20 Key Habits of Successful Graduate Students

Written by Grad School Center Team We are a passionate team of experienced educators and advisors at, dedicated to guiding students through their graduate education journey. Our experts, with advanced degrees across various disciplines, offer personalized advice, up-to-date program information, and practical insights into application processes.

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Updated: June 6, 2024, Reading time: 33 minutes

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As with any other major life decision, attending graduate school will embark on new challenges that will lead to lifestyle changes. These alterations will significantly affect the student’s priorities, time, personal life, employment, and even financial status.

As per the Council of Graduate Schools and the Graduate Record Examinations Survey of Graduate Enrollment and Degrees, in Fall 2019, there were roughly a total of 1,811,832 enrolments for graduate-level certificate and education specialist programs.

So, why do many people still pursue graduate studies? Why not settle for college degrees and get fastened on establishing a career after graduation? Well, for some, it may be investing in their future, like increasing earning potential, reaching more than a qualification, contributing to the world’s knowledge, and expanding their networks or connections.

At the same time, some want to tailor their interests to a more in-depth approach or pursue their personal or career growth. 

Whatever reasons people may have, applying to graduate school is a decision not to be made lightly. It is essential to expect more imperative demands from graduate schools. They will take several years to complete and require hard work, not to mention the expensive pressure that could add to your debts.

So, even if you have a great embodiment of preparedness for what’s to come, the first year of grad school will feel more challenging than you grasped it to be. Even for those directly engaged in graduate studies after graduating, the personal shifts can be drastic since graduate school is a whole new level and quite different from the undergraduate experience. 

You need to stand out to make it through grad school! And, to do that, you need to develop more pronounced academic or personal habits than you already established during your college years. Practicing these habits can:

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Here are the 20 most recommended habits:

Stay motivated!

Your overriding reasons to pursue graduate study must be firmly founded. The decision-making is the easiest part, but anyone considering enrolling in a graduate school program must be motivated; you need to maintain it, as this is the driving force that will keep you hustling through the pressure and exhaustion.

“Motivation is what sets you in motion; habit is what keeps you going” -Jim Ryun.

Motivation is especially significant for students attending an online graduate school since communication with classmates and professors requires patience, self-discipline, and the ability to ask critical questions as needed. 

How do you get motivated?

What do you do if you lose your motivation?

Setbacks are pretty normal, especially if you are feeling stagnant and unproductive. Here are tips to help you find your motivation again:

Be organized.

There is nothing quite more fulfilling than completing a task without having to undergo cramming and incoherent thoughts. Being organized is the enjoyable difference between a smooth sailing experience and a stressful one for graduate school programs.

This is achievable through organizing what you’re going to do and when you’re going to do it. Try to keep in mind that organized thoughts are one of the best weapons during pivotal times. 

Here’s how you can become organized as a grad student:

1. Adopt an effective system of organization. Remember that a messy environment can be stress-inducing, so be sure to:

2. Create and consistently adhere to a schedule. Organization and time management have a reciprocal relationship. Here are some common things to remember:

3. Use tech tools.

Fortunately, today’s technology has made it possible for us to have accessible and portable tools that greatly help us keep tabs on our day-to-day tasks. So here are some popular applications that can help you stay on top of your appointments, exam schedules, research deadlines, and other tools that may be useful with your readings and thesis.

4. Set up a Document Management System. As you proceed to your graduate programs, you will accumulate numerous documents, such as research materials, readings, assignments, essay papers, and manuscripts. Here are ways to keep your documents well-organized:

Master time management.

It is of principal importance that graduate students should have the ability to divide time efficiently. Unlike during your undergraduate career, graduate students are busy bees expected to participate in teaching classes, do an internship, contribute to a research group, present at conferences, or join a student organization. Then there are external activities with personal life. So, how does one commit to these demands? 

Grad Student Success Key Habits-fact 2

Below are time management tips for thriving in graduate school:

Find your study spot.

Your study space is an excellent booster to your ability to study efficiently. As a grad student, it’s vital to this stage of your life to create a study environment that fosters productivity and minimizes distractions. So, make an effort to manage your study space. After all, a comfortable space sharpens the mind and improves concentration. 

Create your designated space.

Create a positive atmosphere and attitude.

Keep study tools within reach.

Be proactive!

A research finding in psychology literature shows that being proactive or taking responsibility for your future path correlates positively with tremendous career success and satisfaction. Proactivity is a conveyable skill that students can develop through their academic courses.

Every grad student should take responsibility for their own grad school experience, especially developing their potential and knowledge. This is achievable by getting real-life experiences that can prepare a person for the real world.

