A Dissection of Graduate Student Requirements to Compete in Higher Education, and the Dos and Don’ts of Standing Out
Standing out or being at the top of the class is usually the goal that students aim for because it gets them to the next level of their studies with all the leverage they will need upon application. Schools pay more attention to them because of their merits!
But what if it is a terminal degree like graduate school? Does standing out in a class full of fellow experienced professionals still matter in this level of academia? What is the sense of standing out if in the next level of the game – the workforce – it is groundbreaking output like research and valuable experience through internships, not rank, that matter?
The short answer? It all depends who you ask!
To some, graduate school is no longer about competition, whether at the master’s level or doctoral level. These are the students who are just after earning a professional degree while juggling work, life, and everything else, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that. That in itself is an achievement. But then, there is the other side of the spectrum – students who are just innately competitive and strive hard to stand out from the class.
Their reasons may vary. Some think standing out in graduate school would give them better internship and career opportunities. Some think standing out would capture the attention of the student advisor or faculty they have always wanted to work with. And then some live for the top rank. They live for the distinction of being number one, second to none. It is what drives them and defines their whole personality. If you identify yourself as a competitive graduate student (or incoming graduate student) and whatever drives you to stand out in grad school, browse below for some useful and valuable tips on achieving this and being the most distinguished master’s or doctoral candidate in your class.
But first, let’s try to understand the nature of competition in graduate school.
Competition in Graduate School: Does it even exist?
If you are on Quora a lot, then you’ll know that this question has been asked one way or another and answered by PhDs themselves. It is not even a question of whether competition exists or not, but rather, a question of should you even participate in it, will standing out benefit you, and conversely, can you go through grad school without standing out?
It is a 50-50 vote.
Granted, of course, the replies on Quora do not represent a good sample size. It’s been established that humans naturally compete, especially in academics**. There are various forms of competition at the graduate school level or any academic level. There is real or actual competition, one that is between classmates, and everyone within that circle is aware that there is a competition. There is perceived competition, where only the competitive individual is aware of the competition versus their peers, who, in turn, are not aware of the competition.
Lastly, there is self-competition where the individual competes with only themselves, trying to best oneself for self-improvement. The first and last forms of competition are considered healthy** because they can foster camaraderie, healthy motivation, sportsmanship, and even collaboration when controlled. The second form of competition may lead to unhealthy professional relationships and even an unhealthy view of oneself and self-expectations.
But one cannot take away another person’s drive to stand out in graduate school, no matter the reason. As long as it is controlled and tempered, competition or the drive to stand out from the crowd, especially among fellow would-be experts, is natural, healthy, and can be beneficial in achieving one’s maximum potential and goals.
Tips to Stand Out as a Graduate Student
Standing out in graduate school means to stand out academically, which in some cases, would translate to standing out professionally, as well (that is, if you pursue a job in academia after grad school). To stand out, one must have a combination of soft and hard skills that are quite similar to the workforce demands or the job market from a mid-level professional. So, entry-level skills like “trainable,” “hardworking,” or “loyal” are not going to fly in graduate school, not especially if you are aiming for distinction. Graduate school requires next-level skills and tough skin, at the very least. You come into grad school armed with these attitudes and skills listed below that have already been developed through years of schooling and working. Read on.
Read, read and read some more.
We cannot stress this enough. Whether you already have a thesis or dissertation topic in mind or just a vague idea for now of what you want to research, reading is essential in grad school. Reading at this level of academia is not just about memorization or simple concepts, like in secondary or even undergrad levels. The reading requirements at this level are two to three times more rigorous, more in-depth, and more technical than in the undergrad levels; not to mention, there is a lot more reading in graduate school. Period.
Reading is the graduate student’s way to uncover new knowledge and raise questions about it. After all, this is what graduate school is all about. The main purpose of graduate school is to discover new concepts or innovations, which is why the emphasis on the culminating activity – whether a capstone project, a thesis, or dissertation – is paramount and requires that it tackles topics that have not been discussed or tackled before. It also arms you with a great deal of knowledge should you find yourself in a healthy academic discussion or debate. Demonstrating vast knowledge that is relevant to your program or track is a surefire way to make you stand out, not only in the program but probably in the department as well. To achieve this, you would have to start reading and get into the habit of reading books, journals, publications, patents, researches, and other forms of academic literature.
