Meet the Experts
  • Chassidy Green Educational Consultant Read More
  • Jonathan Farley Associate Professor, Morgan State University Read More
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Katy McWhirter Read More

Top 13 Qualities of a Successful Graduate Student

Finding success in graduate school requires students to embrace a number of qualities related to focus, determination, and time management. The following section takes a look at some of the top qualities learners should try to build and nurture while undertaking a program.

  1. Flexibility.

    Although many undergraduate students have relatively few responsibilities while completing their degrees, this isn’t often true of graduate students. According to education expert Chassidy Green, grad students have their hands full. “Seventy-six percent of graduate students work at least 30 hours a week, so diligence in managing time for reading, study groups and large projects is extremely important,” she says. “Students should also plan time for rest and rejuvenation.”

  2. Perseverance.

    “Perseverance and planning are key to success in graduate studies,” notes Green. “For many students, a graduate program is the first time they are challenged academically and need to persevere through difficulties they face, and the ability to plan and manage time is crucial to success in a graduate program.”

  3. Patience.

    No matter if a student plans to attend an institution just down the road from their current home or move across the country, they often experience many changes in a short amount of time. Many degree-seekers take time off between undergraduate and graduate studies, meaning they may feel a little rusty when it comes to reading hundreds of pages per week or taking lecture notes. Rather than getting frustrated by all the changes and learning curves, students should remind themselves that it’s normal to feel stressed when making significant life changes, but everything will feel routine before long.

  4. Self-discipline.

    Whether studying via an online program or at a traditional campus, maintaining self-discipline is often the single most important quality of students who want to succeed. Graduate students enjoy more autonomy and independence than their undergraduate counterparts, but this freedom can be a double-edged sword for degree seekers who haven’t yet learned how to properly manage their time.

  5. Organization.

    Like self-discipline, organization can greatly help students have a smooth and successful graduate degree experience. Disorganized students often find themselves forgetting about classes or study sessions, turning in papers late or misplacing hours of work. Learners looking to avoid these pitfalls understand the importance of planners, online calendars, a simple filing system and an external hard drive.

  6. Work hard — and smart.

    It’s no secret that professors at the graduate level push students to their max — both to ensure they have what it takes to succeed and to help them better understand their capabilities. It’s not uncommon for students to spend multiple hours per day completing reading assignments. Students should maximize this time. Rather than simply reading the material without any goals, think about what you want to take from the text. How can it help you succeed and how can you derive benefits from time spent reading it?

  7. Critical thinking.

    Students enroll in graduate programs to increase their knowledge, but that doesn’t mean they should blindly accept everything they are told during the program. Critical thinking separates successful learners from average students, empowering them to analyze materials presented, ask questions and make educated judgment calls.

  8. Clear sense of purpose.

    Degree seekers begin graduate programs for a variety of reasons; some desire to increase their existing knowledge while others seek a specific credential to expand their career options. Regardless of the reason, learners should keep that purpose at the forefront of their minds and ensure they self-advocate and receive an education that meets their end goals.

  9. Support system.

    No matter the level of organization and focus a graduate student possesses, no one can go it alone. Having a solid support system comprised of family, friends, mentors, classmates and professors can mean the difference between success and failure. Also, keep in mind that not everyone has a support system, and that some of your classmates might be looking for help. Support those around you and they may support you in return.

  10. Confidence.

    Advanced degree programs are not for the faint of heart. Students must feel confident in their ability to learn new materials and concepts to truly thrive while in school.

  11. Research, writing, and public speaking skills.

    Even more so than at the undergraduate level, learners enrolled in graduate programs are called upon to submit sophisticated and polished assignments. Students who feel their research, writing or public speaking skills are lacking have several options. Consider summer classes. Reach out to mentors with strong skills in these areas. Above all, keep practicing.

  12. Genuine passion for learning.

    It’s okay if what you want most from your graduate program is the degree, but you should do everything you can to enjoy the process itself. Students who truly love to learn have a huge advantage over those who don’t.

