Five Tips for Success in Graduate School

This post provides five general tips to help you be successful in graduate school. The same general advice will apply to doctoral students, but those in DNP or PhD programs also have to prepare terminal projects, so I won’t get into any advice about mentors, capstone projects, or original research—I’ll save that discussion for another post.  For first-year students fresh out of high school – many of the general tips will be helpful to you also.

Tools for Graduate School


What is Graduate Education?

Graduate education is a contract between you and the university.  Graduate education in nursing has a mission to prepare leaders in education and clinical practice, and scholars of the future.  That mission is taken very seriously by the university and the faculty that have pledged to prepare you for that future. Characteristics and skills needed by future nursing leaders include intellectual curiosity, critical reasoning, problem-solving, academic rigor, a scholar mindset, collaboration, open-mindedness, and ethical conduct – including academic honesty, professional integrity, and respect for self and others.

For nursing students getting an advanced degree to practice as an advanced practice nurse (APN; MSN or DNP: CNS, NP, CNM, CRNA), advanced nursing leader (administration, informatics, public health), or nurse educator (faculty, staff development), should remember that the awarding of a master’s degree (e.g., MS; MSN) signifies that you are an EXPERT in your particular discipline or field of study. A doctoral degree (e.g., DNP; PhD) signifies an even higher level of leadership and scholarship. 

In my experience, it is helpful to you to have nursing experience under your belt before starting a master’s degree program. Again, you are expected to be an expert when graduating – and, unfortunately, nursing staff can be unkind if they find out that you don’t have much nursing experience.  Know that going straight into a master’s program from your baccalaureate or only having a year’s experience as a nurse is going to be a tough road, not impossible, but harder for those who don’t have some experience to hang that graduate theory on!

By the end of your program, you should have honed that area of expertise and learned the skills and processes involved in the scholarly conduct of research or quality improvement projects, application of your evidence-based knowledge for innovation and change, transformational leadership, and dissemination of that knowledge through professional communication, publications, and presentations. 

Getting to that point requires a lot of hard work!

Graduate Student Expectations

There are many resources on the Internet from different colleges and universities giving you advice on going to graduate school; advice from and Miller are found here.  To find more, use Google or your favorite search engine.  

Here are 5 tips that come to mind for being successful in graduate school:

  • Be Prepared to work hard – really hard!
  • Be Proactive and talk to your faculty if you are having problems with coursework or having personal issues affecting your performance in school. 
  • Be Focused and develop good work habits.
  • Be Engaged to get the most out of your school experience as possible!
  • Be Ethical and respectful. 
Be Prepared

Graduate school is hard.  It is intellectually, psychologically, and physically intense. 

Faculty have very high expectations of you, regardless whether you are are undergraduate or graduate student.  You have been admitted because we believe you will succeed.  We expect you to succeed or we wouldn’t have admitted you — so first take heart in that realization!

Graduate studies are intellectually intense because there will be a lot of information to absorb; evidence and data to analyze and interpret. Then you will need to pull it all together — that is, to synthesize the analysis and interpretations in order to provide new and useful knowledge to make meaning for your professional and clinical practice. And we’re not talking superficial synthesis, but substantive. 

You will be held to a higher caliber of achievement in graduate school then you were in undergraduate programs. 

You will have assignments that depend on you being prepared. Most units in your courses will have a reading list with required and optional or recommended readings. These readings might include text chapters, journal articles, Internet resources, etc.

Do the Required Reading! 

You have you have to read in order to understand the concepts being taught and to make thoughtful contributions in class or via an online discussion board assignment. You may also have a group that’s depending on you for your contributions. In my classes, I call discussion board topics, scholarly discussions to remind the students that they should have the mindset of a scholar. (And try to get in one or two optional or recommended readings too.)

Try to get in one or two optional or recommended readings too – the instructor puts them there to offer you contrary insights, deep dive into a specific concept, or to widen your horizons.

Think about what you’re reading, while you are reading!

Take notes when you’re reading.  There is literature to show that when you actually handwrite things down that you’re reading, you tend to remember and integrate the concepts more readily.  

