How to be Successful in Grad School


I spent a lot of time in grad school (with the loans to prove it), and I’ve been teaching exclusively grad students for the last 5 years.  So, I fancy myself somewhat of an expert on how to be successful in grad school.  Now that the new academic year is almost upon us, here are some tips for getting the most out of your grad school experience:

1. At the beginning of the term, make a calendar of important information. Don’t just put it in your phone.  Print out, purchase, or copy an actual, physical calendar.  Write in every class session, note when assignments are due, and – and this is the most important part – note which days and times you will need to block off for study and writing in order to get the assignments completed.  If you have options about which assignments you complete and when, select the assignments that give you the most balanced calendar.  If your instructor offers advance feedback on assignments, write in the due dates for that, too.  Now post it somewhere where you can’t miss it.  The physical act of writing this all out will help you better grasp and remember your workload for the upcoming term.

2. Prior to your first class session, read and annotate the syllabus. Write down questions in the margins, and ask the professor your questions during the first class session.  Under no circumstances should you arrive to the first day of class without having done this.  This is for YOUR benefit, so that you are confident about all class policies and procedures moving forward.

3. Make checklists. Chances are, for each class you’re taking, the professor will have his or her own set of requirements for composing and submitting assignments.  If your professor doesn’t give you a checklist of these requirements, make one for yourself.  This will save you the grief later of having to dig through syllabi and notes to find out if a professor wants your paper saved as a PDF or a DOCX.

4. Make yourself known, for the right reasons. Speak up in class.  Ask questions.  Arrive early and stay a little late.  Don’t be forgettable.  When the time comes for a letter of recommendation to be written, you want to have a whole bunch of professors who all remember what a hard working, professional, and personable student you were.  Think of your courses kind of like a long job interview; you want to make the best impression possible. Now, some students are very memorable for the wrong reasons.  They flip out over tiny things.  They grade grub. They constantly ask for special treatment.  They email the professor weekly to ask when things are due, even though it’s in the syllabus.  Don’t be that student.  Be remembered because you were a thoughtful, hard working student who participated fully in the class.  I write much better letters for B students who worked their tails off and asked questions than I do for A students who coasted through and never spoke up in class.

5. Don’t be afraid to take risks.  Ask your professors if you can assist with their research.  Ask if you can do something above and beyond the norm for an assignment.  Have you been assigned a paper? Ask the professor if you can submit a multimedia presentation instead.  If you can show value and rigor in what you want to do, many professors will allow it.  At worst, they say no.  At best, you end up creating something unique and memorable while still learning the content.

6. Be a leader. Be the one who puts a study group together, or creates a video tutorial for other students who are having trouble.  Volunteer for leadership positions in student organizations.  If an organization doesn’t exist, create it.  Take an active role in improving the educational experience for yourself and your fellow students.

7. Read all the things. Yes, really, all of them.  Be smart about your reading, though.  Has your professor given you a list of key questions for each unit?  Great!  Read those questions FIRST, put each one on top of a big index card, and as you read, jot relevant information down on the appropriate card.  As you read, also make note of any additional questions or connections you have.  When you’re done, on a new sheet of paper, summarize your answer to each question in one or two sentences, and then list your remaining questions and connections.  Bring that with you to class with the goal of having each of those questions answered.  If they don’t get answered in class, stay after and ask the professor to either help you or recommend sources where you can find answers.  Don’t commit the cardinal sin of grad school reading: skimming the text an hour before the class.  You might as well not even bother.  You might remember just enough to fake your way through a class session, but you won’t remember that information long term.  Showing up to a class without doing the readings is scary, but completing a degree program and realizing you don’t actually know all that much is even scarier.  So what if you haven’t planned adequately and are left without enough time to read properly.  Show up to class and get what you can from it, and if the professor asks, or if you’re placed in small groups, ‘FESS UP.  Apologize for not being prepared, and ask if someone can help get you caught up.  Then plan properly for the next week.

8. Give yourself enough time to do it right. Everyone works at their own pace, but here’s my starting recommendation.  Allow 1 hour of reading time for each 15 pages of academic writing you need to read (less for fiction or nonfiction books for the layperson).  Allow 1 hour per 2 pages of academic writing you need to produce.  You may end up needing far more or far less time, but I can guarantee you an hour right before class isn’t going to cut it.

9. Form a support network. When you attend your first class session, look for the other people who are on the right track.  They’re the ones who are sitting near the front of the room (or who are always looking at the camera if you’re online).  They’re the ones actively taking notes and asking questions.  They’re the ones who ask the professor if they can turn in work early for review.  Surround yourself with people who want to be successful and are serious about their education.  Exchange contact information, and consider pooling class notes or proofreading each other’s work.  Go to these people first after you miss a class session and ask what you missed; as a side note, never, ever go to your professor when you’ve missed a class session and utter these words: “Did I miss anything important?” YES, the whole class was important!

10. When you find a professor you click with, stay in touch!  You can still get a lot out of the professor student relationship once a course has ended.  Need a letter of recommendation? Looking for a job?  Encountering a particularly challenging problem in the field? Experiencing success because of something you learned in his or her class?  Reach out to your professor and share that with him or her!  There is nothing I love more than hearing from former students!

This is my best advice for you.  However, there are a lot of different programs out there, with a lot of different professors.  So if you do none of the other things on this list, do this.  On the first day of class, ask your professor:

“What are the top 5 things I can do to get the most out of your class?”

Don’t ask how you can get an A.  That’s an entirely different question!


photo credit: JobyOne via photopin cc

Published by Dr. Corinne Hyde

I'm an Assistant Teaching Professor of Clinical Education at the University of Southern California's Rossier School of Education. My research focuses on faculty adaptation to online learning, synchronous virtual classrooms, and the intersection of learning theory and technology. I teach mostly learning theory and technology/new media literacy courses to graduate students. Prior to becoming a professor, I was a classroom teacher in a high needs school in Los Angeles, a private educational administrator, a community preschool teacher, and a behavior interventionist. I hold a B.S. in Elementary Education from The University of Central Florida, and a M.S.Ed. in Educational Psychology and Instructional Technology and an Ed.D. in Educational Leadership, with a focus in Educational Psychology, from the University of Southern California. I have been certified as a classroom teacher in FL, CA, and LA, and I hold administration and ELD certifications in California and Louisiana. I currently live in Louisiana with my husband, my daughter, and my 3 dogs.

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