130 Things Surviving Graduate School Taught Me About Business Success | Dr. Isaiah Hankel | Focus, Create and Grow Your Way To Intelligent Achievement 130 Things Surviving Graduate School Taught Me About Business Success | Dr. Isaiah Hankel | Focus, Create and Grow Your Way To Intelligent Achievement

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130 Things Surviving Graduate School Taught Me About Business Success

“It had long since come to my attention that people of accomplishment rarely sat back and let things happen to them. They went out and happened to things.”

Leonardo da Vinci (Renaissance Polymath; Mona Lisa and The Last Supper)

“It is not the strongest or the most intelligent who will survive but those who can best manage change.”

Charles Darwin (Geologist and Author; The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals)

“You cannot teach a man anything; you can only help him discover it in himself.”

Galileo  Galilei (Astronomer and Author;  Two New Sciences)


What you’re doing right now will one day be the secret to your success.

My first interview for a real job happened during my last year of graduate school over a steak burrito at Chipotle. The owner of the company cancelled on me 4 times and then called me late one night and told me to meet him for lunch. He asked me a few questions then gave me the job. This wasn’t what I expected. I thought that I’d be flown out to the company headquarters to schmooze for a couple of days with people in blue and grey suits and then be given a formal offer that, in my mind, resembled an international treaty from the 1700’s with a red seal and fresh ink from a magnificent feather pen. Not so much. A burrito. A handshake. That’s how it happened.

Every interview I’ve been on since then has been different. But they’ve also been the same. One time I actually was flown out to a company’s headquarters for an extended interview. I was brought in for two days and people from different departments sat down with me for 15 minutes to an hour to ask me questions. The funny thing was that no one was really prepared. Sure, they were on time and had a list of silly interview questions to ask, but everyone was just going through the motions. It was like someone from human resources had just told them yesterday about the interview and they were too busy with emails to prepare. So, they winged it. Of course, this is exactly what happened. And it’s usually what happens. I wish I would’ve known this back then. I would’ve stressed out so much for interviews. It’s hard to know what to expect in business when you have absolutely no business experience. Or is it?

PhD Candidate; Food Stamp Candidate

Before I went to graduate school, everyone told me how amazing it would be to have a PhD. I’d be a doctor and make tons of money and companies would fall all over themselves to work with me. Then, I went to graduate school. That’s when I started hearing things like only 30% of professors will ever get tenure and only 57% of doctoral students will get their PhD within 10 years. Oh, and my favorite – the number of PhDs who filed for food stamps just tripled.

There’s a lot of doom and gloom in academia nowadays. This is because things are changing. For starters, software is eating everything. Teachers are Apps. Online classes are flourishing. Where does that leave traditional education? And the world is moving really fast. Big companies and startups are doing research better and faster than most academic labs, all without having to beg for government funding. Yes, things are changing. Yes, traditional academic positions are disappearing. But this doesn’t mean that going to graduate school is a waste of time. It means that graduate students need to adapt. Instead of chasing tenure, they should chase careers in business and entrepreneurship. Instead of seeing a degree as an end in itself, they should see a degree as a means to an end.

130 Things Graduate School Taught Me About Business

When I was in graduate school, I constantly worried about how I was going to get a real job. Okay. Not really. I was really worried about how I was going to make money. I had been a student my whole life, working insane hours for peanuts. That’s all I knew. But now I wanted out. I wanted to work in industry, business, entrepreneurship – anything with more freedom and more money. So, I got my foot in the door with a small company working as an Application Scientist. Then, I got a sales job. Then, I got a marketing job. Then, I started a company.

I’ve done a lot of things in business since getting my PhD. The key is that my PhD made things easier for me, not harder. My PhD pushed me forward. It didn’t hold me back. Going to graduate school prepared me for being successful in business. I just didn’t know it at the time. Here are 130 surprising things that graduate school taught me about business success:

1. Inexperience doesn’t matter. — I didn’t know how to work in a lab when I interviewed for graduate school and I didn’t know how to do most of the jobs I applied for when I was applying. It didn’t matter. Because I learned how to after.

2. Ask good questions. — Dumb questions do exist. Learn to ask smart questions, especially during interviews. Make interviewers talk about themselves. Turn the tables. Put them in the hot seat.

