How to Survive Grad School

According to NSF’s Survey of Earned Doctorates, the number of individuals who received their doctorate degrees slightly decreased from 55,614 in 2019 to 55,283 in 2020. But even said decrease doesn’t paint the whole picture – the attrition rate for graduate students was estimated at 50% in previous years! Many factors are involved including peer and university support, mental health, and financial stability, and graduate students must be aware of these factors when setting expectations as they learn how to survive grad school.

Survive Grad School - fact

In previous years, the most valuable undergraduate degrees were in architectural engineering, construction services, computer engineering, aerospace engineering, and transportation sciences and engineering. The degrees that were associated with these areas led to the highest-paid jobs in the country, thus, their value. 

With this in mind, the following tips for grad school survival will come in handy. You will want to survive graduate school and earn your degree because more and more occupations are requiring a graduate degree for career advancement. 

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But even a bachelor’s degree holder will find that a graduate degree will open more doors to career advancement. As the Bureau of Labor Statistics says it, when you learn more, you earn more! 

Based on its latest (2019) data, individuals with graduate degrees tend to earn the highest median weekly income and enjoy the lowest unemployment rate. Individuals with a doctorate degree, for example, earned $1,883 in median weekly wages against those with a master’s degree ($1,497) and a bachelor’s degree ($1,248).

With these financial benefits, it’s no wonder that graduate applications increased by 7.3% in Fall 2020! Even the first-time graduate enrollment also saw a slight increase of 1.8% despite the challenges brought by the COVID-19 pandemic. 

The increase in applications and enrollment can be attributed to the fact that future professionals can choose to specialize in an area of study that captures their interest. They engage primarily in research and are poised to contribute to the field.

But while the numbers are optimistic, graduate students take on a heavy academic load, and many of them keep a full-time job while at it; hence, the struggle. Motivation can only do so much, and it all will start to feel like an obligation in no time.

The COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the mental toll on graduate students, too. Many studies have revealed that graduate students tend to experience depression, anxiety and other mental health issues three times more than the general population. 

Besides their underlying psychological conditions, an inefficient education system, and the lack of support from or communication with professors can cause graduate students to drop out; not to mention the pressure for students to find and keep the type of career that measures up to the effort they put in graduate studies.

To avoid these pitfalls, graduate students must be well prepared. They need to be armed with the right tools, mindset, and knowledge to see through to their graduate degree completion.

Here are some “How To Survive Grad School” tips! Explore your options using these page jumps!

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But first, research.
Keep a healthy work-study-life balance.
Get support.
Create a budget.
Don’t just survive; thrive.
Do not get too overwhelmed.
Utilize every resource you have.
Focus on the idea or solution.
Take an active part in the community.
Find a good mentor.


But first, research.

Research is the foundation of planning that, in turn, is the basis for your success as a graduate student! Research is also the end result of your graduate studies – it’s known as a dissertation – so it pays to start early on your research skills. 

What should you research about before taking the plunge into graduate school? Start with your clearly defined goals – what you want to achieve in terms of job outlook, earning potential, and long-term career prospects is a good start. Your goals will serve as your guideposts when measuring your progress from start to finish in your graduate studies. 

Research will also become the basis for setting realistic expectations. You must look for answers about the time commitment, cost of attendance and academic rigor of whatever graduate degree you’re planning on pursuing. You can then consider these factors in light of your current and future financial capacity, personal and professional commitments, and intellectual capacity. With sufficient research, you will also be able to specialize in the area of study that addresses your learning preferences and interests. You will then be more likely to excel in your academics and adhere to academic standards, perhaps even achieve published studies before your graduation.


Keep a healthy work-study-life balance.

Ask yourself: Can I commit to graduate study without sacrificing life outside school or work?

Graduate study demands A LOT from you. Studying, researching, and writing eventually become the new normal for a graduate student. With full-time work on the side, you may find yourself squeezing in academic tasks during the weekend, on holidays, or after-work hours. However, this kind of lifestyle is not sustainable. It can cause burnout and you may develop strained relationships with family, friends, and colleagues.

Fortunately, you can keep a healthy balance between your personal, professional and academic commitments! 

