Degree In Sight

As an undergraduate, Ruddy Taylor would often complete assignments weeks ahead of the deadline so she'd have time to polish and refine them before turning them in.

Yet since she began work as a doctoral student in clinical and community psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage campus, Taylor says finishing coursework early has become nearly impossible.

"In graduate school, I'm turning things in hot-off-the-press, and even then running to get it in on time" due to the sheer volume of work, she says.

For many new doctoral students—especially those coming directly from undergraduate programs—graduate school can be a bit of a shock. It is generally less structured, and some star students flounder when they find that memorizing facts and acing exams are no longer their primary goals.

Instead, faculty want to see how students think, notes Western Connecticut State University professor Tara Kuther, PhD, author of "Surviving Graduate School in Psychology: A Pocket Mentor" (APA, 2008). That often requires advanced coursework preparation, much larger reading loads and more disciplined time management.

How can you weather the transition? Current and former students say that you should:

  • Be prepared to work. During the first year of her doctoral program, Taylor estimates she spent about 30 hours a week reading for her classes—a three-fold increase over the time she spent reading as an undergraduate. To manage the load, Taylor has focused more on those concepts with which she struggles, such as statistics, rather than spending precious time reading about subjects she's already well-versed in. Also, as students adapt to the type of reading required in graduate school—often textbooks or articles built around data-heavy research and psychological theory—they may need to review certain sections or find more information on a topic to fully understand it.

Fortunately, Taylor says, graduate school is also much more specialized, so there's a good chance that students will often be assigned reading that interests them, rather than something they probably won't touch on again in their careers.

  • Expect a few B's. As an undergraduate, Asani Seawell, PhD, admits to an ongoing obsession with earning A's in every class.

While coursework and grades are still important, most of the lessons students learn in graduate school take place outside the classroom, often in the research lab or during a therapy session, says Kuther. Expertise in applying one's newly formed skills often makes up for a less-than-desirable grade in one or two graduate school courses, adds Seawell, now a psychology professor at Grinnell College, in Grinnell, Iowa.

"Once you get your PhD, no one is going to ask you for your transcript and point out that you didn't get an A in certain courses," she says. "[Realizing] that helped take some of the pressure off."

  • Assert your independence. Adviser check-ins will probably hold a weekly place on your calendar. But beyond that, how you spend your time in graduate school is often up to you, and that can be a big shift for those used to following rigid class schedules. For many, the most challenging aspect of graduate school is time management, particularly when it comes to completing large research papers or a dissertation. As undergraduates, students are often governed by due dates and enjoy at least a little bit of hand-holding by professors. In graduate school, faculty expect students to schedule their own deadlines and maintain their own timing on projects, says Kuther.

"No one cares as much about your success as you do," she notes.

Yet along with this greater sense of autonomy comes increased collaboration with faculty. It is considered by many to be the start of one's professional career, Seawell says. Students work side by side with professors on research and practica and are often viewed as colleagues with their own ideas and perspectives. Establishing your confidence and professional identity can be daunting, but it's critical early on in graduate school, she notes.

"It took a little time for my own thoughts about my identity to catch up with my professor's view of me as a professional colleague, but it happens," Seawell says.

  • Leave your game face behind. As an undergraduate, many students find themselves competing for grades and graduate school spots with fellow classmates. But in graduate school, it's all about teamwork, says Colleen Spoonire, a psychology instructor at Carroll Community College in Westminster, Md. In many doctoral programs, students share notes, study together and cheer each other on when the workload seems overwhelming. Plus, the student sitting next to you in class or working across from you in the lab may become the colleague you collaborate with on a future journal article or conference presentation, she notes.

In addition, fellow lab members and more experienced students can serve as great resources for you as questions arise, says Nanxin Li, a first-year behavioral neuroscience student and undergraduate mentor at Yale University. Li completed his undergraduate degree at Peking University near Beijing and says he faced numerous language barriers and cultural differences when he began his graduate school career. Asking faculty and classmates for advice helped him improve his presentation techniques, advance his research skills and develop a professional identity.

"After collecting as many ideas as you can, you start to form your own way of thinking," he says.

  • Find time to relax. The same characteristics that help students get accepted to graduate school—being hard-working, motivated overachievers—also can lead them to neglect important personal needs such as taking breaks or tapping their support systems, says Seawell. Even if it's simply going to see a movie or playing Monopoly with a classmate, finding a way to recharge after a stressful week can make a big difference when it comes to completing your degree, she notes.

"The way to think about graduate school is that it's a marathon and not a sprint," Seawell says. "Those who are able to pace themselves and endure to the very end are the ones that finish."

By Amy Novotney
gradPSYCH Staff


  • Kuther, T.L. (2008). Surviving Graduate School in Psychology: A Pocket Mentor. Washington, DC: APA.

  • Kracen, A.C., Wallace, I.J. (Eds.). (2008) Applying to Graduate School in Psychology: Advice from Successful Students and Prominent Psychologists. Washington, DC: APA

  • Hasan, N.T., Fouad, N.A., Williams-Nickelson, C. (Eds.). (2008) Studying Psychology in the United States: Expert Guidance for International Students. Washington, DC: APA.