How to Be a Successful Grad Student: Insider Advice

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Author, Enrollment Expert

You want to be a rock-star grad student: Good grades. A scholarship darling. Future employers banging down your door. And you’re totally on top of your personal life and stress levels too…

Okay, first of all, we're pretty sure that student doesn’t exist. But what do you need to do to get close? How can you be a successful grad student in general? A grad school expert shares his top tips from the inside.

Congratulations! You are getting ready to start your graduate program of study.

And you should celebrate the achievement of getting in and allow yourself to be excited about the eventual payoff when you graduate. But make no mistake—the path between now and then is arduous.

The graduate work load will be heavy, even daunting, at times. You will have numerous reading assignments, projects, papers, and more to complete, as well as other program requirements of which to keep track. And, of course, you will need to keep up with your financial and other obligations. All in all, there will be quite a bit on your plate. But, I assure you, you can rise to the challenge with a little preparation and determination.

Here are some tips for ensuring a successful and personally fulfilling graduate student experience:

Allow yourself time to adjust—and try to relax

Graduate school represents a major life change. And major changes, even good ones, carry with them a certain level of stress.

Some graduate students move to a new city with very few, if any, friends or acquaintances. Some leave a full-time job, change their living situation, and/or dramatically alter their financial status. And, of course, there are the new responsibilities of graduate study. In the beginning it can be a bit rocky, which is why it’s important to have realistic expectations and carve out time for self care.

I remember when I started my master’s program: I had been out of college for two years, was a newlywed, and was moving away from my home/family/friends all at the same time. I took a job filling orders in a nearby warehouse while my wife worked as a secretary. We had one car, and at the beginning our work schedules overlapped to the point that I had to walk a mile to my wife’s job to pick up the car when I finished my shift. It was a lot to handle all at one time, and for several months I felt displaced and disoriented. Gradually I adjusted to my new home, graduate institution, job, and married life! But I have to confess, it probably would have gone a bit more smoothly if I had relaxed a bit more and gone with the flow.

Of course, this is easier said than done for most graduate students! But it’s important to take things one step at a time. Be thoughtful as you encounter new challenges. Time management and careful planning are essential to succeeding in grad school—but your attitude can make all the difference. Resolve to be calm, prepared, and patient with yourself, especially as you begin your graduate journey.

Fast forward to when I started my doctoral program: I had been out of graduate school for five years and for the first time in my life was taking classes on the quarter system (three academic terms per year), rather than the semester system (two academic terms per year), which was an adjustment. Also, I had left a well-paying full-time job and was back to working part time again—also quite the adjustment. However, being a bit more mature and experienced definitely helped me weather the changes. I was not as stressed as I had been years earlier. I felt more relaxed and, as a result, made the transition more smoothly and quickly.

Set priorities and stick to them

This is your graduate degree. And you need to determine what you want from this experience.

On one side of the spectrum, some graduate students will want to spend their time primarily reading, studying, and doing research, often independently. On the other end of the spectrum, some students may be doing their graduate degree for more pragmatic reasons, i.e., adding a credential to their résumé and networking. Wherever you fall on the spectrum, only you can and should set your priorities. There is no right or wrong answer; it is about what you want to get out of this experience.

However, keep in mind that graduate study offers a chance to delve into issues, ideas, authors, concepts, research, and debate in ways you may never experience again. While research is important and advancing your career is admirable, do not miss the amazing opportunities you will have to broaden your horizons by focusing solely on one or the other. Take advantage of what your institution, professors, and peers have to offer. That being said…

Don’t try to do everything at once

Very few people I know are able to do everything well all the time. As you set your grad school priorities, be careful not to set them so high that you end up being unable to maintain them, and as a result feel like you have failed in some way. Think realistically about what you can and cannot do.

As previously noted, I worked part time during my first year of master’s study; I then worked full time during my second and final year. I was newly married. And I had made friends with many of my graduate classmates and wanted to spend time socializing with them. In short, I did not expect to get straight A’s—a prescient realization. I ended up graduating with honors, but some of my classmates had a higher GPA than I did. That was okay with me.

Similarly, I worked part time during my first two years as a PhD candidate and full time thereafter. I went through a personal crisis in my second year of study and some other major life changes in the years that followed. I was not able to devote 100% of my time to my academic program, so I lowered my expectations in that area and ended up with a few B’s. However, I still graduated with honors, having made some wonderful friends along the way—and maintaining my sanity.

