What Does it Take to Succeed in Graduate School?

grad school success

This article provides 25 tips for ensuring success in graduate school. These tips are specific enough to serve as clear and concrete directives while being general enough to apply most, if not all, to the fields of graduate studies.

For many people, Graduate Studies and Graduate Schools maintain a kind of mystique. It is clear to everybody that Graduate School is different, a step up in difficulty and depth, perhaps than what they experienced in undergraduate studies.

The mystery of the new setting, some horror stories from others, the daunting prospects of “all that reading and writing,” a big thesis or dissertation, and many other likely reasons, make getting a grip on some of the basic principles of graduate school success imperative.

Check this out, too: 30 Game-Changing Tips For Graduate Students

Creating a Mindset for Success in Graduate School

Prepare Early

Getting an early start on preparing for graduate school success is always a good idea. This means if you have any inkling that you might be interested in going to graduate school begin immediately, even while an undergraduate, to weigh your options, costs, and benefits. This would include taking a good look at your current major to see if it serves as preparation for later graduate studies you are most interested in. Is your current degree program giving you the needed courses and experiences? Another area to consider early on is the likelihood you’ll get a job soon enough and that pays well enough to justify the added time and expense of graduate school. Not all graduate degrees are equal in terms of time, cost, and financial benefits. Look at the entrance requirements of the graduate programs and schools you are most interested in to see if your current and previous studies measure up.

Know Why You Want to Go to Graduate School

People go to graduate school for many reasons. Some for solely educational and enrichment purposes: curiosity and desire for self-improvement. Graduate school in such cases often becomes an option for someone who has retired from a different career or is in a well-established job who simply wants to diversify their interests and abilities. Sometimes graduate school is seen as a way out of a current career. Others understand that for certain professional and academic careers, graduate studies, often through the doctoral level, are required. If you are able to self-analyze your own motives and goals as these relate to graduate school, you will likely be able to establish a good plan that fits into your current lifestyle that will help you avoid burn-out, discouragement, needless debt, and adequate preparation.

Know the Differences between Graduate and Undergraduate Studies

It is important to understand how graduate school remains similar to undergraduate studies, yet introduces some very big and important differences. While undergraduate programs often require a much heavier course load in which courses are mainly in lecture format, with a strong professorial guiding hand, graduate study is much more directed towards student learning, understanding, and mastery. Smaller course loads, with much higher reading and writing requirements, characterize graduate school in comparison to undergraduate. So, instead of broad overviews, wherein repetition and memorization are more prevalent, graduate students are expected to begin engaging ideas and scholars on an equal basis, offering their own critical analysis and insights.

Have a Good Idea of Your Educational and Realistic Career Goals

A fast way to turn a graduate degree experience bad is having unrealistic expectations. Surely, a certain idealism will color rosy almost any new or potential graduate student’s anticipation of their preferred advanced course of study. Here we’re talking primarily about likely outcomes in terms of acceptance into your top school choice, the cost to pay ratio for graduates in your chosen field of study, and, finally, availability of and the likelihood of finding work in your field after graduation. So, before you decide on a graduate degree or school, be sure you have a clear vision of the likely outcome/s of your studies. Look at department placement rates, hiring statistics, number of positions available, and average salaries. Do not look through rose-colored glasses.

Find Faculty You Would Like to Work With

A very important component, beyond institutional and faculty reputation, is finding faculty that are a good fit for you! Why is faculty fit important for graduate studies? The department faculty in your graduate program will very likely interact with you much more than they might have during your undergraduate days. This is because graduate students are required to be much more engaged, in the main, than undergraduates. So, no more anonymity in the back row. Not that any aspired graduate students would match this description. Another reason for considering faculty is that one or more will be advisors to you during your time in graduate school. So, don’t be afraid of contacting graduate faculty directly. Their institutions will provide contact information. If they have lectures online or other social media presence, you can try reaching them through that. Read their published works, and, if possible, talk to former students.

Get to Know Potential Mentors/Advisors

Once you’re in graduate school, early on get to know likely/potential mentors and advisors. Most educators are happy to share their knowledge and experience and ready to give students advice. By interacting early and often, you’ll establish rapport with potential mentors and be in a better position to judge how well you could collaborate.