3. Let other people talk. — People love to talk about themselves. Colleagues, bosses, interviewers, etc. Let them. You’ll be surprised what you find out.

4. Appeal to self-interest. — No one wants to give you a raise or a job because you need one. Focus on what you can do for them. Articulate how you will make their daily life better.

5. Make small connections. — The director of the graduate school program I applied to used to wrestle. I made sure to let him know that I used to wrestle too. The day after the interview, he emailed me personally to let me know that I’d been accepted. Small connections like this go a long way.

6. Everyone is watching. — After my graduate school interview I found out that some of the older students who were showing us around were secretly on the admission committees. They were spies, planted to let the professors know how the recruits behaved after hours. There are no timeouts during things like interviews, conferences, or sales calls. You’re “on” until you’re back home alone.

7. Quit while you’re ahead. — Whether it’s a luncheon, meeting, or business dinner, leave on a high note. Don’t be the creeper that stays until the very end.

8. Do it on your own terms. — For things like new job opportunities and salary negotiations, set your terms and stick to them. Don’t get pushed around by options that others set for you.

9. Work outside the rules. — Every organization is full of rules. But rules are different than laws. Most can be bent. Some can be broken. The only way to get ahead is to figure out which rules you can bend or break.

10. Show up. Showing up is the first step to getting anything done.

11. Don’t just show up. — Showing up isn’t enough. You have to engage.

12. Attendance doesn’t matter. — You know those people in graduate school who just stay in the lab for 18 hours, pretending to read papers and making sure that their advisors see them? These people exist in business too. They sit in the office all day and night like they’re trying to win a trophy for attendance. You might be tempted to think that the people who are in the office the most are the most important. They’re not. They’re usually the least important. Which is why they’re always there.

13. Busyness doesn’t matter. — Nobody ever got a raise for answering an email. Stop inventing emails to write. Stop trying to look busy. If you don’t have anything to do, leave. Or start a project of your own. But don’t pretend to work. And don’t make up busy work. People who do this end up staying at the bottom of the food chain in both academia and business.

14. Observe deeply. — When I first started graduate school, I tried to learn everything at once and got completely overwhelmed. Then, I got confused. Then, I checked out mentally. This set me back months. I should have sat back and observed instead.

15. Hit the ground running. — Take time to observe but take action too. You have to try things to learn. Don’t get stuck in observation mode.

16. Classes don’t matter. — We’ve all been raised to think that getting an “A” in some class will make us rich. It won’t. Classes don’t matter. Learning matters. But only if you apply it. Only if you execute.

17. Tests are useless. — Tests are just busy work. And they show nothing. Objective tests are a waste because they’re just testing your ability to regurgitate. Subjective tests are a waste because they’re subjective — someone on a pedestal waves a magic wand and decides “this is good” or “this is bad.” How do they know?

18. Retention trumps turnover. — It’s not about how much you learn or read, it’s about how much you retain. Likewise, it’s not about how many clients you get, it’s how many you retain. A 5% increase in client retention equals a 30% increase in profitability.


“How wonderful that we have met with a paradox. Now we have some hope of making progress.” – Niels Bohr


19. Know the methodology. — I used to think the results section of a peer-reviewed journal article was the most important section. It’s not. The methodology section is the most important. How you get your results is more important than the results themselves. The same is true in business. Bernie Madoff was rich. He made other people rich too. But how?

20. Skip the introduction and conclusion. — After your first few years of graduate school, once you get a handle on the field you’re in, you start skipping the Introduction and Conclusion sections of peer-reviewed journals. You do this because it’s all regurgitation and conjecture. You should avoid these two things in business too. Innovate, don’t regurgitate. Get your own facts, don’t just talk about other people’s facts.

21. Triplicates trump duplicates. — Run internal controls. Check the quality of your samples or products or finances. Set up multiple checkpoints, not just one or two.

22. Do everything three times (at least). — Do every experiment three times. If you’re testing a new process or production method, test the entire thing multiple times. You’ll be glad you did.

23. Check the sample size. — Judges are less likely to grant parole when they’re hungry. A study found that the percentage of favorable parole rulings drops gradually from ~65% to nearly zero before lunch and then abruptly jumps back to ~65% after lunch. This is fascinating. So fascinating that I’ve referenced it. But if you read the methodology you’ll see that the sample size was limited to eight Jewish-Israeli judges. Eight is not a good sample size for an experiment. Just like it’s not a good sample size for a focus group that’s testing your company’s next product.