Know what to do when things get frustrating

There us no perfect graduate school. As you become part of your institutional community, you will likely encounter some less-than-thrilling experiences and notice some “rough spots” that could (or should) be addressed by your school. These could come from inside or outside the classroom.

In these instances, be careful not to be a doormat and just let things happen around you that you have the ability to help to change. At the same time, resist the temptation to respond in such a way that you are perceived as argumentative, unreasonable, a complainer, or a troublemaker. Work to find realistic solutions with various stakeholders.

Here are some examples of how to deal with some challenging grad school scenarios:

  • If something happens that you believe is wrong (abuse, harassment, unfair treatment), report it. Document your experiences in writing whenever possible. Refer to your student handbook for policies governing appropriate conduct, abuse, and harassment. Follow the procedures set forth in these policies, and remember that your confidentiality will be maintained.
  • You have observed poor customer service somewhere on campus, or you are personally affected by a policy or procedure that does not seem to make sense. This may be the time to share your experience with school administrators. They welcome feedback from students when it is honest, sincere, respectful, and carries with it a realistic suggestion for improvement. They want to know when things are not working and usually will take steps to correct the situation.
  • You have an idea that you believe would help make things better at your institution. Share it with appropriate individuals, perhaps with several of your fellow graduate students. If there is a consensus that this idea would help, send a letter to the president or chief academic, financial, student affairs, marketing, admissions, alumni, etc. officer. Volunteer to help put the idea into action if at all possible.
  • You receive a grade you do not believe is fair. Again, remember that faculty members are not perfect. They may make a mistake or simply overlook something. If you feel you know the faculty member well enough, speak with them directly about your concerns. If not, you can consult with an academic advisor or someone on campus who is identified as a student advocate (sometimes called the student ombudsman). They will keep your conversation completely in confidence and provide helpful input.
  • You have a class that you believe is poorly taught or managed, and/or in which the professor exhibits arrogance, weak interpersonal skills, lack of knowledge, etc. You believe the class is a poor investment of your time and money. Low-hanging fruit: if there is survey at the end of the class, be sure to respond. Your comments will be kept in strict confidence. If you know other students share your views, encourage them to complete the survey too. If you believe the issues deserve more time and attention, go to the academic or students services office and ask what options you have in reporting the matter to the chief academic officer.

If you need help, ask for it

Do not be too proud to ask for help when you need it. That is a sign of strength, not weakness.

Do you believe you need some academic help? Talk to your professors. Are you struggling with stress, anxiety, or depression? Reach out to advisors and campus health center staff. Are you experiencing financial difficulties? Contact the financial aid and bursar offices at the first sign of trouble. Holding things in and not addressing growing issues will only result in more difficulty down the road.

Toward the end of my doctoral program I took my very first accounting course. It was extremely challenging for me. I asked the professor if I could attend both sections of the class—mine and the one he taught on weekends. He said yes. I sat in the front row, joined a study group, and in the end got an A in the class. When I encountered some major financial struggles during the second year, I connected with a wonderful staff in the financial aid office and over time things worked out.

Emotional and/or psychological struggles can be particularly draining in grad school. While it is sometimes hard to admit you need help or act on once acknowledged, do not berate yourself. Speak with a trusted member of the faculty or administration at your institution, a loved one, and/or your physician. Get the help you need, including professional help, if warranted. If finances are an issue, there are many therapists whose fees are based on income. Many universities offer free counseling services for up to a certain number of visits. Be assured that just as with academic and medical information, any discussions about therapy and the session itself remain totally and completely confidential.

Get comfortable “adulting”

While this advice may not apply equally to all graduate students, the point here is not to look at graduate school as a re-visitation of college. Keep in mind that graduate school is not undergrad 2.0. (In fact, it just might be better...) You will be expected to behave as an independent and responsible adult.

While you may receive reminders from time to time from the registrar’s office, student financial services, or other campus adminstrators, faculty and staff will not be checking in with you. Do not rely on others to remind you about your academic requirements, your financial responsibilities, or other policies that govern your student experience.

So take the initiative. Read the fine print. Ask for clarification if you need it. And take ownership of your graduate school journey.

Believe in yourself

It may be clichéd, but it’s true: believe in yourself.  

Joining a community of graduate students can be intimidating. Cohorts are small, and the admission process is most always more selective than at the undergraduate level. This means you are now rubbing elbows with some very capable, driven, committed, intelligent, enthusiastic, motivated, opinionated, and goal-oriented fellow students who are ready and willing to do what it takes to succeed.

