Excelling in graduate-level courses and securing your advanced degree requires you to up your undergraduate game in a big way. Graduate students are expected to have:
- A greater level of academic maturity
- High emotional intelligence
- Social professionalism
- Interpersonal respectfulness
- Strong research, critical thinking and writing skills
For some grad students, this means adopting a few new behaviors. For others, it just requires a more concerted focus and a renewed commitment to self-discipline. Many of the skills you master in graduate school are the same ones you’ll need to achieve your career, service, and leadership goals. Start setting yourself up for success early in your graduate school experience with these strategies.
1) Organize and prioritize
Expect to be very busy. In addition to your academic workload being far more rigorous than that of your undergraduate years, you’ve probably taken on more professional and personal obligations since completing your bachelor’s.
Planning your weekly schedule down to the last hour and managing your time effectively are keys to staying on track. If you’re a procrastinator by nature, assignment due dates and required reading could be chronic stressors if you don’t break that habit. Falling too far behind is a setup for turning in subpar work. Plus, it puts you at risk for a severe case of burnout.
Find a calendar or scheduling system that works for you and stick to your plan no matter what. If you can’t resist the lure of the internet, your smartphone, and other tempting distractions while studying, research some tips and tricks to help you stay focused.
2) Work towards scholarly writing
Expressing yourself clearly in writing is mandatory in graduate school. You’ll probably need to learn a new style guide for formatting your research papers correctly, such as APA, Chicago, or AP. If this is new for you, seek out your institution’s student ambassadors or student service advisors. Their role is to help make your integration and onboarding experience as smooth as possible. They can also refer you to other campus services such as free tutoring or comprehensive help with speaking and writing assignments. You might even find that your graduate program offers you access to a dedicated writing center, as does ACU Online through their Dallas campus.
Always reference reliable sources and academic journals when performing your research. Blog posts, Wikipedia, and unsubstantiated articles are generally not acceptable. Become well acquainted with the major theorists in your field and knowledgeable about their significant contributions. Learn how to cite your sources accurately in the preferred style, and always employ correct attribution when incorporating another person’s material into your own papers.
Most academic institutions offer a student handbook that touches on issues involved in scholarly writing. Be sure to check yours. If your school is like most institutions, they’ll offer guidance on the use of academic or administrative materials within your work. The handbook should also spell out school policy on cheating or plagiarism. If you aren’t quite sure what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it, check with your academic advisor, professor, or library staff for clarification.
3) Choose multiple mentors
You’ll need as much academic and social support as you can get in graduate school. By building strong mentoring relationships with a few people, you’ll be more well-rounded and less dependent on your graduate advisor. “If you have more than one mentor, you increase the odds of a secure base that will get you through hurdles,” advises Dr. Todd B. Kashdan of George Mason University in a piece for Psychology Today. You’ll also benefit greatly from having exposure to multiple perspectives and different skill sets from which to draw while forming your own unique outlook.
Dr. Kashdan suggests that you “choose a mentor that is not looking for a clone.” Select a person who honors your personal interests, abilities, and values and is willing to help you become an independent thinker and researcher. Additionally:
- You should be able to question and challenge your mentor. A good mentor will show you their flaws.
- You should be able to pursue projects that are slightly different from what your mentor does.
- Your mentor should celebrate your small successes along the journey as enthusiastically as the larger ones. Graduate school is all about taking both tiny steps and big leaps.
It’s very possible that the mentors you select now may become your lifelong friends and collaborators post-graduation, so choose wisely.
4) Ask for help when needed
Graduate school requires a great deal of independent initiative, but it’s also an interdependent community. Take advantage of every opportunity offered by your instructors to get better acquainted. When you have an issue or challenge arise, you’ll feel more comfortable reaching out to them. If something’s happening in your personal life that’s affecting your performance, communicate immediately so they can support you and adjust your deadlines. Another benefit of getting to know your instructors well is that they are better able to write a letter of recommendation for you down the road when you’re continuing on with a doctorate degree or interviewing for a job.
Learn about the programs, services, and other student resources available to support your academic journey. You’ll be surprised by how much assistance is available, whether you’re attending an on-campus or 100 percent online graduate program.
5) Forge supportive, collaborative friendships
This one is also from Dr. Kashdan’s playbook — build friend relationships into your studies. Engage your graduate school peers to help relieve stress, commiserate, celebrate, and collaborate. Odds are, you’ll stay in touch with at least a few of them for the rest of your life, and one or two may even become professional colleagues.
If you’re in an online learning program, you can still build a virtual support network through discussion forums, message boards, private emails, and phone calls. Social media is a great way to stay plugged in. The close ties you develop with your graduate program cohort, your instructors, and the campus representatives will see you through any rough patches you might encounter along your journey.