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12 Tips for Surviving and Thriving in Grad School

12 Tips for Surviving and Thriving in Grad SchoolCarol Williams-Nickelson, Ph.D, former associate executive director of the American Psychological Association of Graduate Students and co-editor of Internships in Psychology: The APAGS Workbook for Writing Successful Applications and Finding the Right Fit, hears the words “surviving grad school” a lot.

But she wants prospective and current students to know that while grad school is an intense and challenging experience, it’s also a rewarding one. “Grad school was one of the best times of my life,” she said.

Grad school also is a unique experience. It’s unlike college, where classes are of chief importance, cramming the night before leads to decent grades and there’s plenty of time for play and extracurricular activities. Being a graduate student is a full-time job that requires you to sharpen a variety of skills — and learn some new ones.

Williams-Nickelson, along with Tara Kuther, Ph.D, professor at the Department of Psychology at Western Connecticut State University, share their insights on how students can better prepare themselves for the demands of grad school, overcome common obstacles and succeed!

Acing Academic & Other Demands

1. Know how you work.

There’s no doubt about it: Grad school is a lot of work. And in order to keep up with the demands, you need to know how you truly work, according to Kuther, who believes that this is key for succeeding in grad school. Learn “when you’re most productive and when you aren’t.”

2. Read smarter, not harder.

“In grad school, reading is a whole skill unto itself,” said Kuther, who’s also an guide to graduate school. Like most students, it’s likely that you read beginning from end and don’t think about why you’re reading the text ‘til later, she said. But this is actually unhelpful.

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Rather, you need to “read with purpose,” she said. This involves looking at the organization of a piece, the headers, chapter headings and bullet points. Also, think about why you’re reading the article, how it fits into your course or research and what you should be getting out of it, Kuther said. Try to determine if it supports your argument and if there’s any surprising information.

Also, when reading anything for your own research, “if it doesn’t fit your paper at all, stop reading.” “A lot of students will still read,” Kuther said, and this just wastes your time.

3. Focus less on grades and more on learning.

Clinical programs accept the cream of the crop so it’s safe to say that you’ve spent your college years worrying a lot about your grades. In grad school, though, it’s less about acing the test and more about truly retaining the information.

When she was in grad school, Williams-Nickelson was on the verge of receiving a B, and she panicked. But it was actually her professor who said that a B is a good grade and stands for “balance.” That’s in part because grad school involves more than just taking classes.

Remember that this program is training you to become a professional, to understand people and to work with others, which Williams-Nickelson said, “is just as important as academic knowledge or assessment skills.” You’re also developing relationships with individuals who will become lifetime colleagues and even friends, she said. Plus, many programs require students to conduct research. You want to make sure you’re doing more than studying for the next exam.

4. Pick opportunities wisely.

There are many different ways of doing psychology, Williams-Nickelson said, but “to be successful in grad school, you really have to choose opportunities wisely…Get a taste of the different specializations and areas but recognize there’s no way you can be exposed to everything in that [short] period of time.”

5. Consult others.

Ask other students how they approach their work. Also, talk with students who are more advanced, post-doctoral fellows or junior faculty, Kuther suggested. Junior faculty in particular “often have a great perspective and aren’t far away from being grad students themselves.”

12 Tips for Surviving and Thriving in Grad School

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S.

Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S. is an Associate Editor and regular contributor at Psych Central. Her Master's degree is in clinical psychology from Texas A&M University. In addition to writing about mental disorders, she blogs regularly about body and self-image issues on her Psych Central blog, Weightless.

APA Reference
Tartakovsky, M. (2018). 12 Tips for Surviving and Thriving in Grad School. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 26, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Oct 2018 (Originally: 17 May 2016)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Oct 2018
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