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How to Succeed in Grad School: Defining Success and Achieving Your Dreams

So, you’ve been accepted to grad school! Congratulations! Finally getting accepted after months of effort is such a rush of affirmation, isn’t it? If you haven’t had much time to process, pause here to celebrate, savor, and breathe for a moment. You 100% deserve it.

When you’re ready, move on to the next section.

Now, take five minutes to reflect on that entire experience. Ask yourself:

  • What have I learned?
  • How have I changed?
  • What have I accomplished?
  • What am I glad to be done with?
  • What am I proud of?

You can write down your answers, discuss them with friends, or just think about them in your head. The purpose of this exercise is to regroup the mind after a taxing journey, just as you would linger at the top of a mountain vista after a long hike. Enjoy it!

When you’re ready to proceed, keep reading.

 

What Makes Grad School Different

The narrative of success in undergrad goes like this: Get good grades, so you can get good internships, so you can graduate and get a good job. If you’re still stuck in this mindset, you need to reset. Graduate school is different.

In general, grad school is more about gathering information and networking than it is about getting goods grades. The schedule of a typical student reflects this difference. Undergrads spend about 80% of their time on academics and 20% on networking; for grad students, it’s the opposite.

Undergrad Schedule       vs.       Graduate Schedule

 

There are several reasons for this. First, graduate school is professional. Fundamentally, it’s about career, so it makes sense to spend more of your time there building your career. Second, you're more likely to stay in touch with your grad school peers than you are with the people you knew in undergrad. This is because there’s more “crossover.” You’re more likely to be in the same industries, work at the same companies, and just generally exist in the same circles, which makes those contacts much more valuable to your career in the long run.

It's a good general rule to spend less time obsessing over the perfect A and more time connecting with your professors and peers. But there's more than one way to network and the exact breakdown your should follow depends on your degree.

 

The Breakdown

Networking

Your degree type not only determines how much you should network but also with whom. Generally, the groups are your peers (classmates and recent alumni), professors, and career contacts. When we say career networking, we mean anyone you talk to with the goal of getting a job.

If you’re a PhD student, you should mostly speak with professors and others who can help you with your research (about 50% of your networking time), then talk to classmates (about 35%), and finally focus on career networking (15%). If you’re pursuing a degree that isn’t a PhD, your networking pattern will probably mirror that of an MBA student, as shown below. 

If you’re pursuing an MBA (or another non-PhD degree), you should be spending the majority of your time with classmates (about 60%), then focus on career (30%), then speak with professors (10%). The reason why you should still connect with professors even if your career has nothing to do with academia is that you never know what business insights or connections that interaction might bring. Additionally, professors can be great career advisors, especially if they’ve spent some time in the corporate world themselves.

 Graduate Networking Schedule     vs.     PhD Networking Schedule


G
rades

GPA generally doesn’t matter much for grad school, but this is particularly true for those pursuing terminal degrees, since they never plan on applying to another program. The opposite is true of people who are using this degree to feed into another program, like a PhD. While most grad students will spend just 20% of their time on academics, PhD candidates will spend double that. 


Overall

Considering the academic and networking needs of each degree type, an overall schedule comparison might look something like this: 

Graduate Schedule     vs.     PhD Schedule

 

Hopefully, this rough approximation has given you a good idea of what your priorities should be. In addition to these degree-specific priorities, there are a few main goals that are common to almost every graduate student. In the short-term, you want to build your skills and have fun! In the long-term, you want to be well-positioned for your next career move or academic leap.

 

Defining Success

Aside from the two general goals stated above, success is totally personal. Why are you going to grad school in the first place? What do you want to get out of it? If you’re an Admit.me regular, your "why" has probably been the guiding light of your application and enrollment process. You’ve chosen your degree, your program type, and your school based on what is fundamentally most important to you. On the other hand, if your choices so far have been less directed, you may find it more difficult to define what success means to you. But as long as you’re getting what you want out of it, you’re doing grad school right.

Keep in mind that you might not know if you’ve made the right choices until several years down the line. Career arcs take time and the turnaround on this particular investment is long (and that’s okay).

 

How to Stay Focused

Here is a fundamental truth about grad school and life: Things will change. So when we say “stay focused,” we don’t mean “write a detailed two-year plan and follow it to a T.” The most successful grad students are decidedly focused on their overarching goal, and at the same time open to the possibility of change.

On one hand, you should be able to state your motivation for attending grad school in one concrete sentence to the effect of: “This is why I’m going to grad school and these are going to be my priorities while I’m there.” Without this guiding main idea, you can get lost in grad school. There is a huge amount of opportunity and your attention will be pulled in all directions.

On the other hand, saying yes to every part of your original plan might mean saying no to something new and even more valuable. You will undoubtedly learn a lot in grad school; about your field, about being a professional, and about yourself. It is unwise (and irrational) to believe that you already have the necessary knowledge to make all the right choices during grad school. Why are you going to grad school if not to learn and grow?

So, like a detective following a promising lead, you should pay close attention to new developments, but never allow yourself to be distracted from the main story. Building your grad school experience will be an iterative process, developing bit by bit. Stay self-aware throughout and you’re bound to make better choices. With a guiding purpose, clear goals, and focus... success is in your hands.

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