I write notes either on a separate pad or in the margins of the text or article. I also highlight concepts or star (∗) phrases to help me find key points. 

The problem with highlighting things is that you can go overboard. I speak from experience because I love to highlight. 🙂 However, you have to learn to discern what’s important to highlight so you don’t highlight the whole article!  You’ll get better at discernment as time goes on.  

So please make time to read and if possible, and I know that this may be a stretch, re-read pieces that you’re having trouble understanding.  Bring up unclear points in discussion or in a private message to your instructor to get more clarity — you won’t be the only one with questions, I promise!  

Graduate school is psychologically intense and physically intense because you have to juggle school, work, play, sleep, and life! This is especially hard I know if you’re taking more than one graduate class at a time and/or have to schedule clinical rotations on top of everything else (oh yeah, APN students may have to schedule their own clinical rotations). 

Know that the majority of graduate students are working at the same time they’re going to school.  They have similar obligations as far as family and other responsibilities, as you do; so the fact that you have to work is not seen as an excuse for not being prepared or not handing in an assignment on time. 

If you possibly can, try not to work over 20 hours a week. I know that’s not going to be possible for many of you (FYI- because of the intensity and clinical requirements of CRNA programs, CRNA students are not allowed to work at all!).  I worked full-time all through school also and I once had a doctoral professor who told me I wouldn’t be successful if I didn’t cut down my work hours. But that wasn’t an option for me – and I was successful, but not without a lot of stress! 

Trying to do your best in work and life is challenging enough, but add in graduate school and you may really feel the effects of all that stress. So be sure to take care of yourself! Try to eat right, exercise, and sleep! 

Ask your spouse or partner or family to cut you a little slack while you’re in school. You don’t have to be SuperWoman or SuperNurse. Maybe they can pitch in a little bit more — make dinner, clean up, pick up the kids — so that you can have some time to do the things that you need to do.  Advancing your career is a really great thing you are doing for yourself and for your family; hopefully, they’ll see it that way, too!

Be Proactive

There will be some structure in your Graduate School courses, of course: a course syllabus, class schedule, critical elements for assignments, and grading rubrics to tell you how things will be done – but for the most part, you are independent. Other than deadlines for assignments and class content outlines, YOU will choose when to study, how to study, where to study, and, if to study!

Realize that the majority of work you will do in your grad school courses takes place outside the classroom!  You will spend a lot of your own time reading, studying, doing research, writing, thinking, etc.  You are expected to be self-directed and able to figure out when you need help and where to get it using campus or personal resources.  You may have an assigned faculty advisor or not, but you are expected to contact the advisor if you have issues, not the other way around. You won’t get a message from an advisor that you forgot to register for classes, for example, it’s your responsibility to know when course registration opens and register for the classes you need.  

There is No Hand-Holding in Grad School!  

One of the most important tips I can give you is to be sure to talk to your faculty if you are having problems with coursework or having personal issues before these things affect your performance in school. After-the-fact is not as helpful as you might have missed assignments and lost points that you might not be able to make up.  

Most faculty will work with you to come up with viable solutions for your issues, but you have to let us know!  We want to help, but we can’t read your mind! 

So please be proactive if something is happening and let your instructors and advisor know. I think you’ll find faculty are pretty reasonable people and will help you when we can.  Another thing is to remember that you should have resources both virtual and face-to-face that you can utilize: many schools have a campus writing center, primary care clinics, counseling centers, disability services, librarian assistance, etc.

Be Focused and Develop Good Work Habits

When you register for a course, you’ve made a commitment to make that class great and make a commitment to be successful. To do that you will need to plan and you’ll need to balance your life responsibilities. To that end, the biggest tip I can give you is to manage your time wisely.  Use a digital or paper planner or desk calendar, prioritize your work, and schedule your time to get work done before the deadline!

I spent a whole month writing posts about how to be more productive, so I’m not going to repeat all of that advice here. What I will say though is how important it is to develop good work habits now!  I wish I had back then the routine I have today! I would have been less stressed and would have created more margin in my life for family and the fun things! 

