Are you struggling with graduate school? Do you feel like you need a better plan so you can succeed in your program?
You need some actionable advice to help you manage the stress of grad school and increase your chances of success. With that goal in mind, we asked professors and faculty members to share their best graduate school tips with you.
You might be surprised at what they actually say about being fulfilled as a graduate student and prepared for employment (hint: they do not emphasize GPA much).
Twenty-seven experienced faculty members contributed to this article by answering the following question:
“If you could give only one piece of advice to a new student in their first week of a Master’s of Civil Engineering program, what would you share with them?”
The best people to answer this question are the university faculty who have been deeply immersed in the graduate school world for years. They have seen what successful graduate students do well, mentored and advised them, and guided them past their failures. Who better to share some tips for Master’s students?
The responses collected here are valuable, thoughtful advice from people who know what they are talking about.
Still applying to grad school? Check out our GRE prep articles for tips, tools, and strategies for your best GRE score.
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Goal Setting is More Crucial in a Master’s Program than in an Undergraduate Program
Develop a short list of goals that you hope to achieve during your master’s degree, and then have these guide decisions regarding your academic plans and priorities during your degree.
Revisit the goals and update your goals and plans a few times during your degree.
Dr. Gregory Deierlein
Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Stanford University
I suppose I would give different advice depending on a student ‘s career goals:
Academia: your GPA is no longer what people will use to evaluate your performance. Focus your energy on undertaking impactful research and learn how to communicate about your research such that anyone can understand it’s value.
Private sector: focus your energy on networking as well as research.
Both: learn how to absorb primary literature and use it. Don’t take opinions of others at face value- go to the literature and form your own informed opinion.
Dr. Kelly Kibler
Assistant Professor of Water Resources Engineering, University of Central Florida
The MS degree is an opportunity for advanced training and specialization in a discipline or field that a student has chosen to focus their professional career in.
Make sure to choose courses for your MS degree program that will best prepare you to enter that chosen field and give you the best body of knowledge to be successful in that field.
Don’t choose courses for your MS degree program with a primary concern being how best to get a high GPA. That leads to taking classes that may have little to do with your ability to succeed in your career. Worry far less about your MS GPA and far more about taking the courses that will help you build a strong knowledge base.
It’s that base that will come in quite handy when you need it down the road! Best wishes for a successful graduate program!
Dr. William Knocke
Program Coordinator and Professor of Environmental and Water Resources Engineering, Virginia Tech
First decide what your goal is. If you want to go for Ph.D. then go for the thesis option. If not, then go for ‘Report option’ or ‘Course only option’.
When choosing courses decide what will be more beneficial for your career and take those courses even if those courses are hard. Don’t go for ‘easy A’ type courses just for maintaining high GPA.
Dr. Tribikram Kundu
Professor of Civil Engineering and Engineering Mechanics, University of Arizona
Do not treat the Master’s program like you are still getting your Bachelor’s.
This is a step above and work harder and do not put off till the last minute
Treat the program like you are handing in homework and tackle assignments as if your boss would look at it and decide on whether to give you a raise or not
Treat it as a professional.
Doug Davis, P.E.
Instructor of Civil Engineering, Ohio University
My advice would be to treat your research like a job.
Determine what hours you will work, set goals, deadlines, etc. Make to-do lists and stick to them. Meet with your advisor bi-weekly to stay on track and get help when you need it.
Dr. Andrea Welker
Associate Dean for Academic Affairs and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Villanova University
Getting Started with Goal Setting in Grad School
Do you know what your desired outcome is from getting a graduate degree? Is this outcome guaranteed just because you complete your graduate program, or do other things need to happen for you to get the outcome you want?
Goal setting is one of the best methods for increasing your chances of getting what you want. Have you taken the time to put together a detailed plan based on your goals?
My suggestion: Join student and professional groups in your area of interest. This way you’ll get to know people at all levels and eventually use these contacts to find a job.
Dr. Scott Rutherford
Director of Sustainable Transportation Program, Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, & Adjunct Professor of Urban Design and Planning, University of Washington
The first thing that comes to mind is (and I’m sure you’ll hear this from others) —
Although you’ve probably heard this before, it is even more important in graduate school to establish a personal connection with professors. They are the ones who will guide your research, write letters of recommendation for jobs or further studies, and provide general career advice. Your experience in graduate school will be much enhanced.