  13. Originality.

    At the end of most graduate programs, students create an independent piece of research — be it a dissertation or culminating project. Learners must know how to step outside the box, develop a truly unique research question, and contribute a new idea or concept to the field if they hope to stand out.

Ensuring Success as an Online Grad Student

With the increased popularity of online graduate programs across many disciplines, it’s no surprise that tens of thousands of newly enrolled learners each year opt for distance learning when completing an advanced degree. “Online grad programs are becoming more popular among working adults due to the flexibility of the schedule,” Green says. But what do students considering this path need to know about how to achieve success while enrolled? Keep reading to learn more.

  • “It is important for online graduate students to build learning communities with peers to improve the quality of learning,” says Green. “While completing online coursework can help students gain knowledge, there is something about class discussion facilitated by a professor that is difficult to duplicate, so peer relationships are crucial.”

  • “Having a dedicated work space is so important to online student success,” notes Green. “I finished my home office before I started my doctoral program, knowing that I would need a quiet place to work if I planned on finishing my degree in a reasonable amount of time.” She continues, “for some students, working at Starbucks or in a public library is ideal; whatever the location, I do believe it is important to work in an environment that’s conducive to learning.”

  • “Sometimes when we don’t have direct contact with supervisors, it can be easy to slack off,” notes Jonathan Farley. Without that regular, face-to-face interaction with teachers, it can be difficult to feel truly accountable. Consider asking professors if it’s possible to Skype or otherwise communicate at least once weekly at a set time to ensure you feel responsible for present and future work.

  • As online classes become more sophisticated, the technology powering them does the same. Today’s learning management systems allow professors and students to interact with the curriculum in meaningful ways, discuss coursework, complete assignments, take examinations and manage schedules under one easy umbrella. Students may also need to familiarize themselves with other technology such as videoconferencing apps, message forums and email.

  • Because most interaction within online programs take place at a distance, professors tend to judge students mostly by their writing. Because of this, it’s important to carefully review any communications being sent out, be they part of a forum discussion or a dissertation. Aside from developing thoughtful answers that fully answer questions posed, students should pay special attention to grammar and syntax.

  • To ensure degree seekers have the flexibility needed to thrive in an online learning environment, many distance education programs offer asynchronous learning. Under this system, students watch pre-recorded lectures and turn in assignments whenever their schedule best allows rather than being required to meet set deadlines. This system may seem great, and for some it is, but to be successful, students must manage their time wisely and make sure to stay on top of assignments.

  • Because online learners don’t visit campus each week to take classes, their home or office essentially becomes the classroom. In addition to setting aside a dedicated space to complete assignments, online graduate students must also ensure no distractions invade the space. Television, loud music and visiting family members are much harder to block out while at home, but students must maintain focus while completing an online degree if they wish to succeed.

Expert Q&A

  • Chassidy Green, educational consultant
  • Jonathan Farley, associate professor, Morgan State University
  • Can you provide some actionable tips for managing time while in school?

    Green: Getting a day planner and scheduling out the week and month are important for students and working professionals. I use a “Passion Planner,” which has proved invaluable to me. Eliminating distractions is also key to managing time and actually finding the motivation to complete the necessary tasks. I cancelled my cable and deactivated my Facebook account while completing my dissertation to remove temptation when I should be reading and writing. 

  • How can online students create structure and keep on top of their assignments?

    Green: Online learners should block chunks of time to read and complete assignments as if they were in a traditional classroom program. When I began working on my dissertation I blocked out Thursday nights and Saturday mornings, the same time I had class, to read and write. Blocking this time helped me stay on schedule with writing and allowed me to complete my dissertation in 18 months. Online students need to find a time in their weekly schedule that is consistently free and block it off as “class time” in their planner, keeping that time sacred as if they were actually reporting to a physical classroom.  

  • What is the biggest mistake grad students make when first starting school?