See about Financial Support

The cost of graduate school can vary widely. Often, however, for highly qualified applicants, scholarships and living expense stipends are awarded. There are also numerous scholarships and loan opportunities available to graduate students. Just remember that loans will have to be repaid. Talk to your current mentors and financial advisors, and also contact likely schools where you will be applying about financing options.

The Social Side of Graduate Studies

Graduate School is not solely or even primarily about books, laboratory experiments, writing, seminars, etc. It is about human relationships and service to others, whether in a profession or in academia. Here are some tips for keeping in mind the “more important things,” which will most often term out to be academics and professional boosts, as well.

Be Social

Although graduate school requires more study and writing time than you will have ever experienced, it is not an entrance into a hermitage! Being engaging and present to and with faculty and colleagues is very important for intellectual broadening and growth as well as fighting through times of discouragement. The days of graduate school also often are the times when friendships and professionals contacts are established. Plus, an opportunity is so often combined with being present at the right time.

Make Good Friendships

Friendships with others in the same field of study with the same interests can be both sources of great personal consolation, enjoyment, and encouragement in ways that extend beyond the classroom and the length of a graduate program. Academic friendships are seedbeds of innovation and discovery. United in conversation and research, like-minded friendships are the spaces for testing hypotheses, receiving confirmation and criticism, and clarifying your thoughts. A friendship made in graduate school often pays dividends down the road because when a friend hears of a new opportunity, they will think of you!

Find the Right Mentors

This is key for both your academic and career success and is an outgrowth of being socially present. The right mentors will not try to re-make you in their own image, nor will they expect work from you for which you will not receive credit. The right style of mentor will seek to understand your interests and goals, and then put their knowledge and talents at your service to help you achieve success. They will not be fonts of affirmation, however. A good advisor-mentor will be quick to provide constructive criticism where it is needed.

Don’t Lose Contact with Your Family

All too easy to take for granted, family, whether immediate or extended, needs to remain a constant and stabilizing factor for graduate students. It is often the case that early aspirations and dreams of higher students flow from the experiences of family. Family can often also provide stability, rootedness, and clarity regarding the “big picture” and the important matters relating to values and “just why am I in graduate school”?

Communicate

Don’t clam up, keeping everything to yourself. If you have questions or concerns, address them to the relevant parties in a respectful, straightforward, and clear manner. A level of transparency will bring clarity to any situation and build confidence in your knowledge of your situation. Clear and open communication will also occasion feedback that will be useful in building a circle of friends and selecting mentors, who will often go on to serve on thesis and dissertation committees.

Listen to Advice

This key to success has been mentioned already but bears repeating. Listen carefully and receptively to advice, especially from friends and advisors. Clearly presented suggestions, praise, and criticisms from those who genuinely care about your success and well-being are priceless. Others can sometimes see more than ourselves about a given situation, topic, or idea, or just see it from a different and fresh perspective.

Consult

Sometimes advice is not just freely offered, even by friends, family, and advisors. Always be ready to consult with others, especially, where they might have experience or expertise in an area that you lack. Again, human beings are wired to respond to questions and most professors are happy to share with students. And, seeking out and consulting those in positions to know will be a sign of your own interest and initiative, which will help forge relationships and bear fruit down the road.

Coursework, Reading, Research, Writing

Learn How to Make and Meet Deadlines

To do this you will need to quickly bring forward past college experience and integrate, making adjustments as needed, to the new and increased demands of graduate studies. Also, pick the brains of current and former graduate students for tips. Procrastination can not only make graduate studies a misery, it can destroy them. Reasonable deadlines that you learn to both establish and keep are very important for managing and juggling life’s responsibilities with study.

Make Wise, Efficient Use of Your Time

A way of making sure you can meet those deadlines is to make wise use of your time. When you have a research paper due in a week, have the foresight to forego watching that extra episode of your favorite Star Wars spin-off. Instead of going out or visiting with friends put your mind and effort into your course work and requirements. Work that is planned out and not infused with the essence of frantic cramming and/or composition, will be of higher quality, and benefit from the opportunity of revision and editing. Wise and efficient use of time will also help you discover your own best pace of work, which we discuss in the next tip.