Dr. Joseph F. Atkinson
Professor and Department Chair of Civil, Structural and Environmental Engineering, University at Buffalo
You are entering a new phase of your life-long learning process where you will begin to interact professionally with faculty and other groups (companies, research funding agencies, etc) for whom you will establish potential life-long relationships.
Approach it professionally and with integrity and with the highest ethical standards and those relationships will be nurtured and reinforced throughout your career.
Dr. Wayne Davis
Dean and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Tennessee
Getting Started with Networking in Grad School
Possibly the most important opportunity you have in graduate school is to expand your personal and professional network. About 80% of jobs are found through networking, so you need to prioritize making new friends and professional connections in grad school. Do you have a strategy for networking in graduate school? I have listed some ideas below to get you started.
- Make the extra effort to join student groups and professional organizations.
- Take an interest in your professors and their work. Talk to them about things beyond the course material.
- Help a faculty member with a project or an event.
- Be helpful to other students and generous with your time.
- Do you have a goal of working for a certain company after finishing your graduate program? Find out if you can incorporate them in your research. Can you interview them and involve the company in some way?
My challenge to you: Take five minutes to think of one step you can take in the coming week to grow your personal and professional network, and then go do it.
Everyone is Scared and Overwhelmed – You Are Not Alone
I remember the moment that I walked into my first graduate class. I was nervous and doubting if I had what it took to make it through grad school. I felt like an impostor. But one of the students who started a year before me introduced himself and welcomed me with a smile.
Over the next several weeks, I realized that the professors were sincerely dedicated to both research and teaching, and I made lifelong friends as we studied. It was an awesome experience! My encouragement to new students is easier said than done:
Don’t doubt yourself. Have fun as you study hard, and enjoy the friendship of your fellow students because they will be friends for life.
Dr. Shane Walker
Associate Professor of Civil Engineering, University of Texas at El Paso
When I first started graduate school, I was so intimidated because everyone in graduate classes was really smart and good. They were answering questions and discussing things that I didn’t even know. I was truly humbled by the experience.
So don’t feel discouraged that if it becomes overwhelming at the start. Graduate school is a personal commitment, set goals that you want to achieve. You have earned your right to be there, and just enjoy the journey!
Dr. Daniel Che
Assistant Professor of Water Resources Engineering, Ohio University
If you don’t feel like you want to drop out during your first semester, you’re not doing it right. If you do feel like you want to drop out, don’t.
Hang in there. You will make it through.
Dr. Bret M. Webb
Associate Professor of Civil, Coastal & Environmental Engineering, University of South Alabama
Graduate school is scary, especially when you are just getting started. You have to learn a new culture, new work expectations, and new vocabulary. The workload is daunting and confusing. The potential cost of failure to your finances, your professional opportunities, and your reputation is intimidating.
Here’s the truth: Most of your fellow Master’s students feel the same way. You are not alone in your stress and anxiety. Talk to someone about it and get counseling if you need it. Your program might have a free counseling service, so ask your advisor about that possibility.
If you have ever felt this way, then you are in the right place. Our goal is to make your graduate school experience more fulfilling in every way.
Take Advantage of Your Graduate Program’s Services and Support Staff
I would tell them to seek out resources for support on campus, for multiple aspects of the training and professional development. This goes beyond research advising and includes things like support for writing, wellness services, outreach opportunities, etc.
They should remember that it is up to them to own their success. Their advisor is just there to guide them, not tell them what to do in all aspects of their development.
Dr. Trina Mcmahon
Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, University of Wisconsin
Here are two:
Tip 1: Contact your advisor prior to coming to campus (e-mail is usually best), let your advisor and department secretary/office coordinator know the date you plan to come to campus.
Arrange a meeting with your advisor before you come to campus or at least as soon as you arrive on campus; some students delay this meeting because they are looking for apartments etc. This tip is especially important for international students.
Tip 2: NEVER miss a class.
Dr. Ashok Pandit
Professor and Department Head, Department of Civil Engineering and Construction Management, Florida Institute of Technology
- Experience the graduate school environment before homework and midterms will dictate your schedule.
- Talk to professors and to other students, find a mentor if you do not have it, offer your help and interest in research projects.
- Graduate school without a research experience is only a piece of paper with a GPA. Even if you do not want to stay for a Ph.D., you can gain confidence and expertise performing research, presenting at a conference and perhaps even publishing an article.
- There is no hard distinction between fundamental research and applied research; so do not be shy, there are always interesting projects around that can use your help (and you can be paid for that).
