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How to Succeed in Graduate School: 5 Actionable Tips

Dec 5, 2023
5 min Read
Creighton University Staff

After giving it plenty of thought, you’ve decided you can’t wait any longer. The time is now, and you’re going back to school to earn your master’s degree. It’s normal to have mixed emotions – it’s exciting to embark on new adventures but can be overwhelming to add another commitment to your busy schedule.

Wondering how to succeed in graduate school on top of all your other priorities? The good news is you’re in great company. Many grad students lead very busy lives juggling work, family duties and a social life in addition to coursework. Creighton University is committed to helping you discover effective methods that will help you find success in grad school.

5 grad school tips to consider

How does grad school work for busy, working students? The key is to be proactive and intentional about finding a system that works for you. We compiled this firsthand advice for graduate students to help you get settled into an effective routine.

1. Find a time management method that works for you

Perhaps the most important advice for graduate students is to be intentional about planning and managing your time. The key to staying on top of everything is to plan ahead, according to Creighton graduate student Mary Bean. “One of the best ways to succeed in graduate school is to try and finish assignments early,” she advises. “That way you can receive feedback and have more time to revise and improve your work.”

While there is no single solution that works for everyone, there are some tried-and-true tips that many grad students find helpful. For example:

  • Make a designated study area in your home. If you’re someone who often does computer work from your couch or bed, try instead to sit in a dedicated study space. It doesn’t have to be fancy, just comfortable and set up in a way that encourages you to focus. Your grades – and your back – will thank you! 
  • Write down important dates. Take some time each week to review deadlines for homework, papers, tests, meetings, etc. Try to give yourself plenty of time to start something and work on it for a few days, instead of frantically finishing it the night before it’s due.
  • Set expectations with your family and friends. Earning a graduate degree is a big time commitment. Talk honestly with your loved ones about upcoming changes in your schedule and/or availability — and what kind of support you’ll need from them. The more people you have in your corner, the more likely you are to find success in graduate school.

2. Build connections with your peers

“Go make some friends” may be what you were told to do on your first day of elementary school. It was good advice then – and it is good advice now. The support and fellowship offered by other members of your graduate program can make all the difference.

“You will make friends that you’ll learn to lean on, and who will lean on you in return,” offers Creighton graduate student Natalie Torres. “If you rely on the people around you, you will excel. Here, we’re all family.”

Even in online classes there are ways to make connections with fellow students. Whether you connect through group messages, direct messages, phone calls or video chat software, you don’t have to go at it alone. Learning to both support and lean on your peers will benefit you in the long run.

3. Take advantage of support when you need it

Along with your peers, use every resource, every connection and every form of assistance offered by your program. A good graduate school will offer dedicated student support services to help with financial aid literacy, career planning and everything in between. Most faculty and staff are happy to assist you, but it’s up to you to ask for what you need.

“Remember that grad school is school for adults, meaning you are expected to advocate for yourself,” says Dr. Faith Kurtyka, academic advisor and English professor at Creighton University. “You should keep in regular contact with your advisor and instructors about what’s going on with you in your personal life that might affect your graduate work.”

Being honest with your faculty and leaning into them for help with issues you may face – both personally and professionally – can make all the difference. When Dr. Kurtyka recalls the students she’s witnessed fail graduate programs throughout the years, she feels this was the crucial missing piece.

“Ninety-nine percent of the time the problems could have been avoided if the student had maintained contact with the professor about what was going on that prevented them from completing their work successfully,” she explains.

4. Focus on one step at a time

When you think about how to succeed in graduate school, it’s easy to focus solely on the end goal. Depending on the specific program, the entire process could take anywhere from a year to two or more. Especially when you’re just beginning your journey, that full road ahead can seem daunting.

Make an effort to celebrate the smaller milestones along the way. Focusing on one course at a time – even one assignment at a time – can help keep things in perspective and help you build the momentum you need to keep progressing toward the finish line.

And remember: you don’t need to wait until graduation day to put your degree to work. All of the skills and training you acquire along the way can be immediately applied in your current position.

5. Don't forget to take care of yourself

There’s a lot of pressure to “do it all” in today’s society. While being a go-getter is typically a positive trait, it can also lead to burnout. Achieving balance with a hectic schedule can seem impossible, but being intentional about setting aside time for you is key. Self-care can be anything that brings you joy, relaxation or fulfillment, whether it’s getting extra sleep, going for a bike ride, or reading a good book.

In the spirit of the Jesuit value of “unity of heart, mind and soul,” consider all aspects of your life during your pursuit to find success in graduate school. If things start to feel overwhelming, go get some fresh air and remember why you chose to go back to school in the first place. After all, we are wholistic beings, and as a Jesuit university we encourage you to care for your whole person.

Find success with a flexible and reputable graduate program

This firsthand advice about how to succeed in graduate school should have you feeling more confident about your ability to achieve your educational goals amidst your busy life. Finding a school that has a reputation for helping working professionals thrive can make all the difference.

Graduate students from all walks of life have found success after joining Creighton’s tight-knit community of motivated learners. Find inspiration in some of their stories by browsing our collection of Graduate Student Success Stories.

Learn more about our nationally recognized online graduate degree programs.

Considering grad school?

Regardless of where you are in your journey, our admissions advisors are ready to help you take the next step.