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What are the Right Qualities to Succeed at Graduate School?

written by: William Springer•edited by: Amanda Grove•updated: 11/30/2010

Thinking about going back to graduate school? How do you know if you're ready?

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    Graduate School: Is It Right For You?

    Since I went back to graduate school for a PhD a few years ago, I've seen some people graduate while others dropped out after a single semester. What are the qualities that predict success in graduate school? How can you tell whether you are prepared for success? Graduate school is not for everyone; is it right for you?

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    Love the Material

    In any college class, there will be two types of people: those who are there because they're interested in the material, and those who are there because they have to be; either because it's a required class (for undergrads, generally, as grad students have a lot more freedom in choosing their coursework) or because they think the degree will help their careers.

    Here's the thing: grad school is hard. Really hard. If you're not legitimately interested in the material, you are most likely going to be miserable. Additionally, you'll be preparing yourself only for more work that you don't enjoy. Do yourself a favor: unless you really do find the subject matter fascinating, stay away; grad school is not right for you.

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    Preparation

    Of course, of all the qualities that predict success in graduate school, preparation is one of the biggest. One of the people I started my PhD program with dropped out after one semester; not because he wasn't capable and interested, but because it had been so long since he last took classes, he found he was no longer prepared for the work required.

    If you're planning to take a graduate degree in a subject that you have not studied recently, you might consider taking a few classes as a non-degree student first; this will let you ease back into the academic world and see if you're still able to focus on your learning as you could in the past. If you struggled as an undergraduate student and never learned good study habits, you're unlikely to be successful in grad school, where the expectations are much higher; again, it's probably worth taking classes as a non-degree student to see if you can handle it. If you don't want to spend a lot of money before jumping in, you can often audit a class, which tends to be cheaper: in this case, you go to class, but you do only the work you choose and do not receive a grade. (Even after you start a degree, auditing is a good way to be exposed to material you're interested in but where you may not have the background required to take the course successfully).

    The good thing is that if you decide to stop, you've hopefully learned something, and if you choose to take the class for real rather than auditing it, you can probably use that credit towards your degree if you decide to continue.

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    Be a Hard Worker

    There are no two ways around it: getting a masters degree or a PhD is hard work, one of the hardest jobs there is. If you're not ready to put in the effort, you're unlikely to finish. Be ready to work, and you could soon join that (relatively) small percentage of the population with an advanced degree. Good luck!