Dr. Michele Guala
Assistant Professor of Civil, Environmental, and Geo- Engineering, University of Minnesota
Are you taking advantage of all the services offered by your grad school program? Most programs include services for enrolled students such as:
- career and professional development services
- writing workshops and tutoring
- assistance for finding a mentor
- networking events
- counseling services
- family and spouse support services
- health and wellness programs
These support services are typically free to enrolled students, so why would you not use them? You can benefit from grad school in more ways than you might think. You can become a great presenter or writer. You can connect with people who will form the foundation of your professional network for a lifelong career. You can develop new habits and skills that will help you achieve a higher level of competency and success.
Be Appreciative of Your Time in Graduate School and Maximize the Opportunity
I guess my one piece of advice for new masters students is, “be present”.
Oftentimes, a masters degree is viewed as the next stepping stone for a promotion in the workplace, and for that reason, the incoming student may do just enough to get by. But this is a great opportunity to learn as much as you can. And to do this, you really have to be present. To attend classes, ask questions, and be engaged. It is also worthwhile to attend a conference or two and be involved with student organizations.
Who knows, they may like it so much they may want to stay on for a Ph.D. and then go on for a faculty position. I know I did.
Dr. Linda Ng Boyle
Professor and Chair of Industrial & Systems Engineering and Professor of Civil & Environmental Engineering, University of Washington
Take advantage of the opportunity to learn new things.
Your graduate program will likely be the last opportunity you have to take courses and learn new skills/techniques, without interruptions from “real life”. Once you start working, it will be much harder to carve out time for these types of things.
Taking courses not only helps you improve your skillset, but it provides a distraction from the monotony of research, which I think helps you focus on your research more effectively in the long run.
While considering what types of courses to take, focus on those that will either directly help your research or will be needed when you graduate. Even though it might seem stressful at the time, it will definitely help in the long run.
Dr. Vikash V. Gayah
Assistant Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Pennsylvania State University
A Master’s degree will improve every day of the rest of your professional life. The more you put in, the more you get out; so aim high, study hard, and push yourself to make the most of this great opportunity.
Dr. Patrick J. Fox
Department Head and Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Pennsylvania State University
You have a tremendous opportunity in graduate school to network, to learn, and to grow as a person. Be careful not to miss out on something that you would really enjoy and benefit from.
The tendency of most people is to focus their thoughts and worries on the next stage of their life. Questions like “what am I going to do when I finish this program?” can occupy a ridiculous amount of mental space. That stress will ruin your current experience in graduate school if you let it. Focus instead on the opportunity you have now and appreciate it.
There is a time for working towards the next step and setting goals, but not at the cost of ruining your “now”.
Find Your Motivation – Why Do You Want to Succeed in Graduate School?
Find your motivation.
You are no longer being taught, instead, you have started a guided quest for discovering knowledge and gaining skill.
Dr. Gil Bohrer
Associate Professor of Civil, Environmental & Geodetic Engineering, Ohio State University
1. Keep good attitude and have passion about the work you going to do
2. Interact/collaborate with your peers to learn about what they are working on and other things.
3. Make a habit of reading and writing. Try to write for an hour every day and read something new for a hour every day.
Dr. Sriram Aaleti
Assistant Professor of Civil, Construction & Environmental Engineering, The University of Alabama
Do you know why succeeding in your graduate program matters to you? Are you hoping to make more money, get a promotion, earn the regard that comes with having a graduate degree, or is the reason something closer to your heart?
Answering this question for yourself may be the most important thing you can do to maintain the level of effort and energy needed to complete a graduate program.
Surprising and Practical Tips for Master’s Students
Think how you can stand out among many applicants competing for a job. Don’t think that you’ll get a job automatically just because you are taking classes – everybody who can graduate takes classes.
Use the 2 years to learn and prepare yourself to be a unique candidate by doing:
- thesis research with a problem no one has solved,
- internship to get practical experiences
- overseas study to learn a unique culture and population
- infuse IT technology into your class project
- something that prepares a unique you.
Dr. Chang-Yu Wu
Professor and Department Head of Environmental Engineering Sciences, University of Florida
The most successful graduate students view their first day of grad school as the first day of their professional career, not a continuation of their college experience.
Dr. Darcy Bullock
Professor of Civil Engineering and Director of the Joint Transportation Research Program, Purdue University
My advice is to broaden their learning experience to incorporate aspects of leadership, entrepreneurship, business management, and communication skills (e.g., writing and presentations).
