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The Master’s Student Guide to Success in Graduate School

Graduate school may be challenging, but there are strategies that can help optimize your success. This guide shares our best tips and resources to help you successfully earn your master’s degree online.

Author: Ellery Weil

Editor: Staff Editor

A joyful moment as a young female graduate in a blue cap and gown hugs an older woman outdoors, both smiling warmly, surrounded by lush greenery.

If you’re looking at online master’s programs, you’ve taken an important first step towards earning your postgraduate degree and enhancing both your resume and future career growth. In fact, the BLS estimates that master’s degree holders earn over $10,000 more per year than those with only undergraduate degrees.

Whether you’re beginning your master’s degree directly after completing a bachelor’s or it’s been a few years since completing your bachelor’s degree, a master’s may be a challenging and intimidating prospect for even the most dedicated students. Online degrees have slightly different considerations than in-person degrees, but keeping the following qualities, strategies, and tips in mind, increases your chances of successfully completing your master’s degree. Keep reading for some important keys to your graduate school success.

10 Qualities of Successful Grad Students

Being a grad student requires a lot of hard work, but the key is often to work smarter not harder. Instead of charging in blindly, consider what skills and traits you need to be a successful grad student and focus on cultivating those. Becoming more disciplined and assessing your motivations provide the kind of internal self-reflection necessary to be successful in grad school.

Begin with the 10 qualities crucial for grad school success listed below and make sure the program you choose helps you develop in these areas.

Motivated

Nobody can force you to do anything in grad school, so as an adult who has already earned at least one advanced degree it’s all up to you. That might sound intimidating, but it’s part of the challenge. Being motivated by getting excited about the work you’re doing, the impact grad school will have on your career, or some other reason is key to getting the most from your program.

Self-disciplined

In an online program, in particular, there will be times you’ll be tempted to procrastinate, skip a class, or lose your motivation. This is where self-discipline is crucial. While it can be tempting to put off coursework or completing a challenging step in a project, finding the self-discipline to get it done instead of procrastinating will help you avoid stress and time crunches when exams and the end of the term come.

Adaptable

Grad school, like anything in life, can throw you some curveballs. Whether it’s as simple as a pop quiz or as complex as a major life event that conflicts with your studies, you never know what’s around the corner. Being adaptable to changing circumstances and realizing when something isn’t working and needs to be altered helps you shift course to keep the momentum of your master’s program going.

Persistent

Grad school is likely to introduce you to new ways of thinking and different types of work, and there may be times when you make mistakes and even get less-than-ideal grades on early assignments. Don’t give up! Persistence sees you through and helps you over rough patches on your way to ultimate success.

Self-reflective

Whether it’s choosing a program that’s right for you, designing a study plan, or recognizing where your greatest strengths and weaknesses lie, self-knowledge and self-reflection are critical tools in a successful grad student’s toolbox. Taking time to reflect regularly, possibly through meditation or journaling, when you face a tricky situation can make a world of difference and help you learn significant lessons for future use.

Independent

One of the key differences between grad school and undergrad is that grad students are expected to conduct original research rather than learn only from secondary literature like undergrads often exclusively do. In an online program, in particular, independence and being able to come up with ideas, form a plan, and work successfully on your own are vital skills for a grad student.

Cooperative

In grad school, whether online or in person, you’ll work with others. Whether it’s working collaboratively with your classmates on a group assignment or reaching out to your professors for help preparing for an exam, a successful grad student works with those around them to find solutions that work well for everyone involved.

Curious/Inquisitive

Curiosity is one of the main factors driving human beings in the quest for knowledge. While many people enter grad school for professional reasons, all education is ultimately about the pursuit of knowledge, both personally and collectively. Stretch your curiosity in grad school by asking questions in class and during research and diving deep into the material and your original work as you strive to learn more.

Responsible

Responsibility is not just something you owe others, it’s also, especially in grad school, about what you owe yourself. You’ve made it to a master’s program, which is an accomplishment in and of itself. Now it’s time to go to the next level by taking your program and the work for it seriously by keeping up on your professional and personal responsibilities as well as by taking care of yourself.

Passionate

People work best when they care about the work they’re doing. Not all grad students are passionate about all their course material, but all successful grad students are passionate about each aspect as it relates to their program. From course material to the impact your degree will have on your future, motivation, discipline, and responsibility are all easier when you stay passionate about your work.

Top Skills You Need for Success in an Online Master’s Program

In addition to embodying the qualities of successful grad students, there are concrete skills a successful online master’s student must also have at their disposal. You may have already picked up some of these skills during your undergraduate or through working in the professional world, but others may need some focused development. Fortunately, these skills can be learned and cultivated. The skills below are those necessary for success in an online master’s program. Consider which you’re already strong in and which could use some work to make sure you have the tools needed for success.

