How to Succeed at Graduate School

Graduate school involves a huge commitment of time and money, so if you've decided to go, you want to be successful. These 4 tips can help you thrive in your program. 

JJ Watt, Partner
4-minute read

Graduate school involves a huge commitment of time and money, so if you've decided to go, you want to be successful. While you can build on some of the strengths you may have developed as an undergraduate, getting your master's degree or your doctorate is far more demanding. The tips below can help you thrive in your program.

Applying and paying for it

Of course, the first step is getting into school in the first place. This is a competitive process, so how do you prepare the best application you can? First, research the universities you're applying to. Get a good sense of what they emphasize. For example, some will place a higher value on standardized test scores than others will. If you need to include a personal statement or essay, be specific about why you are interested in this university and this program. Try to name the faculty that you want to work with. Explain your goals and how the program fits into it. Avoid coming across as too grandiose, but don't hesitate to demonstrate your ambition.

There may also be an interview process. Be ready to show during the interview that you know about the school and the faculty. You should be prepared to discuss your own research interests. You should also be ready to ask some questions of your own. You might ask about what kind of professional development resources exist or what the research requirements are for your program. Of course, these should be questions that are not easily answered by looking at the university's webpage and other material.

Finally, you should make sure you have the funding that you need. Taking advantage of private graduate student loans can be an excellent source of funding, even if you also have a scholarship or a stipend from an assistantship since these might not provide enough money to cover all of your expenses. You can look for a private lender that offers an interest rate and a repayment plan that will work for you.

Academic concerns

This will be your first though not your only focus as a student. It's important to know yourself and understand how you work best. For example, there may be certain times of day when you are more productive than others or certain study methods that work best for you.

If you don't already know what study habits work for you, then experiment until you find out! It's important to maximize your study time.

One feature of most graduate programs is a voluminous amount of reading. It can help if you are able to teach yourself to read better and more efficiently. When you sit down with a text, go over it quickly, looking at headings to get a sense of the ground it covers. Think about how it fits into what you are trying to learn. If you're reading it for research on your thesis or dissertation and it doesn't seem to fit what you need, it's okay to stop. You need to be as efficient as possible while still making sure you understand the texts that you encounter.

Relationship concerns

Relationships covers everything from your relationship with your professors to your family to your fellow students to your networking efforts. You might have gone straight into graduate school from an undergraduate degree, but many people go back to school after they have families. If this is the case, you'll need to figure out how to balance the demands of school with your family responsibilities. If you have older children, they can potentially help out more at home, and this could be a great opportunity to show them that adults never have to stop learning, growing and chasing after their goals. If you have a partner at home, communicate often, and share with them ways they can support you while you pursue this goal. Also be sure to consider their perspective and avoid one-sided efforts as much as possible.

Protecting and maintaining relationships with your family as well as your friends during this time can help you remain balanced and avoid burnout.

Don't make the mistake of thinking graduate school is just about academics. This is also a prime time for networking, with your fellow students and professors and for making professional connections. What this looks like specifically will vary a great deal depending on whether you are on a professional track, such as law or business, versus an academic track. There may be student organizations that you can join, alumni you can connect with or conferences in your field that you can attend.

Your thesis or dissertation

If your program includes a thesis or dissertation, there are several steps you can take to make this process less difficult. One thing you should keep in mind is that when you are near the end of your program and putting your finishing touches on this project, it's normal to feel burned out and discouraged. Your thesis or dissertation is the culmination of years of hard work and research, and it's easy to lose perspective. Knowing that this may happen and that it is normal can make it easier to navigate these feelings.

As for the thesis or dissertation itself, when you begin graduate school, if you aren't entirely sure what this will be on, start keeping a collection of articles, pieces of research and other information that you come across that interests you. This can help you avoid being in the situation of getting near the end of your program and panicking as you try to come up with a research topic. Avoid choosing a topic that will involve long-term research that can bog you down. Talk to your advisor about your ideas, and seek their help in shaping your proposal.

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Your advisor can also be helpful in choosing your committee although you don't have to take their suggestions. Talk to the professors you are considering to get a feel for their own approach to research and how well it will fit with the work that you want to do. Choose professors with whom you feel you have a rapport. When it comes to writing the thesis or dissertation, keep in mind that there will be more than one draft. It can be easy to get paralyzed by the sight of the blank page, but remind yourself that no one needs to see your preliminary work. Think of it as just making notes if that helps you get past a block that is rooted in anxiety.