Dr. David W. Mazyck
Associate Professor and Associate Chair for Environmental Engineering Sciences, University of Florida
During the first week of a Master’s program, I would advise students to make sure they enroll in the most “hot” classes that are relevant in the industry, such Li-ion batteries, nanomaterials, business for engineers etc. They could attend the class to make sure the professor styles meets their expectations and they could officially enroll.
Dr. Katerina E. Aifantis
Associate Professor of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering, University of Florida
My recommendations to all graduate and indeed undergraduate students are:
1. “Understand the spectrum of implementations of what you learn in class and make strong connection between the classroom and real life scenarios”.
2. “Carefully study the problem dimensions and establish the path to the solution (the procedure) before you start using numbers”.
3. “Fully understand the limitations of each concept and the embedded assumptions”.
Dr. Gilbert Baladi
Professor of Civil and Environmental Engineering, Michigan State University
In your first week, develop a growth mindset that will allow you to become committed to graduate work.
During your first week of graduate school, you may experience a beginner’s high. Everything is new, the future is bright and, seemingly, you have no responsibilities. Enjoy that feeling and keep in mind why you are pursuing a graduate degree. In fact, write it down and refer to it frequently. It is only your goals that will sustain you through challenging moments as you complete your degree. During your first week, you need a develop a growth mindset. Let me explain how I think you can do that and how it relates to being a successful graduate student.
In the beginning, your slate is blank, but that changes quickly. What that means is that your advisor saw potential in you … the potential to be a scholar. She or he will go about the task of working with you to develop your scholarly potential. This is where the work begins and you must be an active participant. Though you do start with no responsibilities, your advisor already imaged the many “final forms” you will take and the steps to get you there.
You see, you are like a lump of clay that will be molded and refined. So, when your advisor invites you to the “making” process, accept it and adopt behavior aligned with a growth mindset. Say “yes” to tasks, become an active and contributing member to your research group, arrive early to meetings, develop a daily scholarly writing habit, carefully recruit a group of supportive mentors (your advisor cannot provide everything for you!), seek help from a mentor as soon as a need arises (do not isolate yourself!), become aware of your strengths and weaknesses, be forgiving of others, remember there are always at least two sides to a story, learn to be resilient, read your advisor’s publications and ask questions, keep track of your work and provide regular updates to your advisor, and be engaged.
Hang around successful graduate students. And, of course, you should seek balance – take the time to work out, eat properly, visit your family, spend time with significant others and engage in your favorite past time. You must not lose yourself in the making process.
Completing a graduate degree entails more work than most students first imagined. You may quickly and frequently become overwhelmed. This is when thoughts of leaving graduate school can creep into your mind. You then enter a fight of flight state of mind. Want to examine those thoughts? I advise you to refer to your goals for pursuing a graduate degree and seek the support of mentors every time these thoughts arise.
If this is your mindset in the first week, your actions will be aligned day after day and success will be your reward. Onward and upward!
Dr. Denise Simmons, PE
Assistant Professor of Construction Engineering and Management, Virginia Tech
During my 18 years as a School Director, I have welcomed hundreds of graduates and undergraduates students.
Over the past 12 years, I have researched leadership and studied how leadership was learned in academia, the industry, and in the military. I have developed 60 Personal Development Leadership Wisdoms for the young professional, 30 Leadership Wisdoms for Leading Teams in the second career level, 40 Leadership Wisdoms for Mid-level Managers in the third level of career development, and 40 Leadership Wisdom for the senior executive the fourth level of career development.
Most of the personal development leadership wisdoms were learned in family values, church, Boy and Girl Scouts, competing on sports teams, and working part-time jobs while in high school.
The only problem when we recruit grad students for MS and Ph.D. degrees is that we do not consider leadership traits in that selection. We usually only ask about grade point average and class standing. We have to continue to learn leadership to move from one career level to the next. What got you here won’t get you there, smile. I have randomly selected 10 of the PD wisdoms that would apply to new graduate students.
1. Respect all people. (Humility) Show respect to each person you encounter. Demonstrate that you respect people by using the magic words. In our research, respecting all people was the number one competitive edge principle; it scored 80 percent for industry professionals and 60 percent for university students.
2. Practice the new Golden Rule, “Treat people how they want to be treated.” (Leadership) The old golden rule of treating people like you want to be treated is outdated. Today there are four generations of people in the work environment, which is why leaders must know their people, know what they want and need, and know how they want to be treated. Determine what is important to the younger generation. Leaders do not need to draw power from their position to influence others; they need to draw from their character and knowledge. That way, even after they leave a position, people will still follow their example.