Here are tips to get into that habit:
- Know your purpose. Let us say you already have a research topic in mind, and you have scoured the net, libraries, and citations of other papers and have come up with a mountain of resources you initially think are relevant to your topic. Read the title and introduction of each source (this is where skimming and critical skills will come into play) and ask yourself if you need to read that material. Is it relevant to your research? Simply answering these two questions will trim the mountain of reading materials down to a valley. You have to know your purpose for reading material because you will be spending valuable time going through it. Always remember that reading is not only the gateway to knowledge but also a test of one’s efficiency and strategic thinking, two things you will need in your grad school journey and beyond.
- Skim or scan. This is a good strategy to address the challenge of increased volumes of reading material at the graduate level. Through non-linear or strategic reading, or skimming or scanning, the reader gets straight to the point and relevance of the material by quickly scanning the introduction and other tangential parts of the document. In scientific papers, skimming is equivalent to reading the abstract. It has all you need to know about the scientific paper, from the hypothesis to the methodology to the results. It tells you right away if the source material is relevant to your research. As for non-scientific sources, you scan the title and introduction and quickly ask yourself what the title tells you about it and what you will benefit from the material. Also, look for giveaway subheadings or sentences. These are normally found at the beginning and in terminal sentences and paragraphs.
- Master annotations and citations. A good strategy to make use of all the content that you have read is to annotate or take notes while you are still reading the paragraph or the sentence; even better if the citation is vis-a-vis with your annotation, just in case, you will need the citation for a paper, thesis or dissertation. Now, do not just annotate every worthwhile information you can find in the source material (the same advice applies to highlighting or underlining). Before annotating or making notes, ask yourself first the following questions: Does this topic or concept have relevance to my research? Why? When reading that concept or topic, you are considering annotating, determine why you think it is relevant to your research. You can answer the how after you have thoroughly synthesized the material.
- Use the Pomodoro Technique. Another way to handle volumes of reading material is to attack it by pages, thereby not being overwhelmed by the task before you have even started. One of the more popular techniques nowadays in handling heaps of work is the Pomodoro Technique. It is a good way to measure how long it takes to read X number of pages, or conversely, how many pages you can read in 25 minutes. You can apply this technique along with skimming and annotating. Set a timer for 25 minutes. Skim or strategically scan the material, annotate lines or sentences that you deem relevant to your research or topic assignment. Once the timer sets off, take a 5-minute break and do something else other than reading. Repeat this cycle four times, after which take a 15 to 30-minute break to shake things off and refresh yourself. The Pomodoro Technique is also useful in keeping track of the clock, preventing you from reading away and not being aware of the time. It also prevents the phenomenon of burnout thanks to those little breaks.
- Form reading groups. Reading groups are a good way to avoid distraction and instill discipline. It is also a productive way of cutting down time spent on reading because chapters or sections of the reading assignment can be delegated amongst yourselves and summaries can be bounced off with each other, as well as other insights about certain topics contained in the source material, in the same way, that annotations would work in the written form.
- Set the mood and set your mindset. It is important to remember that reading is an endeavor, and depending on your mindset, it could be painstaking or inspiring. Start early because cramming, while it gets things done, it does not do well with retention. While this tip should have been at the top, closing out this list with this tip is an excellent way to circle back and wrap everything that you need to remember.
A popular mnemonic could help dissect the five micro-skills you need for a successful and meaningful reading. It is called SQ3R, which stands for Survey, Question, Read, Recite, and Review. If you cannot remember the tips in this article, remember the mnemonic, if that is easier. It is pretty much the same thing anyway. “Survey” equates to skimming or scanning, while “Question” equates to annotating and citing. Then you can apply the Pomodoro Technique and group reading technique to establish efficiency in “Reading” (“Read”). “Recite” can be applied within a group reading session, and so does “Review.” Lastly, set the mood so that your environment is conducive to reading. You can either simulate your room to look like a library nook or make it look like a coffee shop, and even get the feel right with study music or café music.
Learn how to write for your highly intellectual audience.
Remember that the individuals you will meet at this level of study are either professionals like you or experts at the top of their fields (it says so in their titles). Submitting papers, proposals, research, essays, or other forms of academic literature is a part and parcel of graduate study. Hone your writing skills to match your would-be audience. It should have a scholarly voice (sometimes referred to as the academic voice).
So, what is a scholarly or an academic voice? Is it a prerequisite to writing in graduate school?
