The 13 unwritten rules that guarantee success* in grad school and academia

*-success not guaranteed

Zach Portman
4 min readJun 16, 2021


As a scientist in the biological sciences, I have seen many grad students crash and burn because they didn’t know the unwritten rules of success. This generally happens because grad students believe in the stated values of academia rather than the things the system actually values. In fact, many people go their entire graduate career mistakenly believing that as long as they do Good Science (tm), everything else will just fall into place.

Here, I provide the secret steps that are necessary for success in academia. Follow all these steps, and you will have a distinct leg up over the hundreds of other PhDs who will be competing with you for jobs. My experiences are in biology/ecology, so some points may be specific to the field, but the main points should still hold across most of the STEM fields.

Graduate_School.jpg from wikimedia

The rules:

  1. Focus on the metrics, not the science. If you can’t publish it, it’s not worth doing. Your goal should be to produce as many publications as you can in as many high impact journals as possible. What you work on doesn’t really matter, since no one will actually read your papers anyways.
  2. Devote your life entirely to work. Don’t buy the BS about work life balance. Have you ever seen a professor with a healthy work life balance? I didn’t think so.
  3. Don’t put down roots. The expectation in academia is that between your tech jobs, grad school, and various postdocs, you will move at least 6 times between your bachelors and final job. It’s best not to get too attached to any one place or you risk being viewed as provincial and torpedoing your career prospects.
  4. Be independently wealthy (or at least have well-off family members who will give you money). This is probably the most important step. Between all the moving, the abysmal pay, and the antiquated reimbursement systems, it will be difficult to cover all your major expenses. If you aren’t well-off or have well-off family, consider finding a partner who can subsidize your lifestyle.
  5. Pick an adviser with clout. In a world where your next postdoc position depends almost entirely on a phonecall from your adviser, it makes sense to…



Zach Portman

I am scientist who studies bees. My research covers the identification, biology, evolution, and conservation of native bees.