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Succeeding in Graduate School as a Nontraditional Student

written by: William Springer•edited by: Sarah Malburg•updated: 1/26/2011

As a nontraditional student, you face extra challenges in the already difficult process of obtaining a master's degree. We will discuss how you should prepare in order to be successful in graduate school.

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    Back to School

    When you've been in the work force for a while, returning to school can be very difficult. The time demands are much less structured, and of course grad students hardly get paid anything. While getting a graduate degree can be extremely rewarding, it can also be very difficult if you're not prepared. Let's discuss how to do well in graduate school as a nontraditional student.

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    Time Management

    One of the biggest issues that people struggle with is definitely time management. As an employee, you most likely have a fairlyPublic domain image  consistent schedule; you start work at a certain time, finish at a certain time, and hopefully don't need to think about work the rest of the time. As a grad student, however, your time is fairly unstructured. Full-time for a graduate student is 2-3 classes per semester, which adds up to less than five hours per week actually sitting in class.

    Which isn't to say that you don't have to put in much work, of course. On the contrary, graduate classes are much faster paced than undergraduate courses, for several reasons. In particular, students are assumed to be interested in the subject matter and to be sufficiently advanced as to take responsibility for their own education. In short, your professors will expect you to show up to class prepared and having done a sufficient amount of studying outside of class. It's not unusual that the grades for graduate courses will be mostly As, simply because everyone is doing the required work; not doing your homework is not an option.

    If you struggle with procrastination, it may be in your best interest to do something about it, as it is the bane of grad students everywhere.

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    Money Management

    There's no getting around it; getting a master's degree or a PhD is a full-time job. While it's certainly possible to do it while working full-time, expect it to wear you out.

    On the other hand, if you opt to concentrate on your studies rather than working, it's common to have a position as a TA, or teaching assistant. (This is a grad student who may or may not teach a class and does most or all of the grading.) If you teach, it can be good experience to see if you're interested in an academic career. These positions will generally pay your tuition, along with a small stipend, however, it's still likely that you'll be bringing in only a fraction of what you made working a full-time job, so be prepared for the lack of income. Especially if you have a lot of outstanding bills (mortgage, credit card debt, etc.) it can be difficult to live on a TA's salary for the 2-5 years it takes to complete a graduate degree.

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    Social Isolation & Technological Change

    If you've been out of school for a while, you may find that you're considerably older than some of your classmates. This isn't as much of an issue for graduate students as it is for undergrads; while most undergrads will be in their late teens or early twenties, it's common for people to spend a few years in the workforce before pursuing graduate school. However, if you've been out of school for a long time, you may have some trouble with generational issues, as most of your fellow students will be in their late twenties and early thirties. Grad school is very challenging, and many students find they have to work together to be successful. Therefore, you'll need to be comfortable making friends with new people dispite the age difference.

    Technology has most likely changed since you last attended college as well. These days, it's common for students to bring laptops to class, and some schools even require the use of ebook readers. If nothing else, students will be expected to keep an up-to-date email address on file, and professors will generally send out announcements by email and post the class schedule (and any changes) online, rather than using more traditional methods. Additionally, libraries have long since done away with the traditional card catalogs. You'll need to be able to do research using Google Scholar and other online sources instead. Graduate students often teach classes as well, and will be expected to use "smart classrooms" equipped with digital projectors and other modern technology. If you're not comfortable with using computers, you should make an effort to become so before classes begin.

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    Getting Ready

    Unsurprisingly, the key to how to do well in graduate school as a nontraditional student is nothing more than hard work. Of course, being smart helps too!

    So are you ready for grad school? Make sure you know what you're getting into. The time to complete a master's is usually two years and a PhD generally runs at least four (although both can be done in less, these are for full-time students).