But always remember: you were admitted to that stellar academic community too. The admission committee saw in you what it did in your classmates. Do not be intimidated. Be confident of your talents and abilities, as well as your ideas. Learn from those around you, but do not allow yourself to feel inferior or that you do not also have something to contribute. Stay true to your goals and to following what is important to you—and you’ll be successful in grad school by any measure.

Continue to look for financial assistance

Do not stop looking for scholarships, grants, and other funding opportunities. Check with your academic department once each quarter/semester/term to see if any additional fellowships or assistantships have been approved. Ask the financial aid office if there are any new scholarships available. Find out if any work-study positions have opened up on campus that are conducive to your schedule. Search online for outside funding opportunities. You may want to schedule a specific time every few weeks to research this.

Take advantage of the career placement office

Some graduate students may already have their future employment confirmed when they begin their studies. Most do not. That is why there is a career placement office on campus. Take advantage of its resources right from the start. Do not wait until six months before graduation to reach out. The staff is ready, willing, and able to assist you with a host of services, including résumé preparation, mock interviews, information on potential employers, “meet the recruiters” and job fair events on campus, and so much more. Take this service seriously. After all, you are paying for it.

Resist the temptation to *ahem* cut corners

With the demanding schedule of grad school, it can be tempting to be unethical in some way—plagiarizing, embellishing, lying. You do not need to do this! And it’s certainly not worth risking your future over. 

Your success in life ultimately depends on conducting yourself with honesty and integrity. Early on in my career someone said to me, “Don’t do something today that you’d be uncomfortable reading as a news headline tomorrow.” This advice has served me well. It has been sad for me to watch students with great promise throw their futures away because of a momentary lapse in judgment, making a decision to cheat, embellish, or falsely cite someone else’s work as their own. The temptation is definitely there, so do not be hard on yourself if you experience a thought about being dishonest. You are human. Anyone with an ounce of integrity would readily acknowledge that they have been tempted to engage in some sort of wrongdoing. But as they say, “Just say no!” 

One other piece of advice: if you do engage in wrongdoing and are found out, come clean right away. Own up to what you did and admit that you were wrong. There will be a consequence, but whoever has to decide that consequence will be far more sympathetic toward the student who comes clean than the one who refuses to acknowledge the truth about their actions.

Do not stop having fun

As previously noted, the pressures of graduate school can be great. There is endless studying, numerous deadlines, a desire to get good grades, preparation for career next steps, financial concerns, and more. But it is important—critical, even—that you take time to relax and do things that are fun and enjoyable.

Take a break. Go out for a bite to eat. Take in a movie or theater performance. Attend a sporting event. Do some volunteer work. Get away for the weekend. There were times in my graduate school journey when just taking a walk along Lake Michigan was extremely beneficial. The bottom line is, do not forget that all work and no play is not a good way to operate.

Do not forget important relationships outside the classroom

Similar to the point above, take time to maintain, strengthen, and build personal relationships. Perhaps you have a spouse, partner, significant other, children, or even a close circle of friends who are part of your graduate school experience. Remember that they too are affected by all of this. Be appreciative of their willingness to support you and make sacrifices so you can do what you are doing. Make time for these important individuals. Let them participate in your student life experience, perhaps by bringing them to a social event at the institution. And be mindful of not taking advantage of them. 

Be willing to sacrifice as well. I know whereof I speak: I was a newlywed when I started my master’s degree program. There were times when my marriage needed to take precedence over my life as a student. Balancing things was not always easy, and I did not always get it right. But that did not stop me from trying to balance my academic and personal life.

Do not obsess about grades or the ranking of your institution

Success in life is not directly correlated with one’s grade point average or with the ranking/prestige of his/her institution. Employers are going to be most interested in who you are and how strong a match they believe you are to what they are looking for. Believe me, while academic performance is a consideration, it is not the final deal maker or breaker by any means.

Also, grad school rankings will definitely fluctuate; they rarely stay the same. Again, what you bring to the table and the prerogative you show in gaining relevant experience outweigh your school’s slot in the “best of midwest” rankings. Focus on doing your best work, and do so with integrity. Work hard and be confident of yourself and of your abilities.

Change things up if you need to

Do you need to take some time off from grad school? Move from full-time to part-time or visa versa? Stop your program of study entirely? Life is unpredictable and can take us down unexpected paths without warning. Attending graduate school does not prevent the vicissitudes of life from occurring. 

