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How to Be Successful in a Master’s Program

What are tips for being academically successful?

In order to successfully complete a master’s degree program, College Xpress urges and U.S. News & World Report notes online students must do the following:

Tips for Being Academically Successful in an Online Master’s Program

Understand Grad School is Different from Undergrad

At the undergraduate level, most course instructors evaluate students on the basis of exams and written assignments. At the master’s level, however, students will be required to prepare extensive research papers, collaborate with peers for long-term group projects, and (if applicable) complete lab or practicum requirements.

Practice Effective Time Management

Many online master’s degree earners have commitments like employment and family care in addition to their studies — and as such, must find ways to balance their time to allow for effective studying. Graduate students usually enjoy more independence than undergraduates — but as a result, they must work harder to stave off the urge to procrastinate.

Organize Everything

This includes course materials and syllabi, notes from readings and lectures, research ideas, and even the student’s personal studying space. Many grad students benefit from creating a comprehensive filing system.

Meet Technical Requirements

Before each course starts, make sure you have uninterrupted access to a computer and the Internet. Make sure the computer is compatible with all aspects of the curriculum. Many of today’s online programs feature interactive software that will only function properly on up-to-date computer models.

Communicate with Professors

Since students enrolled in online courses usually don’t meet their professors face-to-face, it is important to reach out to instructors early and maintain a steady dialogue with them throughout the course.

Develop a Workable Schedule

If an online course is self-paced, then students are responsible for staying on task during the semester or quarter. After one or two weeks, students should have a general idea about how much time is needed for each assignment; this will allow them to create a reasonable course schedule.

How do I deal with a difficult or unhelpful adviser?

Most accredited master’s programs (online and offline) either appoint a counselor or adviser for each enrolled student, or allow students to hand-pick their own advisers. Contact these officials before the school year begins, and maintain consistent communication with them over the duration of the master’s program.

Advisers can be a valuable source of information, but sometimes students are unsatisfied with the responses they receive from their advisers. In a column for The Chronicle of Higher Education, Julie Miller Vick and Jennifer S. Furlong urge students to seek out other grad students who have had the same adviser and inquire about their own experiences. If allowed to choose an adviser, sit down with two or three candidates and ask them directly about their policies for dealing with various student concerns.

Finally, graduate students are encouraged to maintain a large network of faculty members at their institution in addition to their adviser. “This network can serve as a source of advice if you and your adviser have a disagreement,” Vick and Furlong write. “In an extreme case, it can provide recommenders if your relationship with your main adviser goes truly awry.”

If all else fails, most colleges and universities employ an ombudsman to investigate claims of faculty misconduct or failure to properly serve students; the ombudsman should only be consulted if a serious disagreement or breach of trust has occurred.

How can I set myself up for a successful career while still in my program?

Professor Nina Geff at the University of Washington Graduate School writes that graduate students should spend their program preparing for post-graduation employment. Students can effectively set themselves up for a successful career by using the following strategies:

How to Effectively Prepare for Your Career

Identify the Job You Want

Determine which skills and competencies are required of your desired position, and then enroll in courses that will enable you to learn them.

Explore a Mix of Careers

While many master’s degree earners are essentially positioning themselves for careers in education or academia, Geff urges students to explore career prospects with the government, industrial, and non-profit sectors. The Bureau of Labor Statistics is a good resource for salaries, unemployment rates, career growth projections, and other data points.

Position Yourself for the Job Market

Specializations and certifications will distinguish a job candidate’s resume, as will internships and other positions held during a master’s program.

Build a Network

By cultivating positive relationships with your professors, adviser, and members of your master’s degree committee, students can gain a handful of allies at their institution — and increase their chances of obtaining post-graduate employment through positive recommendations.

Additional Resources for Program Success

  • How to Do Graduate Level Research: This PDF guide, written by a Rutgers professor, describes in detail what may be expected when conducting graduate level research. It’s a good in-depth primer for students either entering grad school or struggling with program requirements.
  • On Writing in Grad School: This article, published by the Chronicle of Higher Education, includes surprises and tips pertaining to graduate school writing assignments.
  • Publishing Work as a Grad Student: This comprehensive guide from Leaving Academia outlines the ways in which a graduate student might publish his or her work.
  • An Insider’s Guide to Choosing a Graduate Advisor: Written by a University of Wisconsin-Madison professor, this guide is meant for students at any research university. It outlines what to look for and what to avoid in an advisor, as well as giving advice on working with that advisor on research.
  • Choosing an Advisor Wisely: Experience.com provides another perspective on how to choose your graduate advisor. The article lists seven tips for both choosing and collaborating with an advisor.
  • Can’t Miss Tips for Writing a Thesis or Dissertation: This article from Tufts University is both comprehensive and easy-to-understand, featuring anecdotes and advice from graduate students who recently completed their theses.
  • Ten Things I Wish I’d Known Before Starting My Dissertation: This article from The Guardian takes a conversational tone, but it provides excellent advice for how to manage your time, expectations and stress while completing a dissertation.
  • All-But-Dissertation Survival Guide: This is a wide array of resources aimed at graduate students completing a dissertation, from style guides and editing tips to helpful software and scholarly networking sites.
  • Managing Time as an Online Graduate Student: From one student to another, this article describes strategies for getting the most out of your online degree. Though it is aimed at online students, the time management tips may be applicable to any student.