24. Check the dosage. — In graduate school, everyone was trying to make a disease model using mice, even if it meant injecting the mouse with unrealistic amounts of a particular substance. Of course a mouse is going to freak out and develop neurological problems if you give it 100mg of caffeine per 1kg of its body weight all at once. That’s like giving me about 80 shots of expresso. Dosage applies in business too. So, you got 100,000 hits on your website last months. How much did each of those hits cost? So, you’re selling a new product for 100K and people are buying it. What are the margins? How many man hours go into making each one? What’s are you COGS?

25. Check the p-value. — You know how all first year graduate students say that everything is significant? That is, until they get yelled at by some professor who tells them that significance is actually measurable with p-values. The same is true in business. Everyone will say everything is amazing. It’s not. Test it. Look at the stats. Look at the p-value. Then decide if it’s amazing (or significant).

26. Be aware of base rate fallacies. — John is a man who wears gothic inspired clothing, has long black hair, and listens to death metal. How likely is it that he is a Christian and how likely is it that he is a Satanist? Most people, when asked this question, underestimate the probability of John being a Christian and overestimate the probability of him being a Satanist. This is because they ignore that the base rate of being a Christian (there are about 2 billion in the world) is much higher than that of being a Satanist (estimated to be just a few thousand). This is called a base rate fallacy. In economics, base rates are crucial. Don’t ignore them.

27. Be aware of attribute substitution. — When Facebook went public, people bought millions of shares. Not because they thought Facebook’s IPO was undervalued, but because they liked Facebook. Figuring out if the IPO was undervalued was too difficult for most people. So, instead, they asked themselves a simpler question. They asked, do I like Facebook? Substituting a simpler question for a harder question is an automatic process in your brain called attribute substitution. Guard yourself against this. Always make sure you’re answering the right question.

28. Be aware of the availability heuristic. — Whenever I read a new article in graduate school, I would start thinking that I needed to do all of the experiments listed in that article. They seemed really important — like they’d answer all of my problems. But this was an illusion caused by another mental shortcut called the availability heuristic, which operates on the notion that if something can be recalled, it must be important. Keep this in mind when you’re making decisions. Just because it’s top of mind, doesn’t mean it’s important.

29. Correlation isn’t causation. — America eats the most saturated fat and has the highest incidence of heart attacks. But this doesn’t mean that saturated fat causes heart attacks. The two are merely correlated.

30. Calculate the molarity. — I used to hate measuring chemicals in graduate school. Especially my first year. I’d always take shortcuts and just weigh out what I need without taking into account things like molarity. Because molarity was a pain to calculate. Of course this cost me days and days of work. Don’t take shortcuts. They make for agonizing delays.

31. Zero the scale. — Never measure something without zeroing out the scale first. Don’t add on the weight of other people’s chemicals. Start fresh. The same is true in business. Don’t add on the weight of other people’s mistakes (or success). Start fresh.

32. Calibrate the scale. — Make sure the scale you’re using works correctly. Always be willing to take a step back and ensure that you seeing things clearly.

33. Make a bigger batch of reagents. — Luria broth (LB) is a nutrient-rich media commonly used to culture bacteria in the lab. LB agar plates are frequently used to isolate individual (clonal) colonies of bacteria carrying a specific plasmid. Long story short, I used a lot of this crap in graduate school. But my first year, I would just make a little bit of LB and a handful of agar plates. Then, a few days later, I would have to make more. On and on. One day I decided to make enough LB and agar plates for a few months all at once. This is called batching. Batching is the world’s biggest time saver. Do it with everything. Emails. Meetings. Interviews. Everything.

34. Keep your own reagents. — I used to borrow peoples LB and agar plates too. Or just take them. But this wasn’t sustainable either. It was much better to have my very own supply of reagents. Always have your own supply. Be your own limiting factor.

35. Keep your workspace a little messy. — Studies show that people in messy environments are more creative and innovative.

36. Recruit specialists. — For the first three years of graduate school, I sucked at cloning. But one of my labmates loved it. So, I bribed him to do some of my cloning work. In business, there are going to be things you hate. Whether it’s going to a certain weekly meeting or dealing with a certain software program. Don’t waste your time struggling with these small things. It’s not worth it. Find someone who loves what you hate and bribe them to do it for you.