  • Schedule your time efficiently by setting daily, weekly and monthly calendars. You will be able to identify the little time-stealers and remove them from your daily routine. You can also set time aside for rest and recreation as well as for work and studies. 
  • Respect your limits. Avoid buying into the multitasking culture and accept that there’s only so much work and studies you can handle. Stick to your priorities so that you can say “No!” to tasks that aren’t on your list. 
  • Delegate tasks that can be done by others while you set to work on your graduate goals. 
  • Engage in activities that make you rested, happy and energized, such as hobbies or sports. Socialize with family and friends, attend special occasions, and enjoy the ride! 

In the end, you must manage your time including the people, places and activities you spend it on. Otherwise, you will end up spreading yourself too thinly. 


Get support.

The lack of support from your friends and family can be damaging to your success. You must create a strong support system that will provide inspiration, motivation and assistance throughout your journey. You will find that, indeed, even a piece of paper becomes lighter with assistance – even more so for your research paper! 

Start with your family by getting them involved in the decision-making process. You should allow them to see your goals (and your choice to enroll in graduate school) from your perspective. Let your family know of your circumstances and explain what is expected of you as a graduate student.  Emphasize that ultimately, you can’t do it without their support.

Then, ask for your friends’ support, too, in a similar way as when you asked for it from your family. Their support can come in a wide range of ways, too, from offering motivation through your difficult times to getting your head out of intellectual pursuits for a while. Keeping in touch with them and joining them in their fun are a must, too. 

Don’t forget about your faculty advisor and/or mentor, too.


Create a budget.

Financial unpreparedness takes you to the losing end. A master’s degree can cost between $30,000 and $120,000 with factors including the university, degree and program length affecting the actual cost. Note, too, that students in master’s degree programs are less likely to receive financial assistance than their counterparts in undergraduate and doctorate programs. 

The average cost of doctorate degrees are higher at $114,300 for at least five years of study. But the actual costs vary between universities, too, with prestigious universities known for expensive tuition. New York University’s PhD students, for example, can pay as much as $294,200 over an eight-year period. 

The bottom line: Budget planning before your enrollment can help you avoid unwanted expenses! Keep these tips in mind when planning for the financial costs of graduate school.

  • Make sure you have sustainable savings to meet family obligations even with your graduate degree on the horizon. 
  • Consider an accredited online graduate school to save on travel expenses. You’ll enjoy the convenience without compromising the quality of graduate education you acquire.
  • Find ways to decrease your out-of-pocket costs. Opting for government-sponsored scholarships, working for your graduate institution, or having employers pay for your graduate program are some of the ways.Some teacher assistantships can help you accumulate credits, which means fewer classes to attend and lower payments to make. 
  • Ask for information about the financial aid options in your school. Many universities have financial aid counselors that can assist in planning your personalized financial plan – use the service! 

Creating a budget will also prevent your student debts from piling up! Unfortunately, graduate students have high student debts – on average, it’s $71,287 for master’s degree holders and $159,625 for PhD holders.


Don’t just survive; thrive.

Survival means keeping your head above water but thriving means getting past your challenges with flying colors. Between the two states, you will obviously want to thrive! You can thrive with these tips, too. 

  • Get enough exercise, maintain proper nutrition, and get plenty of sleep. The healthier you are, the better your mind and body can cope with the academic rigor of your graduate studies. You will also be able to enjoy the activities that make you happy and, thus, better able to deal with the academic pressure. 
  • Make the right plans. You should also consider setting a routine that will keep your feet grounded. Your life may have undergone radical changes due to your graduate studies but your routine is a reliable constant. 
  • Keep a strict schedule to make time for school, work, socializing, family, and yourself. Communicate with classmates and faculty members regularly to help you ease the feeling of isolation that comes with keeping a hectic schedule.

Do not get too overwhelmed.

Are your course requirements becoming too much to handle? If it’s any consolation, you’re not alone in feeling overwhelmed by the course load! 

In graduate school, a full-time course load means three courses. But don’t be fooled into thinking that you handled five courses in your undergraduate studies with flying colors so three courses is a breeze! There’s a good reason for the three course-limit – you will be reading more learning materials than you ever thought possible in college! 

There’s also the different course structure with graduate courses consisting of little to no lecture classes. Most of your courses are conducted in small seminars with small class sizes, sometimes even as little as five students. These seminars are venues for students to participate in intellectual discussions with their peers, faculty members and even expert resource speakers.  