Know How You Work

Personal awareness of how much reading, writing, editing, discussion, and the other factors of successful graduate studies is optimal, takes time. Yet, this kind of awareness is important for maintaining focus and optimism during your studies. Some work well with long, unbroken periods of intense concentration followed by lengthy rests. Others do better with shorter bursts of energy and shorter breaks. Find your own sweet spot. This will allow you to more efficiently and wisely manage your time and set reasonable and productive deadlines for yourself.

Reading and Writing

Graduate school, as most know, requires much more than undergraduate studies in terms of the amount of reading that is required and the amount and quality of the writing expected. Often, limitations of time and the overwhelming amount of published studies in a given field will make it impossible to read every work in a discipline. Moreover, the sheer volume of publications will make it nearly impossible to read every page you do, in fact, select to read. Overcoming the barrier of time and climbing the mountain of publications requires both selection and reading strategies. Selection of actually what to read is more an art than a science. Here trust your own research and inclinations, but always inform your selections by discussing the literature with your mentors, as well as your friends and colleagues. When it comes to process reading itself, learn to recognize key terms, understand the main arguments, and the introduction and conclusion. This will provide a faster entry into the text, and you can judge whether it is worth more careful engagement and scrutiny.

When writing, remember careful research, planning, and outlining at the outset pays off down the road in terms of quality of writing and time. As mentioned already, discover your best way of writing. Discuss your projects with your advisors and friends. Ask friends and colleagues to read and critique your outlines and drafts. They will be in a good position to honestly evaluate your argumentation, flow of ideas, clarity, and sources.

Jot Down Ideas and Organize Them

A typical graduate student’s mind is constantly bursting with new insights and connections, arising through conversation, reading, and reflection. Be sure to keep means for journaling these revelations, which often go out of the mind only shortly after their first appearance. They may never result in publications, but they keep you engaged and serious about your own research and thinking. Many times, however, these brief jottings will become important for your thesis or dissertation, or even later academic publications. Once you have begun to journal your thoughts, organize, along with your reading notes, into files. Academic work is not all creativity and inspiration. No, seeds of creativity often only bear fruit when grown on the tree of organization and watered with wise labor.

Keep the Correct Focus

This key hearkens back to our earlier keys about knowing why you’re pursuing graduate studies. If you have a clear understanding of the goals you are bringing into your studies, you will likely be better equipped to weather times of discouragement, as well as the grind of graduate school. A correct focus upon the goals or purposes for taking on graduate studies will help you get beyond the difficulties of the moment and gain perspective. The goal will be like a beacon of hope shining from the end of your journey through graduate school. Whether financial betterment is your goal, simply altruistic motives spur you, or, what is likely more common, your goals are a mixture of both, having them in mind will help keep your studies sailing smoothly till you reach that harbor of graduation and disembark on your new career journeys.

Find a Good Thesis/Dissertation Topic

If you cultivate strong rapport with your mentors and have developed sound reading and research habits, coupled with disciplined writing schedules, a thesis or dissertation will be much less difficult and daunting. The notes you have will be a precious treasure chest of topical possibilities. Typically, a master’s thesis will demonstrate mastery of a given topic within a field as well as knowledge and facility with a representative sampling of the literature. A dissertation is a bit more ambitious, requiring not merely proficiency or mastery, but original research. Your own records and habits will be of great service. In addition, consult your mentor about topics. They will help you find a space for you in the scholarship and to narrow your topic to a manageable scope for either a thesis or a dissertation.

Thesis/Dissertation Committee Members are Very Important

A good thesis or dissertation director will certainly affect the quality of the experience of researching and writing. In some cases, especially with doctoral dissertations, a bad director will upend the entire dissertation and, likely, degree along with it. A good director will see your strengths and weak areas and encourage and guide you to produce your best scholarship. The other member of the committee will fill in other gaps and provide meaningful and timely advice and critique. The importance of good thesis/dissertation director and committee makes cultivating good relationships at the beginning of your graduate studies of very high importance.

20 Key Habits Of Successful Graduate Students

Dr. Jared Goff
Chief Editor