37. Befriend postdocs. — Postdocs are PhDs who stay in academia. They’re above graduate students but below professors. And they’re the workhorses of any lab. The more postdoc friends you have, the easier your life is in graduate school. The same is true in business. The more hardworking people you’re friends with, the easier your life becomes. Find the workhorses and stay close to them.

38. Find positive people. — Everyone complains in academia. Everyone complains in business. Almost everyone. There are a few positive people. Find them and stick with them.

39. Find patient people. — Everyone in academia and business is stressed, obsessed, and running around putting out fires all day. Almost everyone. Occasionally, you’ll run across a relaxed person. Someone who seems like they have no where to be and don’t have a care in the world. Don’t hate them for this. Learn from them.

40. Find your routine. — Everyone has their own way of doing things. Find YOUR way of doing things.

41. Don’t steal routines. — Don’t copy other people’s routines. What works for them is not going to work for you.

42. Don’t watch the clock. — Get lost in your work. If you hate your work and can’t get lost in it, quit. Life is too short to grind out every waking hour.


“I can calculate the motion of heavenly bodies but not the madness of people.” – Isaac Newton


43. Be personable. Surveys and studies show that interpersonal skills matter more than technical skills. Soft skills trump soft skills. This is true in academia and business. Make sure you spend time learning how to be personable.

44. Don’t get personal. — But don’t get too personal. Your personal desires and loyalties can be exploited by others. And they will be for things like promotions, layoffs, and hirings.

45. Avoid psychopaths. — I met a few nut jobs in academia and thought that they were just a product of their environment. Wrong. There are nut jobs everywhere. Your first instinct might be to try to understand these people. Or to help them. Don’t. Listen to your gut and stay away from them. Be polite and professional but keep your distance.

46. Avoid creeps. — In graduate school there was this one professor who was in his 50’s but would go out drinking with new graduate students and have parties at his house with undergrads. It was pathetic. There are people in business like this too. Don’t be one of them and don’t hang out with them.

47. Avoid puppets. — You know those graduate students who are like evil extensions of their advisors. They don’t have any opinions of their own. They just agree with whatever their advisors say. There are people like this in business too. Stay away from them. And don’t worry about them. They won’t make it far. They’re a joke.

48. Avoid powermongers. — If someone shows you even the smallest sign that they will turn into a monster when they’re given power, run. Be extra careful not to get personal with these people.

49. Avoid wimps. — This might sound harsh but really insecure people are the people you should avoid the most. These are the ones who will lash out at you and stab you in the back when things get stressful. Don’t get close to them. Their paranoia and whining will suck up all of your energy and make you miserable.

50. Work friends are not real friends. — I became friends with a few of my labmates in graduate school. But they weren’t real friends. When the going got tough, they took care of themselves. And I took care of myself. This is okay. Work friends are different than real friends. Don’t expect more from them than you should.

51. Some people will never like you. — There were some professors and colleagues in graduate school who just didn’t like me. No matter how hard I tried or how nice I was; it was never enough. You’ll run across these people in business too. Don’t take it personally. Focus on the 7 billion other people on the planet you like you or might like you, not the handful who don’t.

52. Pick up on silent lessons. — During my first few weeks in graduate school, I would go into my advisor’s office and ask him questions that I thought were hard. And then I would watch him get on PubMed or Wikipedia and look up the answer and tell me. This happened a few times until I took the hint and started looking up things myself.

53. Read body language. — Sometimes I would go in my advisors office to ask him a question and he’d be hunched over his computer typing furiously. He’d say “What’s up?” abruptly without looking up. That was my cue to leave and come back later.

54. Some people can’t read body language. — There was one graduate student in my lab who was def to body language. She would come over to talk to me at the worst times. It didn’t matter if I had my headphones in or if I stared straight ahead or if I turned my body away from her, she just stayed and kept talking. Don’t be one of these people.

55. People change. — Don’t write people off forever. Some people really do change. This one kid I knew in graduate school was the biggest nerd I had ever seen. He had zero personal skills. But then, one day, he decided to be different. He changed the way he looked, acted, and communicated, all for the better. Change is just a decision and sometimes people make that decision.

