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How To Get a Master's Degree: 8 Tips For Success

How can you set yourself up for grad school success?

If you’ve chosen your program, that’s the question that now matters most. Before you enroll and start that first graduate school course, you must be prepared for what’s ahead. Many well-intentioned degree seekers start strong but fail to finish. You need a plan that will keep you on track to completion.

The good news is, you can start building that plan right now. And, in turn, you can set yourself up to avoid the things that cause many people to slip up and fail.

The information, warnings, and advice below will give you a tactical guide for success.

4 Big Reasons People Fail to Complete Their Master’s

We won’t sugar coat it: getting a Master’s degree requires a lot of hard work. It’s not easy. And not everyone who attempts a Master’s program will actually complete their degree. Below are some of the most common hurdles to success we’ve seen.

1. Falling Behind on Their Coursework

Procrastinators will quickly find that the constant, high volume of reading, writing, and research means that falling behind is not an option.

"From day one, you need to think about time management. Make sure in your first classes that you set your time management expectations: learn how often you need to study, for how long, and on what days. Over the long course of your continued studies, the time management habits you develop early on can either make or break you." George Pomeroy, Graduate Admissions Advisor at Franklin University

Typically, “pulling an all-nighter”—as some do when they get behind in undergraduate studies—won’t be enough to get you caught up.

2. Struggling to Write at a Graduate Level

The style of writing is different at that graduate level. That catches some students off guard. If you’re unable to articulate your research or your unique point of view, it’s hard for a professor to see how well you are achieving in your classwork

“You will need to adjust your writing style to graduate-level work. Begin writing through the lens of your experience and the subject you're studying.” George Pomeroy, Graduate Admissions Advisor at Franklin University

Also, remember that you'll need to be reading, reviewing, consulting, and footnoting multiple references and sources. Your writing must reflect your critical thinking, showing both theory and applied knowledge.

3. Expecting Too Much Hand-Holding

Graduate work is designed to be independent in nature.

“Earning a degree involves massive blocks of work that you must plan for on your own. Although professors are there to coach, prod, and advise, they will generally assume you’re doing your work on a schedule that works for you.” George Pomeroy, Graduate Admissions Advisor at Franklin University

Unlike undergraduate programs, professors are not likely to plan “check-ins” or “first draft reviews” for their Master’s students. You’ll be held to a much higher standard of independence.

4. Interrupted by Unplanned Life Events

Of course, graduate school doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Real life always factors in. Sometimes, major life events cause school to take a backburner.

“Perhaps a spouse loses employment. Or a child is hospitalized. Or a parent needs extended care. Any number of things can make life suddenly very difficult. When it happens, students end up feeling trapped between two high-demand worlds.“ George Pomeroy, Graduate Admissions Advisor at Franklin University

This is one advantage to choosing a program with flexible scheduling options. Students can manage their coursework amid challenging life events by taking six or twelve weeks off, and picking right back up where they left off. Or, they can reduce their load to one class for 6 weeks or 12 weeks.

What matters most when choosing a master’s program? Compare features, benefits and cost to find the right school for you.

8 Proven Strategies to Get a Master's Degree Successfully

In reality, a host of issues can impede the path toward a Master’s degree. But you have ways to overcome those challenges. Here are 8 steps to take to increase your odds for success.

1. Build a Support System—and Use It

In a Master’s program, you’ll find yourself surrounded by some intelligent and motivated people. Consider them to be a part of your network.

Many of them will be adult students—an average age of around mid-30s—with notable career experience already behind them. That’s why your peers are a great wealth of resource, advice, information, and practical input. In your next course, there might be a CEO or an executive working right alongside of you.

These people can guide you and be a part of your education. Some classes have you working in groups and collaborative exercises; these are great opportunities to stretch yourself and build a network that can last a lifetime. When you see someone familiar from one class to the next, you may find ways to help each other

 2. Take Advantage of Free Help

Also remember that most schools offer tutoring services. In some schools it's free. Typically, undergraduate students try to muddle through on their own, and as a result grad students may not even try to ask for help. Don’t hesitate to tap into tutoring or even writing services. Your school will be able to tell you about educational experts who can help.

3. Schedule Milestones, Not Due Dates

Rather than placing looming due dates on your calendar, break your project down into micro-steps to achieve—steps that will lead up to fulfilling the assignment by the due date.

Having a project management regimen can be very helpful to stay on top of the many long-term and daily deadlines of a graduate program. Using digital tools, like the ones above, can ensure that all your tasks are synced across devices, and always at your fingertips.

Consider using a combination of Google calendar and the todoist app to keep track of these activities.

graphic displays a calendar

4. Find Work Times That Work

Your home, work, social, and school efforts can feel as if they’re competing for priority.

Remember that this isn’t like undergraduate programs. You'll likely be working on weekends. Maybe your personal life will need to adapt because you’ll need uninterrupted weekend time for coursework, reading, and writing.

TIP: As you schedule, it’s good to account for the unique demands of your chosen school and each individual professor. As an example, at the working-adult-focused Franklin University, assignments are generally due on Sunday evening. That lets Monday-through-Friday employees have some time on Saturday and Sunday to complete and submit their assignments. On your calendar, try blocking out certain hours on every weekend or evening in order to have time at the ready.

Until you get your degree, you may have to set aside things you used to do on the weekends, like watching movies or sports, hanging out with friends, and doing other leisure activities.

5. Create a System to Organize Notes & Insights

There's a major difference between the "regurgitation" of undergraduate work (memorizing, understanding, and knowing) and the "application" of graduate work.

To stay organized, consider using an app like Evernote or try creating detailed, nested folders in the GDrive app.

graphic displays a screen shot of an organizational application

In a Master’s program, you’ll be expected to already know the information; you’ll now have to apply it by sharing your thoughts, opinions, and practical use of it. And that takes a lot more time and organization.

6. Hire a Freelance Editor

As mentioned earlier, the type of writing will be held to a much higher standard than undergrad work. If writing isn’t your strong suit, you should secure an editor to help you better position your writing. You can easily find them online using a service like Upwork.

graphic displays a screenshot of upwork

You might be surprised at how affordably you can hire this kind of service. Editors can typically begin at $5-$10/hour.

7. Talk to Your Professors

Your professors and other faculty members are there to help. Remember that graduate schools want you to succeed, so think of it as a partnership where everyone wins. Let your professors know when you might need a little more guidance, and they’ll get you back on track.

8. Keep the End in View

It’s going to get hard. Be ready to fight off feelings of frustration. It’s a good idea to constantly remind yourself of why you’re getting your degree. When you’re feeling upbeat, get on your smart phone and set up a series of encouraging text reminders to pop up in the future, when you know your workload will be heavy.

Mastery Is in Your Grasp

Taking on a Master’s program can be overwhelming and might even inspire some feelings of fear. Now you have some advice that will put hurdles into perspective, help you address them as they come at you, and put you on the right path to successfully complete your degree.

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