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.

Whether you’re deciding if grad school is the right path for you or you’ve already made the leap, understanding what to expect and how to make the most of your experience will be an important factor in your success.

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 along the grad school journey.


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How To Be Successful in 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.

Paying for grad school can feel overwhelming; with student loan debt tipping the scales at $1.6 trillion globally, funding your education can feel like not only a financial burden but a mental one, as well.

“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.

Northeastern, for example, has a number of graduate programs that are offered online, on-ground, or in a hybrid format. It’s important to evaluate your personal situation and choose the program structure that will best fit into your lifestyle. Be sure not to overload yourself with classes, Whear recommends, but 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 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.”

Choosing a 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.

Succeeding in Graduate School and Beyond

By earning a graduate degree, you’ll be on track to earn significantly more in your lifetime than bachelor’s degree holders. You’ll also gain a competitive edge in the job market—in which by 2022, 18 percent of jobs will require a master’s degree. 

To be a successful graduate student, keep your career goals at the forefront of your mind. Remind yourself why you’re embarking on this journey and that all of your hard work will be 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.