023

Faculty Advisor Spotlight

Thomas Dolan“You’re about to engage in an exciting journey that will take you to places you never expected. Give yourself permission to be curious, to have fun.”

These are the words of encouragement from Tom Dolan, Ph.D., associate professor in the UCF School of Politics, Security, and International Affairs. Tom is also the director of the Intelligence Community Center for Academic Excellence (ICCAE). He was recently recognized for his contributions to graduate studies and graduate student mentoring at the COS inaugural Recognizing Outstanding Instruction Celebration.

From time management to building relationships, there’s a lot for grad students to juggle. Here’s what Tom has to say about all things grad school.

What are some common mistakes graduate students make?

1. Catastrophizing and worrying

There will be moments when things go wrong. When they do, keep perspective. Things rarely are as bad as they seem to you in the moment. When it’s hard to keep perspective, talk to a trusted faculty member.

2. Assuming you won’t need help

During orientation, you will be introduced to information about supporting your mental health. Many students—most of whom have been successful to this point in their academic careers—brush all this off and think to themselves ‘it won’t be me.’

Let me tell you directly: It might be you. Graduate school can be a deeply emotional time for many people. There will be some amazing, happy times. But there may also be a lot of uncertainty and anxiety, and many people struggle with it for longer than they need to because they did not think they would need help. Help is available, it’s free and it can make all the difference in the world.

3. Getting distracted

Your core job as a graduate student is to learn how to research and then to do research on your own. There are lots of other good things that you can do with your time and many of them have merit as you build your career. But beware that many of them are easier and produce ratification more quickly than research. So, they can crowd out the most important thing—learning to research and producing research of your own.

4. Failing to build relationships

There are a lot of good reasons to build relationships with faculty and mentors across your department. Leverage the strengths of your department, the college and the university.

5. Setting curiosity aside

Graduate school works best if you allow yourself to follow your curiosity. The first year of graduate school is a socialization process in a lot of ways and you will encounter new things. As a result, you should grow a lot—in skills, knowledge and judgment—during that time. Sometimes, as a result, interests change. That’s okay.

Follow your curiosity. You’ll be a better researcher for it.

6. Accepting abusive behavior

Some students accept inappropriate or unacceptable behavior from other graduate students or faculty members because they are afraid to say something about it. Don’t do that. Go to your department chair or program coordinator. If you don’t feel comfortable talking to them about it, contact the College of Sciences, the College of Graduate Studies or the Office of Institutional Equity.

What strategies do you recommend for balancing studies and life?

1. Learn to read effectively

It’s going to be different across disciplines, but becoming adept at rapidly absorbing information from scientific texts will help you more than anything else in your first year or so as a graduate student.

2. Build social ties to people who are inside AND outside of your program

You need friendships with colleagues in your program because no one else will understand quite what you’re going through like your comrades. At the same time, your social circle may feel claustrophobic if everyone you know in Orlando are people who you work with.

3. Exercise

This is probably the most important if you have not developed good exercise habits in the past.

4. Rest

The principle of diminishing returns is real: after a certain point, your productivity will decline. And after a certain point, you will burn out. Periodic rest and relaxation can help you avoid this.

How can graduate students prepare today for building a career after graduation?

Learn your field’s hidden curriculum as soon as you can. This is especially true for first-generation graduate students. Science and academia are social activities with particular values and norms, and some decisions are rewarded more than others. These values and norms, and their importance are not always apparent to new graduate students.

Personal career success, in both the short and long term, will come more easily if you understand what your field values and make wise decisions in light of those values.

Considering graduate school?

Explore all of the graduate degrees the College of Sciences offers