12 Keys for Success in Grad School

Grad school is no time to slack off. Follow these tips and you'll not only get by— you'll excel.

Maybe you finished your undergrad degree like a champ, or maybe you barely squeaked through. But now you’re facing grad school, and it’s a whole new ball game. This isn’t just a series of courses you have to take to get to the fun stuff; this is the foundation of your career. (Please don’t go to grad school until you have a good idea of what your career is, or what it will be.) The reading list is more intense, as are the multiple papers. But don’t be alarmed, for you can still emerge victorious. It will just take some focused effort—and maybe following a few of these tips.

1. Keep a written set of goals

This may sound like Professional Development 101, but how many of us consistently work from a list? Not to mention, you’ll feel even more accomplished in your work when you’re able to cross the most important items off your list—a visual representation of how far you’ve come. One tool that might be helpful is TadaList.com. It’s free, and takes 10 seconds to sign up. Some people even make it their home page.

2. Upgrade your study skills

Try reading What Smart Students Know, by Adam Robinson. Great information on how to take better notes, how to “rehearse” for tests rather than simply poring over the material, and ultimately how to get better grades—maybe not with less effort, but with less wasted effort.

3. Dress up a little for class

You’ll feel better about yourself, and probably feel more confident around your peers and professors. A pair of unwrinkled jeans or khakis, a nice simple shirt and a shiny pair of shoes is all it takes. Trust me: If you do this, you’ll stand out in a positive way. And please, no cleavage. Your professors may be serving as references when you start interviewing for jobs, or they might be able to offer job leads. Take good care of your relationships, so people will be eager (not reluctant) to help you.

4. Network

It’s a corny word, that’s true. But grad school can open a lot of doors that aren’t otherwise available to you. You can often join professional associations at reduced prices. You can publish articles or even present at professional conferences. You can do informational interviews with professionals in your field to learn how best to prepare yourself. All of these activities can expand your professional horizons and make the job search much easier.

5. Find a change of scenery

The best time to plan a break or change of scenery is before you need it. Whether it’s a nearby park, a bench by the lake or even your favorite bookstore, make sure you allow yourself to slip away for a short time while working on a big project—or while planning for the next one. I know one former executive who used to slip away to a coffee shop once a week to clear his mind and do some big-picture thinking. Naturally, he came back to the office feeling recharged.

6. Have a life outside of grad school

One way to do this is to make friends with people who have never heard the buzzwords of your chosen field. For example, in counseling, those buzzwords include “theoretical orientation,” “self-efficacy” or “intervention.” It’s refreshing to be with friends who never use words like that. Your outside friends will help you keep perspective. Find fun activities, such as biking or cooking, that have nothing to do with school.

7. Control your destiny, under God

Meaning, take charge of your life, but remember who it is you live for—and who makes the rules. (As I reminded my students recently, “There are some rules in life you can’t break—if you crash up against them, they’ll break you.”) If you’re not happy with your job, with where you live or any other part of your life, change it. And if you can’t change it, or choose not to for family or personal reasons, find a way to make the best of it. For example, I knew a professor in Grand Rapids, Mich. who liked his job but missed the amenities of a big city. So four times a year, he and his family allowed themselves a weekend in Chicago. This short reprieve proved to help recharge and inspire him when he got back to work.

8. Go for a brisk walk

I have verified over and over again that it’s impossible to pout and power-walk at the same time. Walking clears the mind, restores breathing and makes everything look different and better, or at least clearer. If you’re in the middle of working on a big project, you may think it’s better to push through and avoid breaks. Just taking a short, 10-minute breather, though, can sometimes be enough to give you the motivation to finish up and work even harder. Why not leave your desk for 10 minutes and go get some fresh air?

9. Learn how to be (politely) assertive

Though the word “assertive” often gets a bad rap, it’s hard to imagine a full life without this quality. Contrary to popular opinion, assertiveness is not the same as aggression—in fact, notice how often these two are opposites. Assertiveness means having the utmost respect for the other party, while also including yourself in the equation. And it isn’t just about self-defense. Only those who are assertive can be kind (instead of merely “nice”) and can offer a compliment or say “Thank you.”

10. Get your priorities straight

If we put first things first, “second things” will follow—and follow more abundantly than if we had tended to them first. C.S. Lewis writes about this. “Aim at heaven,” he says, “and you will get earth thrown in. Aim at earth, and you get neither.” In grad school, this means focusing time and energy on the activities that produce the greatest results. (A good book on this subject: First Things First by Stephen R. Covey, A. Roger Merrill and Rebecca R. Merrill.)

11. Get rid of the hassles

Whatever it is that drains our energy—a cluttered desk, a leaky pen, an unpaid bill or an overdue conversation—that’s where we need to start. It helps to set a timer. For example, last night at 8:01, I set the timer for 14 minutes and got busy cleaning my kitchen. Racing against the clock kept me focused and energized, and by the time I finished, not only did I have a clean kitchen, the coffee was ready to go for the next morning. It’s a small thing, but often it’s the little things that derail us from the big things.

12. Celebrate

Whenever you finish an important project or reach a crucial milestone, it’s important to take time to acknowledge it before moving on to the next task. Even if it’s only a small celebration, like grabbing a snack, watching a few YouTube videos, taking 10 minutes for a celebratory walk outdoors or cranking up the music. Whatever your celebration of choice, make sure you take in the moment and appreciate each accomplishment. While you’re at it, don’t forget to live in the moment—even during big deadlines and projects. It can be easy to lose sight of the forest for the trees, so make sure to take a step back and appreciate the little things every once in a while. It’ll make your time in school more bearable—and help you keep a healthy perspective when entering the working world.

Gina DeLapa is the president of Maestro Consulting Group and an adjunct faculty member in the graduate counseling program at the University of San Diego.

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