56. Be cynical. — One of the first things you learn in graduate school is to be a little cynical, which means believing that people are motivated by self-interest. You have to be this way when it come to your data or your product or anything you’re creating. You have to attack it and make sure that it’s really good, not just good in your own eyes.

57. Be optimistic. — But, at the same time, you have to stay optimistic about life. Don’t let a little healthy cynicism about your work carry over into your personal life. Stay positive. You have to believe that you can always make things better if you’re committed to them.

58. Be realistic. — Bite off more than you can chew and chew it anyway. Do this over and over again. But, after a while, start calibrating how much you should bite off. Be realistic. Get excited. Take on challenges. But stay grounded.

59. Identify the right problem. — Every organization has a million problems. But what’s the most important problem? What’s the problem that’s causing all of the other problems?

60. Ask the right question. — Once you find the right problem, ask the right question. Form the right hypothesis. Don’t spend months or years answering a question that’s not going to solve your problem.

61. Test the right solution. — So, you found a solution. Great. But is it the right solution? Does it solve the original problem? Is it sustainable? The only way to find out is to test it in the real world.

62. Get mountains of data. — You can never have too much good data. The first step in solving any problem is to gather as much good data as possible. Get more than you need.

63. Analyze the data.  — The only way to know if your data is good data is if you go through it. Don’t be one of these people who just collects insane amounts of data, or does insane amounts of work, without ever analyzing what they’re doing.

64. Look at other people’s data. — Compare your data (or product) to other people’s data. What are the similarities? What are the differences? How can you use their data to make your data better? How can you position yourself against their data.

65. Tell a good story. — Academia is driven by stories. Whoever tells the best story, backed by data and references, gets the best publications and the biggest grants. The same is true in business. Whoever tells the best story about their product, or company, or about why people need their product, sells the most.

66. Forget credit. — If you’re always worried about where your name will appear, you’ll never make any progress. It’s hard to do big things when you’re obsessed with getting credit.

67. Get the credit you deserve. — At the same time, don’t be afraid to stand up for yourself and fight for what you deserve. When the job is done, make sure other people know who did the job.


“Life is not easy for any of us. But what of that? We must have perseverance and above all confidence in ourselves. We must believe that we are gifted for something, and that this thing, at whatever cost, must be attained.” – Marie Curie


68. Never tone yourself down. — One day my advisor told me that I should start wearing glasses and less “jock-like” shirts. Seriously. He meant well but his advice was stupid. In academia or business, your goal shouldn’t be to fit in. It should be to stand out. Don’t ever tone yourself down.

69. No one admires weakness. — There were tough times in graduate school when my advisor was really stressed. He would take it out on me and his other students. For some reason, I thought that acting weak or submissive would make him take it easy on me. Wrong. It made him lash out even more. People exploit weakness. This is true in business too. Don’t ever think that playing weak will manipulate other people into giving you a free pass.

70. Action trumps intelligence. — I wasn’t one of these ridiculously smart kids in graduate school. But I knew a few kids who were. A couple of them were legit geniuses. But they never did anything. They just talked about doing things. Meanwhile, other kids I knew with half the intelligence but twice the work ethic went on to be ten times as successful. Action is the world’s greatest equalizer.

71. Take on tough problems. — Stop looking for low hanging fruit. Everyone goes after easy wins, which, ironically, makes them hard to get. Instead, start chasing the tough problems that everyone else is avoiding. Solve a high-level problem and high-level things will happen to you.

72. Someone has done it before. — When you find a tough problem, don’t try to solve it on your own. That’s a waste of time. No matter what the problem is, someone has solved it successfully before. And success leaves clues.

73. Leave and come back. — Take vacations. Leave during the day and go for a walk. Take a sabbatical. Studies show that people who take time off are more creative and perform at a higher level. 

74. Know WHY you’re there. — Everyone I went to graduate school with wanted to quit at one time or another. And everyone I’ve worked with in business has talked about quitting at one time or another. Tough times are going to come. The only way to get through them is to have a strong WHY. Why did you apply to school or take the job in the first place? What are your biggest goals and how is this job going to help you get there? Start with WHY. WHY will get you through.