The scholarly or academic voice or tone is a style of writing that is considered the norm in academia. It is not a proprietary style like the MLA, APA, or Chicago writing and citation styles. There is no exact syntax or sentence structure that defines the scholarly or academic voice, but rather, a constantly evolving set of guidelines that, when summed up, equates to a style of writing that is:
- Straightforward or precise
- Uses jargon only when necessary
- Does not use highfalutin words
- Does not use first or second person point of view
- Maintains formality and professionalism by avoiding contractions like “doesn’t” and “can’t.”
- Evidence-based; quoting sources when necessary to preserve the substance of the author’s or source’s ideas or message(s) and citing sources to give the paper credibility, gravitas, and significance
- If applicable, it criticizes but does not attack the source material or work
- Conveys the writer’s ideas, interpretations, and analyses. This is the most important content of the piece, and it should demonstrate the writer’s depth of intellectual curiosity and understanding of the topic assignment. It should demonstrate the complexity of ideas and comprehension that only those at the graduate level – students, researchers, and professors – can grasp. However, this is where a scholarly voice comes into play – no matter how complex the analyses or conclusions are, it should be conveyed uncomplicatedly into writing without reducing or simplifying the academic value and thought of the subject matter, and shouldn’t try so hard to make it sound smart. It should be understandable and yet compelling and inspiring.
Writing with a scholarly or academic voice is only one facet of writing at the graduate level. While this style can be applied to both scientific and liberal arts papers, written pieces require more descriptive writing than analytical writing and vice-versa. While the norm is that descriptive writing is usually used in the liberal arts and analytical writing is used in the sciences, there are times when the opposite writing style must be applied or merged. Either style is used to come up with conclusions based on the objective of academic writing.
Stella Cortell, the author of The Study Skills Handbook (2008), differentiates the distinction between descriptive writing and analytic writing, while Colin Neville’s 2009 book How to Improve Your Assignment Results drills further down on what analytic writing is:
Descriptive Writing answers the “what,” “when,” “where,” “why,” and even the “how.” It explains, enumerates, and provides information.
Analytic Writing is evidenced-based writing. It answers the question “what exactly,” “what else,” “why not,” or “how come.” It attempts to tie information together rationally to arrive at a new concept, perspective, or thought process. It either accepts or rejects the argument or the topic, but it does so against facts and evidence. When it does accept an argument or perspective, it may do so with limitations, and the writer qualifies what these limitations are and how else the concept can be improved. It uses logic to derive observations and inferences and, subsequently, conclusions.
Now that you know the basics of graduate school writing – scholarly tone, descriptive writing, and analytic writing – below are tips on how you can put these concepts into use while fine-tuning your writing skills because, in reality, graduate school will not only require you to read a lot but also write a lot. So, how do you go about it?
You have got to read again…and read more!
Do not read the first thing you’ll pick up. Be selective. Read journals, academic papers, old grant proposals, essays, patents, and similar works because that is how you will understand scholarly voice, descriptive writing, and analytical writing. Practice identifying the difference between descriptive writing and analytical writing. A good way to practice is illustrated by Stanford University professor and e-newsletter editor Rick Reis, Ph.D., in his post for the e-newsletter The Tomorrow’s Professor. Pick a suggestive or compelling sentence from the paper you are reading. Introduce a critical tone to it by adding compelling descriptors or words. To borrow Reis’ example in his post:
Original sentence: Beauchamp (2011) suggests that interactive whiteboards are a good idea in primary school.
With a critical tone: Beauchamp (2011) makes the valid suggestion that interactive whiteboards are a good idea in primary school.
The difference is, whereas the first sentence takes a more descriptive approach, similar to a report, the second sentence has been converted to a critical statement and takes a more definitive and assertive approach through the use of the words “valid suggestion.” It introduces an opinion, that of the writer. The writer asserts that Beauchamp’s suggestion on interactive whiteboards for primary school is – for them – a valid one.
Aside from familiarizing yourself with the tone, exposing yourself to the publications revered by your field or specialty allows you to get a good grasp of how experts do it (or write it). It gives you a glimpse of the sentence construction, the frequency of jargon use, even the length of the piece or the word count. These will all help get your feet wet in academic writing, whether for the scientific community or the liberal arts.
Know the purpose of your piece.
It is similar to the reading tip above but for different reasons. Whereas with reading, knowing your purpose streamlines your work. Knowing why and for whom allows you to present it in the best way possible. For example, most graduate students find it difficult to win grant funding because of their proposals, and these are students or even professionals who have gotten the knack of academic writing down to a tee. But first, what is a grant proposal?