Excellent Communication Skills

Grad school isn’t just learning. It’s also about sharing what you know, and this requires top-notch communication skills. Further, knowing how to ask questions that get you the answer you need is an underrated communication skill that curious grad students need to cultivate. Communication is both written and verbal, and both skills are important for your studies.

Organization

You’ll be balancing a wide variety of assignments, deadlines, class structures, and more in grad school, so it’s important to stay organized. That might mean using a calendar on your phone to remind you of important appointments and events or investing in a physical planner and storage space for pens, pencils, and lab materials to help you take notes and work on assignments. Whatever keeps you on top of things is worth considering as an investment.

Research & Writing Skills

Conducting original research is a unique type of study skill that all grad students must learn. A good graduate program will help you sharpen your research skills and polish your writing skills. Fortunately, there are many resources available to help ensure you present your assignments in as clear, polished, and accurate of a way as possible.

Public Speaking Skills

During your program, you’ll speak to peers and professors via video chat for online classes or in front of the class for in-person ones. Public speaking commonly causes anxiety, but mastering it through practice and performance techniques will prove invaluable during your grad classes. This is also a skill that will help you later on in job interviews, professional presentations, and more.

Teamwork/Collaboration

Most likely, you’ll work with others in group projects, review sessions, and study groups at some point during grad school. You’ll need to be a team player during these activities which means knowing how and when to compromise. It also means appreciating and making the most of the skills and talents those you’re working with will bring to the table.

Time Management

Grad school is a busy time, especially for online students who are often balancing a full-time or part-time job and family life in addition to their studies. Managing your time is an important way to avoid becoming overwhelmed. Time management also involves scheduling breaks and making sure you use your leisure time to rest, refresh, and ready yourself for your next challenge.

Setting Goals

Grad school is a long journey, and it’s much easier and more manageable when you break it into smaller parts. Setting small, achievable goals can help you stay focused without getting overwhelmed by the bigger picture. Setting goals might include aiming for a certain grade on a test or drafting an essay by a certain deadline.

Prioritizing

If you have to read three chapters of a textbook, write up a lab report, feed your dog, work a shift at your job, and study, knowing where to start can be tricky. Prioritize by deciding which tasks are most important and/or urgent, and get those done first. Work your way down on the list, and the most important things get done even if you fall short on time.

Saying "No"

This may not sound like a skill, but it’s actually a crucial one to cultivate. In grad school, you may be asked for favors, invited to social events, or receive other requests and simply not have the time for them and managing your schoolwork. Learning to say “no” and not putting more on your already full plate is a critical skill that will be useful well after grad school is completed.

Technical and Computer Skills

Your online program most likely wants you to complete digital research as well as prepare and share projects online and use relevant tech in your research. A good base knowledge of computer skills, including both making the most of online platforms and using software like Word and Excel and more complex programs like databases, can be crucial skills to develop during your master’s program.

Common Obstacles in Grad School and How to Overcome Them

Even the best-prepared grad students experience setbacks. In fact, it would be surprising to get through your master’s without some sort of setback. Don’t be alarmed, though. Setbacks aren’t fun, but they are growth opportunities and shouldn’t prevent you from finishing your degree successfully. Below are a few of the most common setbacks experienced by graduate students along with ways to remedy and overcome them and use them to make you stronger.

Juggling a Full Plate

Like many master’s students, maybe you’re taking a full course load, working a full-time job, and caring for your friends and family. Juggling a full plate like this can make you feel like you’re going to drop everything at any minute. Maybe it’s time to consider scaling back. While it can be heart-wrenching to drop an interesting elective or press pause on a beloved hobby, don’t feel like it’s the end for those interests. You can always pick them back up once your workload eases.

Imposter Syndrome

Ever feel like you don’t belong in your master’s program or like you’re not as smart as people around you seem to believe? Impostor syndrome is a common problem in high-stakes situations where someone feels like they don’t deserve their position. If you’re struggling with impostor syndrome, reach out to classmates or even instructors. Since it’s a common issue, you’ll likely find others who feel the same way or who have felt that way before. This helps you realize you’re not an impostor at all, just someone experiencing a lot of change and learning a lot of new information.

Financial Struggles

Grad school can be very expensive even with scholarships. Financial stress can lead to anxiety, poor sleep, and lack of motivation. Even students who think they’re in a good position financially often face unexpected expenses that impact their financial situation. Your financial aid department knows what a struggle grad school can be financially, and it can likely recommend loans and scholarships or offer a grant to help ease the financial burden as you finish your degree.