Even the quality of your assignments, presentations and dissertation is a step up from your undergraduate days! You and your fellow students will also spend more time on each course than you did in college. 

Fortunately, there are steps you can do to avoid being overwhelmed by the academic rigor and expectations! 

  • Take a step back and breathe deeply. It is normal to be overwhelmed by the truckload of academic tasks; it’s graduate school, after all! Even a minute of taking deep breaths, perhaps extended into a 5-minute meditation session, will calm your nerves. You can even do it while on a break! 
  • Redirect your negative thoughts to positive things that help you boost your confidence. Mind control is the right step toward making your life as a graduate student better.  
  • Avoid all forms of distraction, such as social media, on “meet-the-deadline” days. If necessary, you can turn off notifications on your social media account and ask your family and friends to respect your study time. 
  • Create a smooth workflow to meet your goals without overlapping your schedules. Getting your files and study materials organized, planning your day including setting your goals, and sticking to your schedule are great ideas, too. 
  • Take small but sure steps toward accomplishing your tasks on a daily and weekly basis, as opposed to getting all those papers done all at once.

Utilize every resource you have.

Graduate school is often the lonely road less taken, but you’re not all alone in it! The trick is in finding the resources that the university and graduate program offer, as well as asking for support from your family and friends. You should consider surprising yet effective resources including: 

  • Share ideas with other students, talk about your challenges with them, and perhaps, find solutions together. 
  • Ask your colleagues and supervisors for help in data gathering for your graduate thesis. 
  • Talk to your professors if you need academic guidance, direction, or advice.

Many of the effective resources are also outlined on your university’s website and discussed during orientation days. You must pay attention to these resources and maximize them during your stay. The best examples of resources in the form of student services are: 

  • Traditional and digital library support 
  • Faculty advising/mentorship 
  • Academic support services 
  • Admissions assistance 
  • Financial aid information and support 
  • Alcohol and drug education 
  • Community service and service learning 
  • Food and housing support 
  • Health and wellness services including insurance 
  • Campus ministries

Focus on the idea or solution.

Just because you’re in graduate school doesn’t mean you love everything about it. The graduate thesis, for one, involves an arduous process nobody can be truly prepared for! 

But if you focus on its negative aspects, such as the difficulty of getting approval for your topic, then you will become overwhelmed and discouraged. Instead, focus on the positive aspects and take small steps toward achieving your goal. 

Start by conducting mini-experiments that will improve your research skills, iron the kinks in your methodologies, and clarify vague ideas. Checking out relevant research publications will also provide more inputs for your review of literature, expand your knowledge, and focus your attention on your research topic, too. 

Asking for your mentor’s help can all make a difference in finding the answers, too. You may be looking at an issue in a limited manner but with your mentor’s point of view, you can start thinking more creatively. You will find, too, that the intellectual exchange will boost your own creativity and critical thinking skills. In the end, looking for opportunities to solve issues and focusing on your end goal will take your graduate studies from survival to thriving level.


Find a good mentor.

A knowledgeable and supportive mentor can make a difference in your pursuit of a graduate degree. Find a trustworthy advisor who will provide you with the right insights, direction, and motivation to keep going despite the odds!

Follow these tips in choosing your graduate mentor and your life as a graduate student will be better! 

  • Identify your potential mentors. Most programs allow students the opportunity to meet and mingle with faculty members, observe their research projects, and ask questions. 
  • Consider the key qualities you’re looking for in a mentor. Relevant expertise, enthusiasm for sharing their knowledge and investing in others, and respect and empathy for others are a few crucial traits. 
  • Reach out to the faculty members whose research interests and key qualities are aligned with your own. Finding the best possible match may take several attempts at reaching out and meeting with the faculty advisors – be patient.

Take an active part in the community.

Getting involved in teaching opportunities (assistantships), research, and other extracurricular activities integrates your academic studies in real-life situations. This, in turn, can be helpful in writing, evaluating, recalibrating, revising your dissertation or graduate thesis. Your active involvement in these activities is also a plus in your credentials.

You will also find that graduate school is different from college in terms of the number of students! In graduate school, you will have fewer classmates in your cohort so being an active participant in your community is a no-brainer. Your community becomes smaller, too, when you’re 100% engaged in the dissertation phase – your time will be spent more with your faculty advisor and other research assistants. 

Dr. Jared Goff
Chief Editor