- A grant proposal is a document that is submitted to funding groups like organizations, government agencies, and other advocacy groups. It is structured like an academic paper or a research proposal, except its writing style is less complicated, more compelling, and more pragmatic. After all, its objective is to “sell” the idea and the execution of the project to possible donors.
- An academic paper, on the other hand, is a typical school requirement. At the graduate level, the topics and course readings are more rigorous. The learnings from the course readings have to be reflected in the paper, similar to an exposition or a critique. Here, the objective is not to “sell” the idea or the process like grant proposals. The objective is to explain and not to campaign.
A few striking differences between the two is that grant proposals have to propose a project or a study that is relevant or beneficial to many, like a community or a specific group. Or it can also serve as a precursor to unearth more questions that would lead to more impactful research, similar to abstract fields like theoretical physics, where the proposed theories also need funding to run the simulated experiments that would prove their validity. And speaking of experiments, this is also one striking difference of a grant proposal versus an academic paper – it talks in the future tense. It describes an experiment that has not been performed yet, so it needs to be detailed and yet colloquial, but not too colloquial that it loses professionalism. It also thrives on brevity and simplicity, but not too simple that it loses academic gravitas.
Academic papers are quite the opposite in that it merges its perspective with the established perspective of other scholars. It audits another’s work, so it uses the past tense or perspective. In doing so, it attempts to unearth an angle of the established concept that has not been tackled before and discusses its impact in the present. It is also a chance for the student to showcase their expertise and understanding of the topic assigned by using their complex vocabulary, befitting a graduate student. Caution must be taken, though, not to overdo it because even if these kinds of papers are intended for colleagues, go ahead fill it with jargon – too much of anything is never a good thing. The scholastic or academic voice is a safeguard against these (see the previous section on “Scholastic Voice”).
Now, how will all these forms of writing make you stand out in graduate school? Simple. Writing, when done exceptionally well, establishes your credibility, intellect, creativity, and curiosity. It sends the message that you are well-read and well-versed on concepts and topics relevant to your chosen field of study. The currency of graduate school is academic papers, grant proposals, theses, dissertations, essays, critiques, reviews, patents, op-eds, and many more. If your name is seen often among these “currencies,” then you are making a name for yourself. Whether that is genuine fame or infamy is a different matter (see the final section on how to stand out for the wrong reasons – plagiarism in the following pages).
The biggest challenge in writing, especially academic papers, is how and where to begin. Typing or writing the first sentence is usually the hardest. But once you got that monkey off your back, the words should come easy. One technique that you would not find in many online blogs and graduate resources is to create a written draft outline on how you envision your paper. It is not a verbatim handwritten copy of your paper but rather a skeletal outline of each section of your paper. Each section will have its sub-skeletal outline representing the subheadings, and each subheading will have keywords, references, or citations under it to easily pull out your sources and your notes when it is time to type them up.
Use technology for your citations and bibliography.
You have seen this tip in the reading subsection of this piece. Tracking your citations and bibliography becomes a more apparent responsibility once you are writing your paper, especially when the number of bibliographical entries most academic papers have is at least 20 distinct sources, and that is even the lower end of the spectrum. But imagine having to track, cite and type at least 20 references – journal entries, books, research papers, theses, dissertations – while observing either an MLA, APA, or Chicago style of citation. That in itself is already tedious. Programs like Endnote and websites like Mendeley are great tools to help you manage your citations and cut down on typing time by automatically creating bibliographic entries as the references are being cited in the document.
Allot ample time for editing and proofreading.
Do you know that editing, whether your work or someone else’s, is just as difficult as writing or even harder? A 10,000-word dissertation or a 5,000-word academic paper takes the same amount of time to edit, not because of the word length, but because of the tone and content and the fact that these were probably written by someone else. Also, editing and, by extension, proofreading requires one to read each word. Skimming and scanning will not work here. Now, if you are editing your work, it gets a little easier, but it is still a tedious task. You, being the author, have a strong familiarity with the tone and perspective used in writing the piece. This is very important, and this is the one thing that most editors do not have – control, control from start to finish. You, as the author, can start editing and proofreading in batches, say, a thousand words at a time. But then make sure to re-read the whole piece again once it is done for one final edit and proofread.
It is important to do a final run-through to check for any typographical oversights and, more importantly, to edit the piece in one continuous flow to check for coherence and cohesion. What is the difference, you might ask?
