From Undergrad to Grad: Becoming a Professional Student

Colleen Sullivan
Colleen Sullivan
Scholastic Outreach Representative; M.A. in Curriculum and Instruction from Point Park University
Student with backpack smiling and holding book and coffee.

What is a Professional Student?

As educators, we are aware of what a student is. When we throw the word professional in front of it, it takes on a slightly different meaning. We define a professional student as one who is pursuing education opportunities beyond the undergraduate degree level.

What is Expected of a Graduate Student?

One of the main differences between undergrad and grad is the degrees that can be obtained. In undergrad studies, you can get an associate’s or bachelor’s degree, which are the basis to continue to graduate studies. In graduate studies, you can get a master’s degree, doctoral degree, or a professional degree. Professional degrees are only required for certain careers. These professional degrees are doctoral degrees. For example, a Juris doctorate, Doctor of Medicine, Doctor of Education, or a Doctor of Pharmacy are specific professional degrees.

With these differences, each program has different lengths of studies. An associate’s degree takes about two years for completion. A bachelor’s degree usually takes four years. For graduate degrees, completion time varies based on program requirements and degree level. Master’s degrees often take two years to complete, but some programs can take one to three years. Finally, professional degrees can take three to four years to complete.

Another difference between undergraduate and graduate studies is the classroom environment. Typically, undergraduate studies have larger class sizes since the general courses are required for most students. On the contrast, graduate courses are typically smaller to offer more individualized instruction and attention for students. Additionally, in undergraduate courses, there will be more lectures and less stimulating discussions. Once you get to the graduate level, professors offer more in-depth discussions and mentoring.

When it comes to the workload, there are also several differences. Consider how much time is spent on general undergraduate work outside of class. If you double or triple that time spent, that is about how long it takes to complete graduate work. The academic experience of graduate school certainly intensifies. While you still have time for your social life including family, friends, going out, and more, you will still need to pay strict attention to time management. It will require focus and discipline. You should stay as organized as possible and maintain some type of system that you can identify exactly when you should be studying and dedicating your time to the work. You should find quiet spaces that you are able to focus well in. In these situations, it is crucial to plan for success.

Skills Needed for Success in Grad School

There are many skills of a successful graduate student. All of which are equally important and can lead to high success. First, a successful graduate student has a strong work ethic. He or she is willing to work hard and get the job done regardless of the circumstance. This type of work is time consuming and requires a strong level of diligence.

Next, a successful graduate student is motivated and persistent. Not only do you need to be motivated, but it also needs to be maintained. A student needs to be disciplined in his or her own learning at this level and openly communicate in their learning processes.

If you want to reach the finish line, persistence is critical. You must put the work in to reach the end. Even if this means re-doing something several times or spending additional time on it, your reward at the end is the degree and satisfaction of accomplishment.

Another important skill that makes graduate school a whole lot easier and more manageable is being organized. A successful graduate student must organize his or her time, money, and materials. By doing this, you know how much time you are devoting to reach your goals, what materials are required to meet those goals, and what financial situation you will be in. Also, through this process you may be able to hopefully come to identify potential obstacles. Any obstacles or unforeseen circumstances should try to be thought out beforehand.

Finally, one of the most important characteristics of a successful graduate student is support. He or she needs to have a very strong support system. It can be challenging to complete the tasks of graduate school without the support and understanding of family and friends. Perhaps some things to consider before embarking on the professional journey include the need for childcare, work obligations, financial aid or funding, home life and course work responsibilities, and scheduling. Discussions should take place early on with family members and friends to ensure that they understand and will be supportive for the duration of the program. There will be many hard moments, but proper support can make a huge difference.

*Updated June 2021
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