75. Know WHO you are working for. — Don’t work for your own destruction. The most miserable graduate students are those who complain constantly about how they are treated and then turn around and work 18 hour days. This is madness. Working harder is not going to solve deeper problems like being treated poorly by a superior or being unhappy or unfulfilled personally. Sometimes the best thing you can do to improve your situation is work less.

76. A step up can be a step down. — Promotions are not always solutions. If you work 8 hours a day at a job you hate, getting promoted to working 12 hours a day at the same job is not going to make you any happier.

77. Have your own project. — Most people’s unhappiness in graduate school or at a job stems from the fact that they have no control over their advancement. Instead, an advisor or boss is in control. The best way to combat this feeling is to start a project of your own.

78. Find your voice. — Starting your own project is the only way to find your voice. You’ll never know who you really are until you’ve worked for yourself or created something all on your own.

79. Stop whining. — No matter how bad your situation is at work or in school — guess what — it’s your fault. You made the choice to be there. So quit, or quit complaining.

80. Gut it out. — Some things are hard. If surviving graduate school or getting a high-level job was easy, everyone would do it. If you want big things, you have to take big risks. You have to have grit. Stamina. Durability. Tenacity. You have to be relentless. The easiest way to make a hard situation better is to commit to it 100% by making a decision to get through it or die trying.


“Many of life’s failures are people who did not realize how close they were to success when they gave up.” – Thomas Edison


81. There’s no awe in the trenches. — I went to graduate school because I was in awe of doctors and scientists and people who were working to cure cancer. But this sense of awe went away once I was in the middle of graduate school. The same thing happened once I got into business and entrepreneurship. This is normal. The key is that you can always get your sense of awe back. Just remember where you came from. Think back to where you were 5 years ago. That will help.

82. Determine your own level of involvement. — I can’t stand people who whine about being the last to know things. It’s not someone else’s job to tell you what’s going on. You determine your own level of involvement. If you want to know, ask.

83. Watch your cells closely. — I started working with living cell lines for the first time in graduate school. Cell lines are a pain because you have to feed them with special media every couple of days. And you have to monitor them daily just in case they need to be fed sooner. I thought I could get away with waiting an extra day or two to feed my cells. Wrong. They died. All of them. Some things need to be watched closely. Some projects (and people) need to be micromanaged.

84. Almost the same is not the same. — I did a lot of experiments in graduate school that involved antibodies attached to fluorochromes. I thought that if the fluorochromes were really similar to each other that I could use them interchangeably and get the same results. Wrong. Details matter.  

85. Go back and read things again. — Always read a great paper or a great case study three times over the course of a year or two. You’ll see things the second and third time that you didn’t see the first time.

86. Ask for help. — Ask, ask, ask. It’s better to be a little annoying than a little ignorant.

87. Learn to do it yourself. — If someone tells you how to do something, write it down and practice it so you can do it yourself. This isn’t always easy to do but it will definitely save you time.

88. It’s all about the bottom line. — I used to love listening to incoming graduate students talk about academia and science. They’d rave about how it was pure and motivated by knowledge, not money. That’s cute. But completely wrong. Academia is a business and like all businesses it needs to make a profit to survive.

89. Money talks. — I used to hang on the words of my advisor because he had the power to let me graduate. I saw him in a kind of almighty light because of that. But then I saw him hanging on the words of one of the Deans, who had the power to promote him. This made me see the Dean in a kind of almighty light. But then I saw the Dean hanging on the words of two University benefactors and I realized that it was money that was almighty. Don’t underestimate the power of money. Not ever.

90. Do the toughest thing first. The most important thing you can do to improve your productivity and overall performance in school or at work is to do the thing you hate the most first. Don’t cherry pick easy tasks off your to-do list. Go right for the jugular.

91. Golden hands never get fired. — In graduate school, people who can pull off difficult experiments with ease are said to have golden hands. In business, people who close big deals and always hit their sales numbers with ease are called golden gooses. These people never get fired.

92. Get the right team. You can’t publish a Nature paper with a Journal of Immunology team. Likewise, you can’t run a 1 billion dollar business with a 100 million dollar team. Not for long anyway

93. Work when others coast. – Early mornings, late nights, holidays, and weekends are the best days to work in graduate school because most people are gone. This gives you access to more resources and allows you to be super productive.

94. Coast when others work. — The worst time to work in graduate school is in the late morning and early afternoon. Good luck getting your hands on a centrifuge. You’re better off reading papers.