- Coherence – the attribute of the document where the central idea is constantly referred to by the sentences either directly as the subject of the sentence or indirectly in one way or another. Coherence is present if the document is consistently discussing the central idea, and even the supporting chapters or sections also refer to the central idea.
- Cohesion – the attribute of the document where the sentences flow freely as if they are connected. The succeeding sentence refers to the preceding sentence as if it looks back to it. One effective way to ensure cohesion between fragments and sentences is through conjunctions such as “if” or “but.”
As for proofreading, it is important to look out for spellings, missing words, punctuations, formatting, spacing, indentations, capitalizations, missing and or dangling modifiers, and other typographical errors.
Another effective way to edit and proofread your work is to have another set of eyes look at it. Now, make sure these are trustworthy eyes you are handing your work off to. You should consider any of your output from graduate school to be proprietary. If you have trustworthy colleagues that are older or with more academic or grant proposal writing experience, then it would be best if they are the ones who could get a sneak preview of your would-be submission just to get an outside opinion.
Set the mood and your mindset.
Just like with reading, writing is also an endeavor. It is a much laborious endeavor than reading because the writing itself and the research come with it, then there is the equally laborious editing and proofreading process. But if you set your mind to start early, maybe even use the Pomodoro Technique to help you with time management, then the daunting task of writing may start to seem less and less overwhelming. Depending on the projected length of the document, you can make a schedule on how many pages or words to write in a day, then adjust accordingly as you go along.
As for the mood, you can do the same tactics as with reading – making the room conducive to working, setting the lights, setting the music, and setting the interiors. Change it up from time to time. Go outside, to a coffee shop, a library, or a park bench, or if you are close to it, why not try writing at the beach? Remember that graduate school writing is, again, a laborious endeavor. It is an undertaking that will take a lot of your time. So, changing your writing locations would help you a great deal in coping with writer’s fatigue, and it might even give you a new perspective that would help refresh your paper.
An additional writing tip: Becoming well-versed in your field of specialty through writing and publishing papers is one of the surefire ways to stand out in graduate school, especially if you start early. One of the ways that could give you a head start is by attending writing workshops for graduate students. The workshops could either be thesis or dissertation writing, grant proposal writing, academic writing, essay writing, literary writing, speech writing, and many others. Workshops are everywhere, from universities offering writing courses as part of their various curricula (which could be as specific as grant proposal writing courses, literary writing courses, thesis and dissertation seminars, etc.) to literary organizations offering writing workshops year-round, to online workshops offered by MOOCs, online campuses and other writing websites.
Ask the right questions during class.
If you read a lot (item number 1 in this list), you know a lot and can ask a lot. Do you want to stand out? Pre-read the material before class and prepare meritorious questions, questions that are indeed thought-provoking. Prepare to go on a debate if necessary. Some professors, especially if they see that you have an inquisitive mind (and if their class still has minutes to spare), will keep on probing and nudging you to ask more questions, which might lead to a small (sometimes spirited) discussion or debate. This would not only benefit you but the whole class as well.
Also, if there is any question on your list that your classmates have not raised, then there is a 50/50 chance that only you have thought of it, and this would make you stand out. This is a time-tested technique. However, be careful because it could work the other way. The reason you are the only one who thought of it could be because it is either irrelevant or insensible, or both. So, be careful with your arsenal of questions. Read and research beforehand. Prepare and ask your questions not because you want to be noticed or remembered but because you want to seek answers. Recognition will follow if you ask the right questions.
Even professors ask their students’ help with their papers or publications. For example, your professor might be working on something that involves digitalization or information systems or data science, of which you have extensive experience, or he might need help with the statistical calculations or even just tracking down the citations, all these would go a long way in making a name for yourself in grad school. He may or may not add your name to the paper as a co-author, but you will either be cited as a contributor or be renumerated for your efforts (he should). But do not collaborate for the sake of getting your name out there. Collaborate because you sincerely have something to share or you sincerely want to learn. It might even benefit you greatly. Not only will it possibly have an impact on your research, but it might also pique your interest and subsequently expand your knowledge portfolio to include multiple specialties. Imagine how great would that look on your resume?
Universities understand this phenomenon and have curated specific groups devoted to interdisciplinary collaborations to foster group research or co-authorships. For one, it is common knowledge that AI and machine learning are integrated into medicine and the life sciences. Communication programs also offer courses on data science and even coding, and conversely, science programs also offer courses on writing and speaking. These are the results of interdisciplinary collaborations which you can be a part of.
