At his blog, Anthony Fejes says successful graduate students are often those who spend more time with their PIs, know when to drop dead-end projects, and are clear on their personal definitions of success. While trainees do not always have control over how much time they spend with their advisors, Fejes says that those who spend the most time with their PIs benefit from the "opportunity to learn more from those who already know something about a field; more input … from those who have made the mistakes; and access to more hot topic projects."
Knowing when to let go, he adds, "is a huge determining factor" of a graduate students' success. "Those students around me who are able to move from project to project quickly are the ones that get the most papers and opportunities," Fejes says.
As for the defining success, Fejes says it's critical that graduate students consider how their personal goals mesh with what is expected of them. "In academia, at least for grad students, success isn't necessary measured with the same metrics. Instead, it seems to be measured by how many scholarships you get and how many first author papers you publish," he says.
There are, of course, other factors at play. Though students' success is somewhat dependent on the resources available to them, Fejes says the ability to network effectively is a learned skill, which can be compensatory. "Fortunately, networking can also be done for cheap, such as blogs and twitter," he says. "You may have to go out of the way to make them happen, but you can do it if you invest your (limited) time wisely."