Graduate school can be a rewarding experience for those who make it to graduation. Unfortunately, not every student who aspires to graduate with an advanced degree makes it through graduate school. Many factors affect student attrition, but overall, students who are better informed about the expectations for their individual graduate program, are more likely to succeed. Other factors contribute to graduate school success, such as outside responibilities, work, preparedness, and support, but there are many things that graduate students can control to make the graduate school years as memorable as possible.
Surviving and Thriving in Graduate School
Students who succeed in graduate school, often do more than just survive it. Graduate studies should narrow down a broader field of study to a more defined, advanced area. This makes graduate school very different than what most students have experienced as undergrads. Instead of half the time being spent on core college courses, graduate school courses are typically designed specifically for advanced study in a certain area. Most courses taken in graduate school will be in the field of study that you have chosen. With that in mind, many students rush into graduate programs without thinking about whether the field of choice is a good fit with their interests, abilities, and future career goals.
Choose a Graduate Program Carefully
In order to survive graduate school, it is important to choose the right program. Randomly picking a graduate program, without doing some research about requirements, program details, and campus information, is not advised. Do not apply to a graduate program based on a sudden, new interest, because your friends are in it, or because you heard it was easy. All of these reasons will work against your success in graduate school, and your chances of surviving graduate school are less than those of students who have put some thought into what graduate program would best meet their career goals ahead of time.
If you have chosen a graduate program that you feel will fit your career goals and interests, investigate the program requirements before you begin your studies. Meet with an advisor in the graduate program and ask for details about the program requirements. Printed program information does not always tell the full story. On paper, 400 internship hours might seem fine, but finding out that you will have to quit your current job to complete all of them within one semester, will make a difference. This is one of the setbacks that many graduate students stumble across after starting courses.
Create a Support Network
Student support has consistently been cited in research studies as one of the most important factors for graduate school success. Once you start graduate studies, the demands of school and everyday life may begin to conflict. Many students return to school, and begin graduate school after they have married, had children, or worked for some time. The conflicting demands between graduate school and life roles can feel overwhelming to many graduate students. Starting a support network can help.
Academic support can be found in advisors, college professors, and other students. Keep in touch with your academic advisor and ask for support before you become overwhelmed. Professors may offer academic support for the individual courses that they teach, but you have to ask. Most campuses have tutor lists and study groups to provide extra assistance to students that may need more academic support. Other students can be great sources of academic and emotional support during graduate school. Sharing the struggle of a difficult course together with another student or group of students in your graduate program will lighten the stress load some. Study partners and groups are often very helpful.
Emotional support plays a role in surviving graduate school. Some students have friends or family outside of school who can be a shoulder to lean on when the stress levels rise in graduate school. Other students find that their outside friends and family cannot really understand the demands of graduate school. Finding a fellow student or campus friend to talk to when you feel stressed out or overwhelmed, may be more helpful in such cases. The campus counseling center is another great resource for graduate students. Many campus centers have free counseling services, support groups, workshops, or wellness materials that students can use as resources.
Study Hard, but Give Yourself a Break
Surviving graduate school will require endless hours of study and some determination. If you’ve been accepted to a graduate program, it is likely that your academic potential has already been assessed. Yet, there are many intelligent, capable, graduate students who do not make it to graduation, despite academic ability. Some of the keys to surviving and succeeding in graduate school involve both academic efforts and personal wellness.
Successful graduate students know where the campus library is because they spend time there when big assignments are due or research is necessary. Get to know what resources are available at the campus library and use as many as you can. Universities often have access to large databases for research that you are entitled to use as a student, but would pay for otherwise. Take advantage of library resources to maximize the quality of your work.
Study time is essential outside of the classroom in graduate school. Graduate students often differ in how and when they study, but successful students generally have a plan for study time that works for them. Treat your study time like you would a job. Schedule yourself the time to complete assignments ahead of time. Faulty planning will leave students feeling more overwhelmed by an assignment due the next day, when it’s put off until the last minute.
Personal coping skills are important to surviving graduate school. Identifying healthy coping skills is a key factor in graduate school success. If graduate school stress is combined with long weekends of partying, avoiding school assignments, or missing classes, it is likely that there will be difficulties ahead. Many students find that the golden rule of , “everything in moderation,” works well in graduate school. Students who study too much and avoid any personal time away from the books may feel just as stressed as students who head in the other direction. Get a life outside of graduate school, but not at the expense of your success.
The Bottom Line
The truth about graduate school can be found in the stories passed down from one graduate student to another. Some graduate students describe graduate school as an intense academic form of Military Basic Training, or a Survivor episode that will not end. In many ways, graduate school is a challenge not unlike both of those examples. It takes endurance, and strength in all forms to make it to the graduation ceremony. It is unlikely that there are many graduates who did not feel like giving up at one point or another during their graduate studies, and yet they persisted. Graduate school is much like that, just as you feel like giving up, you realize that you have new strengths, new skills, and a new way of looking at the world. You can survive graduate school.