Social media has changed the landscape of education dramatically. Studies have shown that 9 out of 10 students have at least one social media account. Now, at the graduate level, it is not just Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and TikTok that connects grad students, but more of the likes of LinkedIn for professional networking, forum platforms like Quora and Reddit, and online course providers like edX, Coursera, Udemy and many more. But how do you use all these to better yourself and stand out in grad school?
Nowadays, it is not just about publishing papers and making a name for yourself through spirited debates. Creating a significant online presence also helps you put your name out there through professional and informative commentaries that you can post on either Twitter, LinkedIn, or Quora. The last two sites are particularly helpful in establishing a name and titular recognition because, as a user, you are encouraged to put in your titles or field of specialty. On the other hand, Twitter, a site that thrives on brevity, is also a good way to track published papers and studies, retweet about it, or even post a short comment or review and be retweeted yourself (for good reasons, let us hope).
Twitter can be a useful tool to establish a professional and or academic network in a world that lives by a quick tap or scroll on the screen. Its brevity is its strength, and academics, who have a lot to say about many things, have surprisingly taken their intellects to this microblogging platform. Through a short, perfectly worded 140-character tweet about a review, a paper, or a study that is about to be published, with a link that redirects to the document, you can capture the attention of academics who are also on the platform and not only academics, but everyone who is on Twitter that is interested with what you have to say can access your link (provided your account’s privacy is set to “public”). A John Hopkins University Magazine article estimates that in 2010, Twitter consists of about 40 percent of academics. Imagine how many of these academics – scholars, professors, researchers, master’s or doctoral candidates, laureates, innovators – are on Twitter now?
This phenomenon of academics engaging in public communication and discourse through Twitter has been dubbed Academic Twitter. Courses related to social media management and online presence are offered in higher learning curricula either as an elective or a course requirement in programs like Journalism or Mass Communication. Academic Twitter kills two birds with one “Tweet,” you got the younger academics and general audiences following your digital academic footprint on the platform, and you got your traditional academics who don’t care about “tweeting” but rather, the study or paper to which your link at the end of your tweet redirects.
LinkedIn also works in the same way but has always been geared towards professionals. What started as a job portal platform has gradually transformed into social media for professionals. Companies, organizations, schools, and professionals can post stories, events, studies, and other professional and academic developments on their walls for their “connections” to see, similar to a Facebook timeline. They have also developed LinkedIn blogs for professionals and academics to share content, from blogs or journals to insights to studies and papers. Use this platform to push your online presence forward! Post informative insights as a professional or as a graduate student, and relevant commentaries or op-eds.
LinkedIn Learning is also a new platform that offers professional and academic courses similar to MOOCs. You can either take courses (for free during its 30-day trial period) for upskilling or become an instructor in any field of study you are skilled in. You can also do the same for other MOOC sites like Coursera and Udemy.
Do you want to stand out beyond your program? This is a good way (and also a profitable way) to do it. You can widen your reach beyond the confines of your university as more and more students and professionals are into online classes now, either as part of their curricula or for self-upskilling. You could teach a language or a hard skill that you have years of professional experience on like data science, IT security and infrastructure, web design, business technologies like CRM or ERP programs, and many others.
Take advantage of the many tools the internet offers to academics like you. With almost everyone in the world hooked on the internet today, a respectable and knowledgeable (yes, emphasis on these two words, because it could be the other way around) online presence will raise your profile not only in grad school but eventually, in the job market and professional circles as well, as you revamp your career once you complete your studies.
Strike the right balance of soft skills.
When you were about to enter graduate school and asked around for advice or browsed around sites on how to excel or even survive, what advice or tips did you normally get? Sure, it could be any of those mentioned already in this piece. Still, most of the time, it is a combination of any of the following: high level of curiosity, flexibility, perseverance, a critical mind, creativity, patience, a clear sense of direction, self-discipline, being organized, participative, good communication, or working smart. But which of these do you need to survive or stand out in graduate school?
You cannot have a finite number of soft skills and attitudes to bring to graduate school. That’s the simplest and truest answer. Bring your entire self and your A-game to school and pick up new positive and productive attitudes along the way if you have not developed them yet.
Have a clear sense of purpose.
