Grad School Tips: 5 Strategies for Success

Furthering your education with a graduate degree is a popular path for more than 21 million Americans: It not only leads to earning an average of $2.7 million over an individual’s lifetime, it improves your competitive advantage and leads to more job opportunities.

If you are still deciding if grad school is the right path for you, understanding what to expect and how to make the most of your experience will be an important factor in your success.

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Common Challenges in Graduate School

While graduate school can help you grow both personally and professionally, it does come with its unique set of challenges.

Coping with Academic Pressure

A universal challenge that graduate students face is adjusting to the demanding academic rigor. The expectations for coursework, research, and professional development are high, so the only way to succeed and thrive is to navigate this pressure effectively.

This pressure doesn’t just affect your academic performance, it can also affect physical health. Therefore, taking care of yourself is important when managing the demands of graduate life. Regular physical activity, sufficient sleep, and relaxing activities are key to maintaining well-being as you pursue your goal.

Overcoming Imposter Syndrome

Along with academic pressure, many graduate students experience imposter syndrome—a psychological phenomenon in which individuals doubt their skills, talents, or accomplishments—during their graduate studies. This challenge highlights the need to believe in yourself throughout your graduate studies as doubts about your qualifications and a sense of not belonging to the academic community resurface.

Adapting to Remote or Hybrid Learning Environments

Managing your time well in graduate school is a challenge, especially with the increase in online and hybrid programs. In many cases, working professionals didn’t use these learning modalities while in school, so it’s important to create a dedicated, distraction-free space to enhance your focus when completing assignments and attending classes.

By recognizing and addressing these common challenges, you’ll understand how to succeed in graduate school and emerge stronger, more skilled, and ready to advance your career.

Christopher Dousham—who received his master’s degree from Northeastern University in Corporate and Organizational Communication—and Scott Whear—a student pursuing a Master of Science in Project Management—share strategies and mindsets they say will help you effectively prepare for your future along the grad school journey and combat these challenges.

How To Prepare For Grad School

1. Know why you’re pursuing a graduate degree.

It’s important not to look at grad school as the next logical step after receiving a bachelor’s degree or as a means of escaping a competitive job market, Dousham says. Instead, consider more tangible, practical reasons for diving into grad school, and be prepared to commit.

“Education should never be an ‘out,’” he explains. “Think of any current or past success you’ve enjoyed and ask yourself, ‘Am I ready to commit to this at the same level?’”

Whear, for example, was at a crossroads when he decided to return to school: He had received his undergraduate degree in business management and performed an internship as a wealth management financial analyst, but felt like something was missing.

“I wasn’t really sure what I wanted to do, but I knew that I needed to differentiate myself from others because an undergraduate degree today seems to be the norm,” he says. “I wanted to elevate myself. I found Northeastern, looked at their programs, and found that their project management degree aligned with my interests, so I applied and was accepted. I was sold because they offer a number of paths within the program to explore, which is what I needed to narrow my career focus.”

Knowing the role that a graduate degree would play in his future was key for Whear. Consider your own personal reasons for embarking on the graduate school journey to ensure it’s the right decision for you.

2. Look for financial assistance.

The thought of paying for grad school, considering the $1.76 trillion in global student loan debt, can be daunting. Yet, it’s a step that’s both financially and mentally manageable with the right resources.

“Come to terms with it,” Dousham advises. “[Grad school] is a commitment with costs that can’t be measured at face value—but the same can be said for the rewards.”

Thankfully, there are many options available to students that help ease the financial burden making grad school a reality for more people. Search for scholarships available to you in your field of study, based on your ethnicity, through your university connections, and based on your unique life circumstances, for example. Also consider federal, state, and local aid, as well as employer-sponsored scholarships or tuition reimbursement opportunities. Military benefits, grants, and work-study opportunities offer other possible funding options, as well.

3. Be prepared to work hard and manage your time.

Grad school requires dedication, time, and effort. While some students decide to pursue an advanced degree full-time, others balance the coursework part-time alongside a full-time job and family life.

