The major factor that distinguishes successful vs. unsuccessful graduate students
is involvement in the academic life of the institution.
(Girves, Zepeda, & Gwathmey, 2005)
- Get involved! Graduate school is a great time to try out a variety of activities. Explore research, teaching, and professional experiences—even if you think you know what you want to do with your degree.
- Apply for scholarships and other awards—go to the Grad College Financial Resources website, ask in your department—and keep putting a bug in your adviser’s ear to send you announcements.
- Seek multiple mentors and be a good mentee.
Hang out with savvy students, at least sometimes.
- Find mentors that match your interest, others that are good with stats, others who encourage you.
- Communicate well, keep deadlines, set boundaries.
- Remember that mentoring is a two-way street—you have a lot to offer.
- Include mentors in the community who already work in your chosen field and can teach you about practical issues you typically will not learn at the university.
- Join professional organizations;many of them have active student groups.
If you don’t know something, ask. Maintaining the appearance that you know what’s going on is overrated compared to finding out what’s really going on!
- They know more about some things than your professors will.
- Form work groups (study for comps, doctoral application group, dissertation/thesis group).
- Avoid competing with peers.
Persistence is one big key to success.
Familiarize yourself with departmental politics. It may help you avoid missteps.
If you begin to experience problems, talk with the person involved. Should problems persist, do not wait, but talk to your professor or advisor, the graduate coordinator or department chair, or ultimately a Graduate College administrator. It's easier to address problems proactively than wait to be approached once the situation has really deteriorated.
Graduate school is a developmental process that begins with attending classes and evolves into professional experiences that leave behind initial support systems that develop naturally around class attendance. (Hadjioannou, Shelton, Fu, & Dhanarattigannon, 2007)
Graduate students experience tremendous growth and change in their identities—both professional and personal.
- Support systems you develop early will drop away, and you must be prepared to develop new ones at transition points during and at the end of your program.
Life events don’t take a break while students attend graduate school. Weddings, death, severe illnesses, births, divorces, problems with kids, jobs, etc. continue to happen in graduate school.
- This is very rewarding but can contribute to strain in your personal relationships.
To cope, insist on self-care—make it happen!
- Get regular check-ups.
- Make time to recreate.
- Try to focus on the present and not solely the future.
- Make time to exercise—be creative.
- Know yourself and be aware when you are approaching your stress limit.
- Consider personal therapy or a stress management group.
- Learn to negotiate to make things manageable for yourself.
References and Recommended Reading
Girves, Jean E., Yolanda Zepeda, and Judith K. Gwathmey. 2005. Mentoring in a post-affirmative action world. Journal of Social Issues 61, no. 3: 449-479.
Hadjioannou, Xenia, Nancy Rankie, Danling Fu, and Jiraporn Dhanarattigannon. 2007. The road to a doctoral degree: Co-travelers through a perilous passage. College Student Journal 41, no. 1 (March): 160-177.
Huwe, Jennifer M., and W. Brad Johnson. 2003. On being an excellent protégé: What graduate students need to know. Journal of College Student Psychotherapy 17, no. 3: 41-57.
Payne, Denise A., and Julie M. Johnson. 2005. Succeeding in graduate school online: Tips from successful students. College Student Journal 39, no. 1 (March): 117-128.
Ulloa, Emilio C. and Marisel Herrera. 2006. Strategies for Multicultural Student Success: What About Grad School? The Career Development Quarterly 54, no. 4 (June): 361-366.
Walfish, Steven, and Allen K. Hess. 2004. It's not just about grades: One student's strategies for successfully completing the Ph.D. Constructivism in the Human Sciences 9, no. 1: 143-149.
—Evie Garcia, Associate Dean of the Graduate College and Associate Professor, Educational Psychology