Many aspects of life can provide this kind of experience, such as a job, internship, charity work, and joining organizations. 

Here are some certain key points and tips on how to adopt a proactive mindset:

Be resilient!

Graduate school programs are great deals that require heaps of flexibility. One constant heads-up for potential graduate school students is, “Do you have what it takes to juggle up work, family, or personal obligations and study under pressure?”

Grad Student Success Key Habits-fact 3

The ability to be resilient under pressure enables a person to generate new ways to adapt to changes in routines, solve problems, and adjust to the unexpected. Make adjustments, make room for mistakes, and be versatile!

Here are some helpful tips to become one:

Be familiar with your program requirements and plan timelines

Nothing can prepare a person more than knowing what battle they are going to face. It is significantly advisable for a candidate grad student to understand the requirements and timelines of their chosen course. This is to prepare the student for the workloads and academic requirements they will be tasked to do.

Here are some standard course requirements for graduate school programs:

Masters Degree

Doctoral Programs

Prepare and follow an annual plan

An annual plan and timeline will allow a grad student to set the overall direction throughout the education program. The following are standard guides to help you achieve this.

Be consistent!

Consistency is a big factor in achieving success in grad school. However, there are various consistency strategies that grad students develop throughout their studies. The difference in consistency levels in people has a science behind it. 

We’re told that it usually takes 21 days for people to form a habit and that it entails consistently doing a certain task. However, psychologist Jeremy Dean conducted a study that debunked this popular notion. 

In his book, “Making Habits, Breaking Habits: Why We Do Things, Why We Don’t, and How to Make Any Change Stick,” he revealed that people have varying durations of when something can be transformed into a habit. It is not always 21 days that a person will develop a habit and stick with it.

He explained that based on an influential study about habit-formation, people on average form a habit in 66 days – way longer than the 21-day expectation that we have always assumed. 

With this finding in mind, it would be best for graduate students to not focus on how fast they can be consistent with their requirements and schoolwork. The important thing to remember is how dedicated they are to finishing something and delivering a great quality output every time.

Here are suggestions on how to be consistent in grad school: 

Be optimistic!

Optimism is a healthy habit that helps us become happier and calmer. It can save people from depression and anxiety. An optimistic mindset and outlook make people more resistant to unnecessary thoughts that lead to stress. It may even help people live longer.

Your success in grad school is closely dependent on how capable you think you are! If a graduate student is convinced that they can overcome everything, they will face challenges head-on and have a strong positive outlook.

Here are some strategies to nurture optimism:

Embrace the concept of self-advocacy

What is self-advocacy? This is realizing your worth as a person, especially speaking up for yourself, making decisions about your life, finding out what things are of best interest to you, knowing your rights as a human being, knowing the essence of seeking help, and learning the concept of self-determination. 

A self-advocating student affirms their ability to communicate and assert their needs effectively. In other words, this person is willing to do whatever it takes to accomplish the goal and uses all available resources to make sure she is successful in graduate school.

This student does not hesitate to:

Find the right balance.

“If you feel ‘burnout’ setting in, if you feel demoralized and exhausted, it is best, for the sake of everyone, to withdraw and restore yourself.” – Dalai Lama.

This is the most important but frequently taken-for-granted practice, especially for ambitious graduate students and go-getters. Considering the numerous roles, piling commitments, and responsibilities other than their academic obligations, graduate school students find it difficult to juggle their student life and personal life. 

Grad Student Success Key Habits-fact 5

According to a paper in the Journal of College and Character titled Finding a Balanced Life: Factors That Contribute to Life Satisfaction in Graduate Students by Stratton et al. (2006), graduate students consistently indicated that “Social support, Optimism, Balance in life, and Spirituality were important contributors to life satisfaction.” 

More specifically, students emphasized the need to connect with other graduate students, receive support from faculty, focus on the favorable aspects of graduate school, and balance academics with free time.

Students mentioned that they were more fulfilled in graduate school when they found their educational endeavors meaningful and furthered their ability to live with intention and purpose.

Critical Benefits of Maintaining a Balanced Lifestyle with a Support System:

A stress-free mind creates mental wellbeing and gives way to creativity, calmness, and a sense of control.

It can be a struggle and challenge to complete a graduate school program without the support and understanding of your family and friends. Some things to consider before starting your program include childcare, work obligations, financial aid or funding, home life responsibilities, coursework responsibilities, and scheduling.

A successful student discusses her needs with family and friends and ensures their support as she completes her program.

Decreases the chances for stress-related diseases such as Heart Disease and Alzheimers, decelerates aging, and initiates the release of endorphins.