“Once you know you can make a commitment to grad school, go ahead and do it,” Whear says. “The coursework is doable and you’ll still have time to spend with friends and family, particularly if you pick the [program] format that suits your needs,” he says.

At Northeastern, you can tailor your graduate experience to fit your life with flexible online, on-campus, or hybrid programs. It’s important to evaluate your personal situation and choose the program structure that will best fit your lifestyle.

Be sure not to overload yourself with classes though, Whear recommends. Instead aim to strike a balance with your other commitments. He goes on to explain that the key to succeeding in grad school is excelling in time-management.

“You need to be organized and know how to manage your time…I have a bulletin board that lists my classes and to-do list. If you’re thinking about grad school, know that it’s hard work but it’s not a race, it’s a marathon.”

4. Network with your professors.

For undergraduate students, forming strong relationships with professors outside the classroom can be rare, Dousham says. In grad school, however, strong relationships should be the rule—not the exception.

“You’ll study under thought leaders in your field who will open doors for you, not because it’s their job to, but because they’re professionals who understand the importance of building the future of their industries,” he says. “The same goes for your classmates: You could be working alongside some of the greatest minds in your field.”

Whear, too, advises students not to take these networking opportunities for granted during graduate school. Instead, he recommends jumping at the chance to meet with your professors outside of class time for their insight, knowledge, and connections.

“When I got hired full-time, I brought my offer letter to one of my professors and we sat down and went over everything—what to expect in this job, whether this was a great avenue for me, and how I could prepare for it,” Whear says. “I would have never had that opportunity as an undergrad.”

5. Believe in yourself.

Committing to grad school can feel overwhelming, but in order to succeed, it’s important that you believe you are capable of excelling, too.

“I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, this is going to be the hardest thing I’ve done in my life,’” Whear admits about his decision to attend grad school. “But with all the resources and committed staff that Northeastern has, you’re getting the cream of the crop to help you every step of the way.”

Commit to the process 100 percent, and you’ll be forever thankful for your experience, Dousham adds. “Fully immerse yourself in grad school—it’s an environment that fosters exploration, forming unexpected connections, and self-discovery…That’s something to treasure, and it doesn’t last forever. Take every opportunity you can to enjoy the ride.”

How To Choose the Right Graduate Program

To succeed in graduate school, it’s crucial that you choose the right graduate program for your personal and professional goals. The more closely a program aligns with your lifestyle and career aspirations, the more likely you are to have a positive experience and be successful in your endeavors.

If you have yet to apply to graduate school or are currently weighing your options, consider the following when making your decision:

  • Flexibility and part-time options: You might find that full-time on-campus programs are not compatible with your lifestyle. If you’re juggling a full-time job with family obligations, you might opt for a part-time or online graduate program.
  • Hands-on learning opportunities: A graduate program should equip you with the knowledge and skills that you need to enter your field and advance your career. Look for programs that offer hands-on experiential learning opportunities in which students gain experiences in their field. 
  • Career outcomes: When choosing a graduate program, consider career outcomes for past students. What is the employment rate post-graduation? What companies do graduates get hired at? What are their job titles? If you have a specific career goal in mind and would like to work for a particular company, see whether your graduate school has any corporate partnerships with the company you’re interested in.

By choosing the right graduate program and following the tips mentioned above, you’ll set yourself up for success.

Why You Can Succeed in Graduate School and Beyond

To be a successful graduate student, keep your career goals at the forefront of your mind. It’s also important to remember that graduate school is not just about academic and professional growth. It offers opportunities to expand your network, engage in research, and develop a resilience that will serve you well in all areas of your life.

The key is to embrace these experiences because they will enrich your journey through graduate school and equip you with a comprehensive skill set that extends beyond the classroom.

When it comes to the challenges of graduate school, remember that each obstacle can be overcome on the path to a rewarding career that makes it all worth it in the end.

Earning a graduate degree has a positive, lasting effect on your professional career. To help you decide, register for our Intro to Northeastern virtual event to see if our graduate programs are right for you.