Graduate school is rigorous and demanding, even more so if you are juggling grad school and work (or even family life on top of that) simultaneously. So, the first thing you will need – attitude-wise – is to have the right purpose for attending graduate school. Is it to revamp your career and up your market value? Is it to follow your never-ending curiosity about your current field (“what else is there to know?” you might ask yourself)? Is it to expand your knowledge portfolio and learn about another discipline? Say you are a finance major that would like to carve a career in fin-tech and cryptocurrencies. All these are legitimate reasons for getting into graduate school. Nowadays, universities are seeing more and more career shifters getting into grad school. For example, many liberal arts majors are transitioning to MBA programs or other graduate programs in sciences or computing, or vice-versa.
This phenomenon in higher learning reflects the desire of new graduates and professionals not to change careers per se but to expand their skillsets while increasing their qualifications. Today’s job market has become increasingly selective in roles and is no longer looking for just one-trick-ponies, but rather, hybrid professionals who are proficient in at least two disciplines and can marry all their knowledge and expertise to be productive and innovative in the workplace.
Practice flexibility, critical thinking, intellectual curiosity, creativity, ingenuity, and resourcefulness.
These are all traits that go hand-in-hand in graduate school. Remember that the purpose of graduate school is not to meet a set of objectives or parameters, nor to meet a certain grade (not exactly, it is still a basis for grading, but it is not the ultimate objective of grad school). It is not that black and white. Graduate schools exist because the pursuit of learning and discovery does not cease. There is always a new concept, theory, innovation, or even a new perspective on an established school of thought to explore, critique, discuss and defend. This is where the abovementioned traits intersect and will play a role in achieving any of these goals.
Flexibility will come in handy when you are juggling work and school and when you are collaborating not only with classmates from the same program but also with other doctoral candidates from other programs. You will need to be flexible in dealing with professors who have different personalities. Some you will have a rapport with, while some will be distant.
Your intellect, problem-solving skills, creativity, ingenuity, and resourcefulness will come into play when, for example, you are designing an experiment to prove your hypothesis, and an element of it has failed. You cannot just leave your experiment hanging because of one simple failure. If it is an equipment or instrument failure, find ways to borrow, create or simulate the environment you will need if there is a lack of sample size, post on social media that you need test subjects for an experiment.
It is the ability to deal with problems and create solutions that will make you stand out in graduate school. Who knows, that ingenuine solution of yours may just be your ticket to being a student laureate, then exit graduate school in flying colors and even land the career of a lifetime. The world’s greatest inventions are born out of necessity, ingenuity, and a strong sense of sustainability. After all, sustainability is the brainchild of intellect, creativity, and resourcefulness to conserve the planet’s resources.
Understand patience, self-discipline, perseverance, and a sense of direction.
The rigorous demands of graduate school will test your patience, perseverance, and sense of direction. One of your first tests of character will be your professors. Some will be difficult to the point of being impossible to please. But instead of working hard to please them, think of it this way: he is just one professor in your program. While you may not get them to like you, you need to pass the course. So, what do you need to do?
- Make sure you comply with the typical requirements like academic papers, essays, and the like.
- Submit your papers on time.
- Read some of their published work, familiarize their writing style, and curry some favor your way.
- Do not be distracted by their disapproval or negativity! Maintain your discipline and perseverance, and let your output do the work for you.
You may still end up not being liked by this professor, but the important thing is you passed the course, and you are on the right track.
You do not need to memorize all these! It is either you have it in you, or you do not. If it is not there yet, keep these traits in mind to remind you that developing these traits, or soft skills, along with the hard skills mentioned at the beginning of this piece, are good ways to ensure your success and let you stand out in graduate school.
Do not be in a rush to stand out as a graduate student.
You have at least two years to do so. Fine-tune your hard and soft skills and your knowledge during that time. A balanced combination of knowledge and skills is the perfect formula and increases the chances of you standing out in grad school, which is why this list was started with tips on reading and writing for graduate school. That is how important those two skills are.
Sometimes, those who shine slowly but surely are those that truly stand out, rather than those who stand out during the early terms or years of their stay in the program, then slowly, their fame and sparkle dissipates. They can no longer live up to the hype.
Every book or journal or any form of literature that you read and every paper you submit, whether it gets published or not, is a step closer as you gear up to truly showcase what you are made of in the biggest showdown in graduate school – the culminating activity, which could be a research paper, a thesis, a dissertation or a capstone activity.
