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How to Excel in Graduate School


Graduate school is fundamentally different from any previous undergraduate experience. Undergraduate work focuses on introducing students to a discipline. It also provides students the tools to critically assess information, ideas, and approaches. Typically, it requires a lot of memorization and repetition. Lastly, undergraduate education is designed to assist students with honing communication skills so ideas can be clearly conveyed to others.

[Learn more about online graduate programs at American Public University.]

As students advance into graduate-level studies, their academic discipline may be similar, but the requirements for success are different. Graduate students are expected to have a greater level of academic maturity which includes strong research, critical thinking, and writing skills. Here are some important tips all graduate students should know:

  • Meet all deadlines. We all have busy schedules, but this is no reason not to turn assignments in on time. Graduate-level work can be more taxing and time consuming than undergraduate study. Falling behind can lead to a situation where catching up is simply not an option.
  • Ask for help when needed. Professors are willing to assist, but make sure to reach out and let them know you when need help. Keep them posted about any events that may impact your performance and take some time to get to know them. You may later want a letter of recommendation and forming a professional relationship with your professor will ensure that someone who knows your academic work can write that letter. Keep in mind that your professors provide helpful resources, readings, references, and guidance for your work within the classroom. Always be sure to take the time to explore these materials.
  • Always engage in professional behavior. Graduate school is a community of scholars who are seeking to advance their knowledge and to become proficient in their fields. Thus, all communication among the community must be professional and respectful, and all critiques must be constructive and designed to advance everyone’s shared goal of mastering the discipline.
  • Turn in graduate-level work. In graduate school, students must be prepared to perform in-depth research and clearly communicate ideas. This means that students must be able to write in an academically appropriate manner using Standard English grammar and often by mastering writing styles like APA Style. Quality writing will be a key component to your graduate-level success. Being able to clearly communicate is a valuable skill for school and for a career. And like any skill such as playing a sport or learning a foreign language, communication requires practice and can always be improved. Thus, don’t hesitate to take advantage of resources available at your school. For instance, at American Public University, students have access to free online tutoring services through our library department.
  • Turn in assignments that use academically appropriate sources that are not based primarily on opinion or anecdotal evidence. Graduate students are expected to engage with the literature in their field. This means research! Use the key academic journals in your discipline and avoid blogs or unsubstantiated articles. Remember, the quality of your education is directly related to the quality of your research. Graduate students must know who the major theorists are and what their significant contributions have been to the field. Once students have a firm grasp of this, they can formulate their own ideas; but again, this must be based on research.
  • Avoid plagiarism and academic dishonesty. At American Public University, we maintain a zero tolerance policy for plagiarism. All graduate students are expected to understand what constitutes plagiarism and to always avoid it. Failure to cite sources in the appropriate citation style is unacceptable and will have serious consequences. If students are not sure if what they are doing is plagiarism, they should consult their library staff, faculty, or student handbooks.

In addition to incorporating these behaviors, it’s critical that students apply them consistently throughout their entire academic career. Remember, graduate students are creating and enhancing a personal portfolio of research, projects, and discourse. All of these aspects can help the student to build a positive reputation among their professors and their peers. And many of the skills that the student masters in graduate school are universally valued, which means they can carry them forward into their career.

By Patricia Campbell, Ph.D.
Dean of Graduate Studies, Associate Vice President at American Public University



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