3. Life is not fair and we are all dealt different cards; it’s about how well we play the cards dealt us. (Understanding) It’s how well we play those cards during our life that is important. Growing up in an unstable home with three different male role models (in south Florida and lower Alabama), and being dyslexic, a below-average student, small for my size, and a poor athlete, I did not have a head start in life. However, having a good attitude, working hard, and investing in education helped me overcome many of these personal disadvantages. If you think and act like the victim, you will be treated like one, it is a self-fulfilling philosophy.
4. You grow or you go, seek opportunities to develop. (Lifelong Learning) Continue to raise the bar for yourself. Jumping over the highest bar will help you standout. Be prepared and willing to do more than is asked. Don’t set limits, but challenge yourself. Look for areas in your life that can be improved. Take classes, read, and talk with others who can impart wisdom. Be a lifelong learner. Remember you either grow in your job or you go. This is a catchy way to emphasize that lifelong education is mandatory. We stress with our graduates that each year they should be building their resume.
5. Wherever you are be there; stay focused. (Attitude) At work, be there. At home, be there. Don’t miss the moment by thinking about something else; stay focused on the present. Keep your head/heart/body aligned and in focus with your activity in the work place, in training, in personal conversations, in interactions with family, and in entertainment. Focus means single-mindedness; concentration, attention, and effort are all present.
6. Reconnect daily (15 minutes) with your significant other. (Balanced) We recommend that at the end of each day, you go home and find your significant other, sit down and share with him/her and actively listen. This is the most important person in your life and continuous communication is required. This is the first thing I engage in when I arrived home. After all these years, my wife expects her 15 minutes of reconnecting, and if I forget, she quickly reminds me. This is a five-star wisdom and we recommend everyone implement it.
7. Be the Captain of your ship; you are accountable for your actions and in actions. (Accountability) Each of us is accountable for his/her life. Don’t create barriers that you can use to justify not doing something that’s important. Most barriers encountered in life are self-imposed. When you realize that you have to plan and organize your life, you will know that success or failure rests solely with you. It is your responsibility to pick your own crew, plot your direction, wear a life jacket, keep the ship safe, and reach your “destination.” Leadership is about taking risks, and ships are designed for rough waters, so practice leading during challenging times.
8. When a mistake is made, own it and quickly find a solution; brief the boss. (Mistake) When you make a mistake do not try to cover it up but own it. Real trouble happens when people attempt to cover up. Cover up is much more lethal than the mistake. Be the first to let your boss know that you made a mistake, and don’t let others carry the bad news. When you inform your boss about the mistake, be prepared to provide a solution/s.
9. Perform self-evaluation often, because performances improve when measured. (Know self) Most people do not like to be evaluated; we’re not sure if this knowledge is embarrassing or if they do not want to face reality. We can only improve performances when they are measured. Continuing to learn and grow as a leader requires periodic evaluation of how well the leader is doing. Be honest with yourself and determine what is working or not. Your goals need to be selected so they can be measured. When allowing time for a weekly thinking session, self-evaluation should be one of the keys categories.
10. Ask for, accept, and acknowledge help graciously. (Inclusiveness) We all need help; accept it graciously. Building support groups that will champion your efforts is an art that has to be developed. Not everyone is comfortable asking for help, and many are not skillful in accepting it. Properly thank people for giving you help; it is essential in sustaining your relationships. The key for me was to keep my ego in check while getting folks to “want to” help me. Getting people to want to help you is a superb skill set and should be developed for your leadership tool box.
Dr. Bill Badger
Professor Emeritus of Construction, Arizona State University
Graduate school is incredibly stressful and challenging. You will be overloaded, overworked, and overwhelmed, so you will need help to make it through.
My advice to you is to apply one of the tips you read here to your own life. You could:
- Create a strategy to expand your own personal and professional network through your Master’s program. How can you connect with new people in your industry in the coming week?
- Seek help for the mental and emotional challenges you face in your program. You do not have to do it alone.
- Inquire with your student services office about some of the programs and services available to you because you are an enrolled student. You might be able to improve your communication skills, find a mentor, or get career advice from a professional, among many other potential benefits.
- Change your mindset about being in graduate school so that you are more present, more appreciative, and more inclined to maximize this unique opportunity.
- Discover the reason why graduate school is important to you and use that thought to motivate you throughout all of the challenges you will face in the program.
- Learn to communicate more effectively the ideas that are important to you.
- Develop a set of goals for your Master’s program and make a plan to accomplish them.
Let us know how it goes.