So read the posts on strategies to increase productivity, thwart Parkinson’s Law, attain work-life balance, and create good habits! Download the free handout so you can have the work focus strategies close at hand for quick reference.

Develop some good habits now and they will help you throughout your graduate studies! 

Be Engaged

Be engaged with your instructors and classmates to get the most out of your Graduate School experience as possible!

I said above that when you make the decision to go back to school, you make a commitment to yourself to be successful; part of that commitment is to be “fully present” in your classes.  You make a class great by sharing your ideas and experiences with the other students in your class – no one else has those experiences, only you!  

Commit to being fully present in your classes. That means to be attentive, thoughtful, mindful, and “in the moment.” So when you are attending class, listen to what’s being said and engage – ask questions, question assumptions, share your experiences, and think about how what is being conveyed will affect your personal and professional practice.

Yes, we think of this more in terms of physical interactions, but you can convey this presence online also by the thoughtfulness and quality of your posts and interactions online. 

Network with your fellow classmates, virtually or in-person. Get to know these colleagues.  It’s also smart to build your relationship with faculty, especially if they are in a clinical or professional role to which you aspire (e.g., APN, faculty, researcher).  

It is good to build your professional network with classmates, guest lecturers, preceptors, and your faculty. I made my CNS students collect contact info from fellow students and the multidisciplinary healthcare professionals they came in contact with through class or clinicals. You have a specific professional or clinical expertise to share with others. And you never know when you’ll need an expert in respiratory care, public health, informatics, health policy, or scholarly writing — those people are probably in class with you, or teaching you! My first professional writing opportunities came from colleagues who knew of my expertise and wanted me a write for their publications. 

Be Ethical

This is a huge topic, obviously, but I want to finish this post by hitting on a few major areas concerning ethical behavior and Graduate School.

Academic dishonesty is a major problem in academia. There are many official definitions, but basically, it is an intentional or unintentional attempt to submit academic work that is not one’s own. I like the definition of academic honesty from the University of Georgia policy: “’Academic Honesty’ means performing all academic work without plagiarism, cheating, lying, tampering, stealing, giving or receiving unauthorized assistance from any other person, or using any source of information that is not common knowledge without properly acknowledging the source.” (para1).

Plagiarism, one of the most frequent ethics infractions at university and in professional journals, “is taking someone else’s work and acknowledging it as your own… Plagiarism can be considered intentional or unintentional – but either way, it is a violation” (Thompson, 2013, p. 1). Plagiarism is taken seriously because as healthcare providers, “we hold the public’s respect and trust. Dishonest students threaten that credibility and trust” (p. 2). 

It’s easy to get information from the Internet – and many people have the mistaken belief that information from the Internet is free. It’s not!  You still have to credit ideas and credit direct quotes appropriately.  Of course, make sure the sources you do use are credible.

It is essential that you understand how to cite your sources correctly!  You can download my Plagiarism handout as part of the APA Guide here

In Graduate School, you will be expected to pledge to adhere to the Honor Code or Student Conduct Code of the University, your school or college within the university, and of your professional honor code of your discipline.  There are consequences for academic dishonesty.  Students caught violating the academic honor code can be expelled from the university, at the extreme.

It is expected that all work submitted by you was produced by you – unless the faculty member states otherwise.  For example, the project that is a product of the group is expected to contain equal contributions from all group members.  Faculty are aware of online paper mills, Internet sources for papers, tricks of the trade, etc.  Many faculty and schools now use resources to find plagiarized papers using computer search engines and plagiarism detection software (Thompson, 2013, p. 4).

One more thing…

Stop multitasking during class or meetings! “Everyone” may do it, but it’s wrong! (Yes, I admit I’ve been guilty too.) You are not focusing on the content and thinking about how important it may be to your future role. You may not share your experiences that may have been the “lightbulb” moment for another student. When you multitask you are disrespecting the instructor and the class (or the meeting organizer and committee members), in general. 

I hope you can take some of these tips and use them to make your Graduate School experience successful, and maybe, a little bit enjoyable! 

Let me know what you think about tips in this post in the comments!