95. Work for free. — You’re basically working for free in graduate school. This experience is your biggest advantage. For the rest of your life you’ll know that you can survive on nothing. More than that, you’ll know that you can do great work on nothing. Never forget this. It will give you massive leverage in all business negotiations because you won’t be terrified of losing a paycheck.

96. Most won’t make it. — Over 300 people applied to my graduate school program the year that I got in. About 40 people were invited to interview. About 20 people were given offers. And about 5 people ended up getting their PhDs. The rest quit or were kicked out. When someone next to you quits or gets fired, don’t gloat or feel good about it and don’t let it scare you. Just keep doing what you’re doing.

97. People will turn on you. — Everyone in graduate school is out for themselves. The same is true in business. But this isn’t a bad thing. It means that you know exactly where you stand. And you know where others stand. No one is going to give up their job or paycheck for you. In fact, everyone else wants your paycheck. Always keep this in mind.

98. Get off the villain bandwagon. — If your advisor or boss starts to villainize someone that you work with, beware. Don’t join him. Belittling someone else with your boss will not bring you closer him or give you a leg up on your colleagues. On the contrary, you’ll be the next person to be villainized. When you help cut the fat, you become the fat.

99. Keep your eyes on the bus. — Someone is always being thrown under the bus. Don’t let this happen to you. Stay aware of what’s going on and stay aware of your position in relation to what’s going on.

100. Anger is more useful than despair. — If you get thrown under the bus, don’t passively accept it. Don’t curl up in a ball and sob. Get mad. Fight back.

101. There’s going to be a fight. — Most of the graduate students that I went to school with had to fight to get their PhD because their advisors wanted them to stay longer. There’s always going to be a fight when you want to move forward. This is true in business too. Don’t shy away from it. Prepare for it.

102. Don’t cry in public. — Some advisors and bosses can be jerks. Don’t let it get to you. If it does get to you one day, don’t show it. Get it out of your system in private and then move forward.

103. Don’t make people cry. — Putting down others or making them feel small is not a sign of power. It’s a sign of weakness and unimportance.

104. Go hard until the end. — A lot of people work really hard and then, at the very end, they pull back because they’re either afraid of failure or afraid of success. Don’t back off at the finish line. Pour it on.

105. Make them fire you. — I’ve known multiple graduate students and employees who were being mistreated and, in response, they just worked harder, complained more, and eventually quit. This is the opposite of what they should’ve done. If you’re being mistreated, work less, connect more, and make them fire you. Don’t give the people above you an easy way out. Make them be the bad guy.

106. Never tolerate being yelled at. — You’re not a toddler and your not a teenager coming home late from a party. You don’t deserve to be yelled at. If someone above you yells at you, meet with their superiors about it. Make it awkward and uncomfortable for them. Make it so that behavior doesn’t happen to you or anyone else again.

107. Pick worthy competitors. — Every year, my graduate school advisor would pick a new student or postdoc to villainize. He would turn it into some kind of personal vendetta, which was pathetic because he was a Professional Investigator and they were just grad students and postdocs. If you’re going to pick a fight with someone, be brave and challenge someone bigger than you, not smaller.

108. Congratulate your colleagues. — No one in graduate school feels appreciated. The same is true in business. Do your part to change this by congratulating your colleagues when they do something great.

109. Congratulate your superiors. — Your superiors feel underappreciated too. You can make them feel good, and simultaneously raise yourself to their level, by congratulating them. Just make sure you do it in a matter-of-fact way, not a kiss-ass way. 


“Excellence is never an accident. It is always the result of high intention, sincere effort, and intelligent execution; it represents the wise choice of many alternatives – choice, not chance, determines your destiny.” ― Aristotle


110. Bootstrap. — In graduate school, you have to ask other labs to use their equipment, you have to scrounge for reagents, you have to do a lot of different jobs at once. This is an invaluable skill in business. Don’t lose that hustle. Stay scrappy.

111. Start with a joke. — One of the students I went to graduate school with used to start all of his scientific presentations with a joke. At first, I thought this was childish and stupid. But then I started to like it. Since graduate school, I’ve noticed that many of the world’s best speakers do the same thing. In fact, the number one most watched TED Talk is full of jokes. In both academia and business, starting with a joke is a great way to be more engaging.

