5 Grad Student Mistakes to Avoid as You Shift to Master’s-Level Thinking
Whether you’ve just finished your undergraduate program and are thinking about taking the next step into a Master’s degree or are considering returning for a graduate program years after earning your Bachelor’s degree, the prospect of taking a step up into graduate studies is a big one.
When you think back on your first foray into college, there’s probably quite a bit of advice and wisdom you picked up over the years from your friends, family, faculty and personal experiences that you would have loved to have on day one. That learning curve can be steep, and not knowing what to expect can certainly make things harder.
You likely have less people in your circle with firsthand experience in graduate school to turn to. In fact, Dr. Caroline Gulbrandsen, Dean of Graduate Studies at Rasmussen University, cites that only 9 percent of Americans have earned Master’s degrees.1 Getting to be a part of what Gulbrandsen calls “the 9 percent club” requires prospective grad school students to have a significant shift in mindset and approach.
While you might not have a graduate school mentor in your life right now, we can still help you get settled in. To do this, we asked people who have completed graduate-level programs to talk about their own mistakes and offer insight on how to avoid these pitfalls.
5 Avoidable grad school mistakes to keep in mind
1. Thinking grad school is just like undergrad
It’s an understandable mistake—after all, if you made it through undergrad without much trouble, why change what works? Gulbrandsen warns this thinking can lead to students getting caught off guard. The primary mistake Gulbrandsen sees new grad students make involves their perception of what the program is actually like.
“When they first enroll, they are planning for the same number of hours they devoted for the final courses in their undergraduate program,” Gulbrandsen explains. “That won’t work now. Gone will be the assignments that you can crank out in an hour or so.”
Dr. Monica Smith, an archeologist, professor of Anthropology and graduate student supervisor at UCLA, believes adjusting to the new demands at the Master’s level can be difficult at first.
“In undergraduate, you know when you’re done: you went to class, you've read the book, you wrote the paper and you took an exam,” Smith says. “In graduate school, you are never done. Classes are usually seminars or intensive labs where there are many people who have read or done things that you realize you'd also like to read or do. If you find this energizing, then grad school might be the right place for you.”
Both Dr. Gulbrandsen and Dr. Smith advise prospective grad students of two key competencies they must be ready for: research and writing. Students must be prepared to take both of these skills to a higher level.
“The projects you will undertake will often require the exclusive use of peer-reviewed, scholarly sources, professional journals and/or some combination of these,” Gulbrandsen says. “In advanced degree programs, you will move from literacy to inquiry.”
Smith says that writing skills are indispensable at the Master’s level.
“If you do not like to write, then graduate school is not the right place for you,” Smith cautions. “Even if you are a science major and don’t anticipate writing that much, you will have to write, both as a part of your graduate work and as part of your career.”
2. Focusing on grades instead of connections and relationships
Chuky Ofeogbu, founder of Sojourning Scholar and earned his Master’s degree in Mechanical Engineering, advises doing your best to not obsess over grades.
“The biggest mistake I made coming into graduate school was thinking that obtaining a stellar GPA was the most important thing,” Ofeogbu remembers. “In hindsight, I learned that other activities such as pursuing academic research and networking with my peers and faculty members were equally as important, if not more important.”
Raz Pollex, a nonprofit digital strategist and graduate of a Master’s program in Public Policy, also believes grades are not the most important aspect of the grad school experience.
“Invest way more time and energy into relationships than classes,” Pollex says. “Pass your classes and learn what you need to learn but, in most fields, at the Master’s level, it doesn’t matter if you get an A or a B. It’s the relationships you make that will affect your life in such unpredictable and rich ways, for a long time.”
While obviously this doesn’t mean you should blow off your coursework, you should keep grades in perspective—does getting an A instead of a B matter more than building practical skills and connections in your field? Try to strike a balance.
3. Attending just for the credential, not the experience
“Don't be like the person who said ‘I'm not here to learn anything. I'm just here to get the degree,’” says Maria Blum, a therapist with a Master’s degree in Social Work. While Blum realizes that not everyone can take time off from work to pursue more school, she made the decision to quit her job and focus solely on grad school because she genuinely wanted to learn more and increase her professional skills.
Graduate student Missy Larson also finds this kind of mentality frustrating, especially when she gets the sense that people are only in school to check a box.
“My biggest pet peeve is the people that don’t engage in the class or the discussion,” reports Larson, who is currently working on her Master’s in Clinical Mental Health Counseling. “Don’t do it if you aren’t going to appreciate the experience and contribute.”
4. Failing to reset time commitments with work and family
Time management remains a sticking point for those considering grad school, even if they’re established adults who are used to managing multiple responsibilities.
“Please do not think you can change your life by earning a master’s degree but keep everything in your life the same as you pursue it,” Gulbrandsen cautions. “So many have made that mistake—myself included.”
Many working adults assume they’ve got time management down, says Gulbrandsen.
“At this stage of your life, you are likely in the midst of juggling family, professional, and community needs,” Gulbrandsen says. “That’s a rich, busy life.”
But what happens when you take all that and then decide to throw graduate school into the mix? Something’s got to give and many struggle to adjust their commitments accordingly. “This is the biggest obstacle I see with graduate students.”
Gulbrandsen recommends sitting down with your manager at work as well as your family prior to enrolling in a graduate program to discuss how the demands on your time can be addressed.
“Are there options for a flexible work schedule?” Gulbrandsen explains. “Who will take on some of the household and family chores and responsibilities you have always handled?”
Getting a clear, realistic sense of what your role at work requires and what your loved ones expect may be uncomfortable, but it’s a valuable step to take before you start grad school. It’s also important to evaluate where you are in your life and work situation. Assuming you should jump straight into a grad program immediately after completing your bachelor’s degree can lead to burnout and disillusionment, according to Minesh Patel, attorney and founder of The Patel Firm.
“Don’t be afraid to take time off to delve into other professional experiences,” says Patel. “Across disciplines, these professional detours and experiences often come in handy, helping round out your skills and make you more appealing in a diverse workplace.”
5. Taking on too much
While it can be tempting to tackle a big workload from the start—those who have put off grad school for a while might feel impatient and eager to begin—many Master’s program graduates say that this can be overwhelming, even leading to burnout.
“Don’t overstuff your schedule,” advises Will Ward, founder of Translation Equipment HQ and Master’s-level graduate in Modern Middle Eastern Studies from the University of Oxford. “Take a few classes your first couple of semesters so you can understand the workload, then make informed decisions as to how many you can realistically juggle at once.”
"My biggest mistake was taking too many courses at a time," recalls high school science teacher Cindy Milbrath. "They were all mentally tough, and I feel I didn’t get as much out of them, or enjoy them, as I wanted because I was always scrambling to get my work/labs done."
Gulbrandsen also recommends starting small. Taking several courses at once is much different at the Master’s level than at the Bachelor’s level.
“You’ll need to fully experience the academic rigor as well as demands on your time before you can fully appreciate how many credits you are able to manage,” Gulbrandsen says. “You can always add another course in the next term, but having to drop—or worse, fail—a course is costly, both financially and academically.”
Prepare yourself for the next level
When taking the next step from your Bachelor’s to a Master’s degree, it’s important to get the facts and prepare yourself. Want to learn more about navigating the change from college to grad school? Check out our article “Moving from Undergraduate to Graduate: What to Expect.”
1“Fast Facts: What are the trends in the educational attainment of the U.S. population?” National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education. [accessed September 2021] https://nces.ed.gov/fastfacts/display.asp?id=27