Published on 2013/04/09
How to Excel in Graduate School
Many of the skills students learn and master in graduate school are valued in the workforce, so it’s critical that students apply them consistently throughout their academic careers.

Graduate school is fundamentally different from any previous undergraduate experience. Undergraduate work focuses on introducing students to a discipline. It also provides students the tools to critically assess information, ideas and approaches. Typically, the work consists of a lot of memorization and repetition. Lastly, undergraduate education is designed to assist students with honing communication skills so their ideas can be clearly conveyed to others.

As students advance into graduate-level studies, their academic discipline may be similar, but the requirements for success are different. Graduate students are expected to have a greater level of academic maturity, which includes strong research, critical thinking and writing skills. Here are some important tips all graduate students should know:

  • Meet all deadlines. We all have busy schedules, but this is no reason to turn assignments in late.  Graduate-level work can be more taxing and time consuming than undergraduate study. Falling behind can lead to a situation where catching up is simply not an option.

  • Ask for help when needed. Professors are willing to assist you, but make sure to reach out and let them know you when need help. Keep them posted about any events that may impact your performance and take some time to get to know them. You may later want a letter of recommendation, and forming a professional relationship with your professor will ensure that someone who knows your academic work can write that letter. Keep in mind your professors provide helpful resources, readings, references and guidance for your work within the classroom. Always be sure to take the time to explore these materials.

  • Always engage in professional behavior. Graduate school is a community of scholars who are seeking to advance their knowledge and become proficient in their fields. Thus, all communication within the community must be professional and respectful, and all critiques must be constructive and designed to advance the collective goal of mastering the discipline.

  • Turn in graduate-level work. In graduate school, students must be prepared to perform in-depth research and clearly communicate ideas. This means students must be able to write in an academically appropriate manner using Standard English grammar and often by mastering writing styles such as APA Style. Quality writing will be a key component to your graduate-level success. Being able to clearly communicate is a valuable skill both for school and for a career. And, like any skill such as playing a sport or learning a foreign language, communication requires practice and can always be improved. Thus, don’t hesitate to take advantage of resources available at your school. For instance, at American Public University, students have access to free online tutoring services through our library department.

  • Turn in assignments with academically appropriate sources that are not based primarily on opinion or anecdotal evidence. Graduate students are expected to engage with the literature in their field. This means research! Use the key academic journals in your discipline and avoid blogs or unsubstantiated articles. Remember, the quality of your education is directly related to the quality of your research. Graduate students must know who the major theorists are and what their significant contributions have been to the field. Once students have a firm grasp of this, they can formulate their own ideas; but, again, this must be based on research.

  • Avoid plagiarism and academic dishonesty. At American Public University, we maintain a zero-tolerance policy for plagiarism. All graduate students are expected to understand what constitutes plagiarism and how to avoid it. Failure to cite sources in the appropriate citation style is unacceptable and will have serious consequences. If students are not sure if what they are doing is considered plagiarism, they should consult their library staff, faculty or student handbooks.

In addition to adopting these behaviors, it’s critical that students apply them consistently throughout their academic career. Remember, graduate students are creating and enhancing a personal portfolio of research, projects and discourse. All of these can help the student to build a positive reputation among his or her professors and peers. And many of the skills students master in graduate school are universally valued, which means they can be carried into their careers.

This article concludes Patricia Campbell’s two-part series on graduate school for adult students. To read the first part, please click here.

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Readers Comments

Eric Csergo 2013/04/09 at 7:51 am

I read both of your pieces for students who are considering or starting graduate school. I will be starting my master’s in geography this coming fall. Thank you for these helpful tips!

Curtis Keller 2013/04/09 at 2:20 pm

Having taught for 13 years and having, on multiple occasions, looked into the terrified eyes of my students as I pointed out unattributed material in their papers, I believe that many do not mean to commit plagiarism; they simply have a faulty understanding of what it entails. It might be helpful for graduate departments to offer training to incoming students on academic dishonesty and plagiarism.

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