112. Bring things full circle. — One of the graduate students I went to school with started his thesis defense by discussing the importance of paradigm shifts. He referenced examples of paradigm shifts from history like Galileo discovering that the world was not flat. He spent half of this presentation discussing paradigm shifts. Then he presented some data for 15 minutes and said the end. That was it. He never mentioned anything more about paradigm shifts or how is work created a paradigm shift. It was weird. When sharing your ideas with other people, make sure that you tie things together at the end.

113. Make a point. — Jokes and tie-ins are great, but only so long as you actually make a point. Don’t ramble on and tell a story without drawing a conclusion. The punchline is always the most important part of any talk.

114. Know the 80/20 principle.  — 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. For example, in business, 80% of your revenues usually come from about 20% of your clients.

115. Know Parkinson’s law. — Work expands to fill the time available for its completion. For example, if you give yourself a year to write your thesis or complete a project, it will take a year. But if you give yourself two weeks, you’ll complete it in two weeks.

116. Learn the framework. — At one point in graduate school, I had to call upon my undergraduate organic chemistry knowledge. But I couldn’t remember anything about it. I forgot how to push electrons. This is because I used to just memorize organic chemistry equations. I never learned the larger framework, or the rules by which electrons were pushed. So, I had to go back and learn it.

117. Memorize. Studies show that simply memorizing things is not a waste of time. It actually makes you smarter. Memorize. But don’t just memorize.

118. Skimming is useful. — The morning before I defended my thesis I skimmed a couple of articles on mass spectrometry. The last question I was asked by my committee members was about how to use mass spectrometry to characterize a protein I was studying. Skimming saved the day. Studies show that skimming, like how you’re reading this article right now and how most people read things on the Internet, actually makes you smarter. If you’re short on time, don’t skip, skim.

119. Turn off push notifications. — I started using push notifications on my phone in graduate school — for a day. And every time my advisor emailed me on that day, I answered right away. I wasn’t able to resist. The notification hijacked my focus every time.

120. Train people with email. — Have you ever been talking to someone and all of the sudden their eyes get twitchy and they start shifting their body back to their computer. It’s like they’re crack addicts. They’re fiending to check their emails. Don’t be one of these people. Force yourself to take a long time to answer your emails. Don’t answer them right away. Answering right away will make other people start expecting to get a response from you right away. Which, in turn, will make you start checking your emails more and more. Stop the cycle. Put down the pipe.

121. If it’s an emergency, they’ll call. — There are no email emergencies.

122. Never answer your phone. — If it’s an emergency, they’ll leave a message.

123. Watch out for sleepers. — There was this kid in one of my first year classes who would fall asleep every day. Every day. But whenever the teacher brought up an interesting or difficult question, he would wake up and answer it perfectly like he was Rain Man. Just because someone is relaxed at work, it doesn’t mean that they’re lazy or stupid. They might just be bored.

124. There is no security. — Even people who still get tenure have to work to get funding. If they don’t, they’ll be forced to retire early. No one is safe. There is no job security. The only real security lies in your ability to learn, adapt, and take risks.

125. You’re not entitled to anything. — You think someone owes you a good job? You think someone is going to give you what you want? Wrong. You’re going to have to take it.

126. The ball is always in your court. — You’re in control your own life. Always. If you don’t like where you are or what you’re doing, change it.

127. Jump off sinking ships. — Change can be scary. But going down with the Titanic is even scarier. Don’t be afraid to leave a failing organization. And don’t feel guilty about it either.

128. Always be transitioning. — The best time to start preparing for a job in business is your first year of graduate school. And the best time to start preparing for your next job or your next job promotion is as soon as you start your next job.

129. Always be translating. — In graduate school, I learned that people who did clinical research and whose results could be translated into a drug or product were funded more often than people doing basic research. This concept applies to business too. An idea is only great if it can be translated into a product or something else that viscerally improves people’s lives.

130. Always be connecting. — It’s not what you know, it’s who you know. I learned this in graduate school without realizing it at the time. When I didn’t know something, I went and found others to find out. This makes who you know very important. The key is to see relationships as a strategy, not a tactic. In other words, relationship building is something that you should do longterm. It’s the most important part of being successful in business.

Did you learn anything about business in school? If so, what did you learn?

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