Eating smart and exercising regularly helps provide your body with the nutrients and care that it needs. It can also improve your energy levels. Remember that your body is your ultimate tool in living and that an unfueled car tank cannot drive a distance on its own

It’s not just exercise and a healthy diet that can lead to improvement of your mood. Healthy habits such as social connections and an active spiritual life can give students outlets that can reassure them in times of doubt. Once in a while, take a break or a day off and enjoy a serene moment for yourself.

Watch what you eat.

Graduate students often face the dilemma of eating for health or eating for pleasure. They often find themselves deciding on vending machine food or grabbing donuts from the lounge for a fast meal.

But nutrition is critical to school performance—grad school performance included. In the busy life of a grad student where emotional upheavals are commonplace, it pays to understand the close relationship between diet and mood swings. 

Perhaps eating healthy, according to a study in 2016, requires a low-glycemic diet to reduce depression and fatigue. Because a healthy diet can maintain cognition and brain health, you may want to consider this research, which identifies the nutrients that prevent cognitive deterioration and dementia.

Establish positive relationships.

The adage “No man is an island” is applicable to graduate students, too. You face pressure and demands and will need assistance and guidance from those who know best.

Positive relationships with your supervisors, university staff, and fellow students will make your tasks more bearable and fulfilling.

Here are ways to foster positive relationships within the academe:

What makes establishing positive relationships even better is that it can add more years to your life. As stress and struggles from school work take a toll on your body, engaging in positive social interactions will help improve your physical state.

According to the Association for Psychological Science, happy and positive relationships within your workplace, personal life, and overall environment lead to greater longevity

Join a study group.

A wide array of study groups are always present in graduate schools and universities. Study groups promote a lot of different benefits.

Here are some ways study groups are helpful for you as a graduate student: 

Decide on your online platform for grad study! The popular tools at your disposal are Google Hangouts, Zoom, Skype, and Workplace. All these are lauded for their online learning and video conferencing features.

Get enough sleep!

Coffee might be a graduate student’s best friend, but nothing beats getting enough sleep. Demands in grad school can be endless but make sure that you get adequate rest to help your mind and body recover.

According to the American Psychological Association, not getting enough rest and sleep might trigger depression, hopelessness, and even suicide. Specifically, Psychology graduate students only get an average of 4 hours of sleep every night. 

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To make sure you manage your sleep well in graduate school, here are ten tips that can maximize your sleep schedule: 

Ask questions.

Learning things in grad school would always require asking questions. It may not be enjoyable to some, but this is one of the most effective ways to know certain things you are curious about. 

The perfect time to ask questions in the university or school is once you get accepted. Your entrance to such a new journey would require you to list some essential questions that you need to ask certain people. This will eventually prepare you for what to face for graduate school. 

Here are some helpful questions that you can ask the school faculty upon acceptance: 

You can also ask other graduate students about their opinions about grad school. Here are some questions that you can take note of: 

Take notes the right way!

A graduate student must always be diligent in taking notes. Discussions, lectures, and never-ending presentations might all be overwhelming, but as soon as you establish an effective strategy in notetaking, your success rate will be way higher.

There are a lot of ways that students take notes in class. With the changing times, online notes and digital planners have evolved the way people take notes.

Here are some ways to effectively take notes in grad school: 

1. The Cornell Method, for many, helps them take notes in class efficiently. It has three main areas for notetaking. They are explained below:

2. Traditional notetaking is the most commonly used way for students to take notes. All you need is your notebook and pen. It features lists, diagrams, tables, charts, highlights, and drawings.

3. Digital notetaking is convenient, quick, and user-friendly in this age of phones, laptops, and other gadgets. Take a look at the common digital notetaking strategies by grad students: 

Be original!

Graduate students’ one major ticket to surviving grad school is to have an excellent research paper. But what makes other students stand out from the rest is that they have uniquely crafted research that reflects their specialty in their chosen field. 

A research paper is a comprehensive paperwork that emphasizes interpreting a chosen topic or argument and supporting references to validate your point. You can gather and use four types of research data when doing your research paper for grad school.

Make sure to choose the best one that can make your research interesting and impressive.

Here are the ways you can be original in making your research paper in grad school: 

Treat failure as a learning curve.

With the pressures from academia to balance personal and work life, graduate students would always have their fair share of struggles. One absolute point that we have to face is that failure is always a potential endpoint. However, a successful graduate student knows how to treat a failure as a chance to improve and be better.

Here are three main points to consider on how you shape failure as your learning curve: 

Key Takeaways

Graduate school is a challenging journey, but with the right habits, success will always follow you!

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