There may be times when you are forced to think about changing your grad school plans. These situations could include a financial crisis, medical emergency, academic difficulties, loss of loved one, a relationship change, new job opportunity, etc. In my case, I deferred my enrollment at both my master’s and doctoral institutions because of an unexpected employment opportunity. I changed my date of completion while enrolled at both institutions, once again, due to unexpected employment offers. My doctoral course completion plan was also affected when I went through an unexpected personal crisis. 

If you need to change your plans, do so. It may result in having to take a longer period of time to complete your degree. But do not lose focus. Be patient and do what you have to do to take care of yourself and manage your responsibilities. The administrators at your institution have worked with many graduate students whose plans needed to change. They will work with you to help determine the best way to proceed.

If grad school isn’t working out…

You may be considering withdrawing permanently from your graduate program. Perhaps it’s not what you wanted or expected, despite your best attempts to make sure it was. Or your personal situation has evolved in such a way that grad school is simply not an option. Or you discovered that your course of study is just not a match. 

This can be quite disappointing. You were moving in one direction, feeling confident that grad school was the right thing to do, and now you are coming to believe that it is not. You may have even made drastic changes in your personal and professional life to faciliate your goals. But please realize that this is a common occurrence and nothing to be ashamed about.

As you consider withdrawing from grad school, speak with any loved ones who will be affected. In addition, speak with the administrators at your institution and perhaps a trusted friend and/or therapist. Make sure you have covered all the bases and thought things through clearly and carefully before making your decision.

If you do withdraw permanently, you do so with the knowledge that you started graduate school believing it was the right thing. When you realized it was not, you did what you needed to do. You can also withdraw knowing that many others have done the exact same thing—and have been just fine. Finally, you will never have to wonder, “What if I’d taken the chance and gone to grad school?”

Always remember: this too shall pass.

For better or worse, nothing lasts forever and no condition is permanent. There will be days when you will have second thoughts about your decision to pursue graduate study. You will encounter difficulties along the way. People will challenge you. Your personal life will have its ups and downs. You will feel tired, overwhelmed, and discouraged at times. But know this: you are not alone. This is normal. It is part of the graduate school experience, and it too shall pass!

I know of very few who look back on their graduate school experience with regret or even with a sense that it took too long. When I sat with my fellow students on graduation day, I could not believe how fast the time had gone. All the hard work had paid off. It will for you too. Hang in there, do not lose heart, and do your best to follow that age-old suggestion to take things one day at a time. I often say, “Just today.” That is all you have. You cannot go back and you cannot fast forward. Just take each day as it comes. You will get though this without a doubt.

You can do it; I did

Upon learning of my decision to pursue graduate study, a family member expressed major concerns that I was making a big mistake. However, the complete opposite occurred. Master’s and then doctoral study literally opened my eyes and my mind. I learned to think for myself, to trust and express myself intellectually, to carry on a debate, to disagree, to speak my mind, and to step outside my comfort zone.

Starting graduate school was exciting, yet, at the same time, daunting. For the first time in my life I was interacting with students and faculty members who were challenging me to think, learn, and be comfortable with the idea that there may not be an answer for everything…or that there may be more than one answer for the same question. I felt like a sponge, asking the question “Why?” more than anything else. At times I felt empowered, confused, discouraged, angry, and exhilarated. But most of all I felt free. The world of knowledge lay at my feet, and I took hold with everything I could muster. What a ride!

Upon applying for both graduate and postgraduate study, I had to do some extra work to get admitted. In the case of my master’s degree, I was asked to complete extra undergraduate course work in math and science. In the case of my doctoral program, I was initially denied admission. However, I contacted the admission office and was given a chance to provide additional information to the committee, which resulted in my being admitted. How grateful I am for the opportunities that were given to me to pursue educational goals and prove myself.

These opportunities emerged because I sought them and worked hard. Today I have over 35 years of successful and rewarding work in higher education as part of my life experience. I did it, not without difficulty, pain, loss, disappointment, or unexpected delays. But I did it, and you can too. If I can, anybody can!

“Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not: nothing is more common than unsuccessful people with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not; the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent. The slogan ‘press on’ has solved and always will solve the problems of the human race.” — Calvin Coolidge, 30th President of the United States, 1872-1933

Feel free to leave questions about grad school success in the comments. I also hope you’ll check out my website and join me on Twitter.

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