Stress & Mental Health Issues

Grad school can be one of the most stressful things you’ve ever done, so there’s no shame in admitting to struggling mentally with the pressure. If you’re struggling with your mental health, ask for help. Just like you wouldn’t ignore a broken leg, mental health issues are best addressed by a trained expert. Professionals like school counselors, therapists, or those working through one of the many online mental health services available to students and professionals alike can help you develop the strategies you need to be mentally healthy while in grad school.

Lack of Support

Some grad students find themselves in positions where their family and friends aren’t available, either physically or emotionally, to support them. This can be lonely, but it’s also a common issue. Reaching out to your classmates, either online through various platforms or in person, for friendship, study support, and connection can make grad school feel a lot less lonely. Most likely, one or more of your classmates is also struggling with a lack of support, and you could be the connection they need.

Worry About the Future

It’s hard not to worry about the future when you’re in grad school, whether that means worrying about your job prospects after graduation or experiencing test anxiety about an upcoming exam. Worrying about the future too often leaks into the present and makes you lose focus. While there’s no magic cure for worrying, mindfulness, meditation, and making sure you get enough food, sleep, and exercise can help. So can having a loose plan for the future, so it feels less open-ended.

Resources For Mastering Success

Grad school is difficult, but there are plenty of resources to make it not only manageable but a positive and successful experience. From ways to communicate with your classmates and instructors to tools that help you find research materials and supplement your classes with further study, the internet puts vast resources for mastering success right at your fingertips. Here are a few virtual resources to get started.

  • Discord: Another text-based chat platform, Discord allows members to stay in touch, discuss different classes, and compare notes on specific tests and assignments.
  • edX: This repository of resources for students and learners includes free courses from some of the top universities and professors in the country.
  • Edvisors: Edvisors helps you navigate the world of student loans to ensure that you’re in the best possible financial position within your program.
  • Google Scholar: Google Scholar ensures you get information only from scholarly sources suitable for use in academic work.
  • Khan Academy: For those looking to enhance their studies, Khan Academy provides a wide variety of free classes to help you gain skills for grad school and beyond.
  • LinkedIn: This professionally-focused social media site allows you to network with classmates, professors, and professionals while showing off your academic and professional accomplishments.
  • Microsoft Teams: MS Teams is a great way to stay organized, particularly if you can link it with the email address you use for school.
  • OpenStax: OpenStax is the place to go for free online textbooks and access to inexpensive physical copies for those who prefer pen-and-paper studying.
  • Purdue OWL: The online writing lab (OWL) at Purdue is a great resource for formatting, editing, outlining, and composing academic work as well as for ensuring proper citations to avoid plagiarism.
  • r/Gradschool: This grad school board on the popular social media site Reddit helps you connect with over 300,000 grad students in different programs around the world to share tips, tricks, and stories.
  • RefSeek: RefSeek is a specialized search engine dedicated to academic materials. Free to use, it can be a great research tool for projects and papers.
  • Slack: Having a Slack channel for your classmates or study group can be a great way to foster a sense of community and exchange ideas.
  • The Free Library: One of the largest online libraries in the world, The Free Library holds over 26 million books, all available free. Its sister site, The Free Dictionary, can help with any confusing phrases.
  • WhatsApp: This highly popular, securely encrypted chat app is a great way to connect with classmates, form group chats, and participate in video calls.
  • Zoom: The Zoom video chat platform is useful for attending online lectures and going to your professor’s video office hours.

Interview with a Successful Online Master’s Graduate

Aaron Margolis

Aaron Margolis, a 2022 graduate of the College of William and Mary’s online Master of Science in Business Analytics program, now works in a rapidly-advancing field as a data scientist. Aaron chose an online program for professional reasons and has some advice for aspiring master’s students.

What was the biggest challenge you faced during your studies?

My biggest challenge was time management since I had an unpredictable full-time job, young kids, and general uncertainty due to the pandemic. My other challenge was being located in Eastern Europe while most of my classmates and professors were in the States.

How did you maintain relationships with your classmates in an online program?

My program had a lot of group projects, so I got to work with a few of my classmates. They also had a different variant of the “introduce yourself” on chat at the beginning of each class, so I got to learn a little about all my classmates.

Did your professors offer online office hours? Did you attend them?

Some professors had office hours, but a lot of them were in the evening in the U.S., which was the middle of the night for me. When office hours aligned with my schedule, I did attend.

Were you working during your studies? If so, how did you manage your time?

I was working full-time. I chose this MSBA program because the lectures were recorded, so I could listen to them during my lunch break, while folding laundry, etc. I could also do homework at night and on weekends.

What advice would you give someone considering an online program over one in person?

I’d advise them to look at both online and in-person options, then figure out what fits best into their schedule. I did my data science certificate in person and my MSBA online. An in-person program where lectures are at a specific place and time is a less flexible but more binding commitment than online programs. The best program is the one you’re passionate about enough to complete.