Do not force yourself to stand out though this may sound ironic to this entire piece. By letting things flow naturally, combined with your skills and other potentials, standing out in the crowd can and will happen independently. The bottom line is this: take each day in grad school as it comes, but do not let it pass by without you making a mark, whether for yourself or the recognition of others. Each day, read something relevant to your field. Get used to annotating and citing sources. Get used to writing in a scholastic tone. Collaborate and help your fellow candidates or even your professors. Practice defending research. Practice being involved in discussions, debates, or educational arguments. Make each day count so when the day of reckoning comes – the culminating activity – you will be armed and ready, and this is what you will be remembered for.
You might not have stood out in the days, weeks, months, or even years leading up to the culminating activity, but being prepared and polished in all aspects of your presentation or defense is something that will make you stand out both as a graduate student and a graduate. Of course, you have a research topic that is compelling, groundbreaking, and inspiring to go along with your fully prepared and polished presentation.
Do not rush, force, or overdo things in grad school. Otherwise, your efforts may go in vain, and you might stand out in grad school for all the wrong reasons. Below are some examples:
You try too hard to impress or to make waves. Feeding off the previous list of things you can do to stand out in grad school, trying too hard in any of those tips may do you more harm than good, as is with anything. If you read too much without managing your time, you may burn yourself out. While there is no such thing as too much writing, there is such as over-embellished writing, which is never a good thing. Be selective with your collaborations as well. Collaborate only if one, you are invited to partake in the endeavor; two, it is research which you believe you have something significant to contribute, your name will be cited as a co-author or contributor, or if you will be generously compensated; and three, if you have the time and commitment to do so. Do not commit to collaborate simply because you are trying to make a mark for yourself. If you do so and you fall through and have nothing to show for, you will just invite nothing but infamy and notoriety.
And remember tip number 3? Asking the right questions means knowing the right time to ask them as well. Do not overdo it by asking way too many questions you could have asked in another session or a private correspondence or one-on-one coaching with your professor. Lastly, being overzealous is never a good thing. It just rubs people the wrong way, and you do not want that, especially if you are new in school. Just maintain a good balance of all the tips mentioned above, know your timing, be armed and ready, and all will fall into place.
Plagiarism. Whether academically or professionally, this is a mortal sin. But just like any sin in the world, people, or in this case, students, still fall for the temptation to copy someone else’s work or to not cite their references. With sources becoming increasingly available and easily accessible, students find it effortless to scour for sources. But they also find it much easier not to cite them or, worse, copy them verbatim.
But the internet is a double-edged sword; where it has provided students and readers easy access to sources, it has also provided the space for app engineers and creators to come up with various anti-plagiarism software programs to combat it. So, if you are tempted or too tired to track your sources and citations and are compelled to plagiarize, pause before you type. Take a break and remember that it is much easier now for readers and editors to spot plagiarism and to fact-check as well. Once your work has been detected with plagiarized lines and uncited sources, the infamy that follows suit will be embarrassing.
Declining an opportunity to help a colleague(s) academically. You don’t want to be branded as condescending, apathetic, nonchalant, disinterested, or full of yourself by your classmates or even your professor. A bad reputation is difficult to change or erase, especially when your time in graduate school is indeterminable. You could spend, at the very least, a year and a half to as long as five or six years to graduate. So, you do not want a bad reputation nor a bad back story to trail you during your stay. Extend a helping hand when you can and can afford the time and commitment to do so. This goes back to the previous tip on collaboration but avoids overdoing it as well. Collaborate smartly but genuinely. You can say “no” if your time does not really permit you to do so, but still try to help that colleague in one way or another without blowing them off.
Fame or infamy is all about common sense if you think about it. To stand out in a crowd in a good way, you have got to be distinct and to be distinct in graduate school. Strike the perfect balance of skills, right attitude, and timing.
To stand out in a crowd notoriously, a certain distinction is necessary with a hint of common sense. If you rub someone the wrong way, of course, you will give a bad first impression, which in grad school is a bad way to start your term or your entire stay. If you copy someone else’s work, not only will it disappoint and turn people off of you, but you might even see yourself at the receiving end of some serious disciplinary action from the university. It might even cost you your degree and get you blacklisted in other universities. It is indeed a serious offense.
Strive to accomplish greatness in grad school instead of just “standing out!” That is a better way to look at it because standing out is a double-edged sword and can work both ways, either for you or against you. But if you strive to accomplish good or even yet, great things while in graduate school, then standing out and recognition will follow naturally.