    Green: Starting off too strict or too lenient is a mistake for any learner. Failing to provide any flexibility in an academic schedule or taking too many classes is a recipe for frustration and failure. Conversely, not setting a schedule and allowing your mood to determine when you work on school assignments will lead to major procrastination and missed deadlines. I am not sure that there were many times where I felt like reading 70 pages of academic material or writing a 20-page paper, but scheduling time in my week to do it made accomplishing the task much easier.  

    Farley: One mistake a student can make is picking the wrong topic to do research in or the wrong advisor to do research with. For example, picking a topic the student is uninterested in or an advisor who has no time to meet with the student because he is so famous.

  • Who can students reach out to if they need a little help or assistance?

    Green: Building relationships with peers in your cohort is vital to success. Learning communities are important for students to share ideas and ask questions. All academic institutions have a student services office to provide support to students who need help adjusting to college. Your professor should also be able to answer questions and ease some of your concerns. Technology is a wonderful tool and allows a student to request a face-to-face meeting with peers or professors by using a webcam adding a relational piece that can be lacking in an online program. 

  • How can students best define success while in school?

    Green: Success depends on the intent for completing the program. If the learner wants to complete the program to gain the credential as a requirement for professional advancement, then passing the course by completing the work at a minimum standard is considered successful. If the learner wants to enrich themselves and their knowledge base, they will have to build a learning community in addition to doing the work — giving them the opportunity to dialogue with peers and learn from others. 

  • What is your best piece of advice for graduate students?

    Green: Be patient with yourself, expect feedback and give yourself time to rest. When I was working on my doctorate degree I was extremely hard on myself because I wasn’t doing as well as I anticipated. I had to realize that I was operating at a level of thinking much higher than I was used to and it would take time for me to get comfortable in this new academic arena. I also struggled with receiving feedback from my professors. I took the feedback as a sign that I was doing something wrong versus an opportunity to improve and push my thinking further.

    At some point the tide changed and I began to enjoy intellectual sparring with my professors and began to respect the views of others instead of waiting for adoration. Finally, giving yourself time to rest is necessary. Graduate work is mentally draining, and you will need time to rejuvenate. Use your planner and allot for time in your schedule to do things you enjoy — go for a bike ride or walk, play with your dog, take yourself to dinner or watch a movie. Your mind, body and spirit will thank you. 

Additional Resources

Graduate School Success for Students with Disabilities

Check out this GoGrad guide for information about scholarships, resources and expert insights on thriving in advanced degree programs.

5 Steps for Setting Up the Perfect Study Space

South University outlines easy steps for creating a quick, easy and affordable study area in your home.

5 Ways to Survive Grad School … With Kids

Personal stories and expert advice regarding what it takes to excel in grad school while also raising children.

10 Success Tips for Working Adults Enrolling in Online Degree Programs

Students planning to complete their degrees online can find lots of helpful ideas in this resource provided by Walden University.

10 Tips for Going to Grad School as a Working Professional

The University of Washington offers these actionable tips for busy professionals looking to balance work and school.

A Key to Success in Graduate School: Discussing & Setting Expectations

Students looking for ideas on maximizing their experience in grad school can check out UC Santa Cruz’s suggestions.

Being A Successful Graduate Student

This article by UC Santa Cruz focuses on students enrolled in science-related degrees, but the advice transfers to other disciplines as well.

Easy Ways to Set Up a Home Office Study Space

Bryan & Stratton College highlights easy ideas for creating a perfect study space for distance learning.

Making the Most of Grad School: Time Management Tips

Students looking for ideas on how to maximize their time can find tons of ideas via the University of Louisiana at Lafayette’s guide.

Practices to Facilitate Academic Success

The University of Michigan’s Rackham Graduate School offers this helpful guide to both students and staff looking for ways to make the most of graduate school.

Strategies for Success in Graduate School as An International Student

The University of North Carolina’s Charlotte campus provides these tips and resources for learners from countries outside America.

What is a Measure of Success in Graduate Education?

This resource from the University of Minnesota helps students clarify what success means to them while in school.