Learning and studying habits for grad students

Graduate students who are at least one year in to their program can all tell you that the way you are expected to learn and study as a graduate student is not the same as when you were an undergrad. Too many undergraduates are able to get buy with A’s and B’s by relying on strategies such as rote memorization, late night cram sessions, and last minute papers. While these habits may have gotten you though your undergrad degree (they did mine), those learning and studying strategies will NOT translate well to your graduate student experience. In fact, if you are in the habit of studying this way, they will be a hindrance to your success. Graduate-level education is very different from undergraduate education, and only by acknowledging this and recognizing the differences will you be prepared to be successful from the start.

Grad school strategies vs. undergrad habits

Breadth vs. Depth

Undergraduate education emphasizes general education. For many students, about one-half or more of the credits that completed as an undergraduate fall under the heading of General Education. These are courses not in one’s major. Instead they are designed to broaden one’s mind and provide a rich knowledge base of general information in literature, science, mathematics, history, and so on. Your college major, on the other hand, is your specialization. While your graduate program may include a handful of cognate or elective courses (with strict limitations), most, if not all, of the courses you take during your graduate degree will be squarely focused on your specialized field.

An undergraduate major usually provides only a broad overview of the field. Each class in your major is like a discipline, or sub-discipline, unto itself. For example, psychology majors may take one course each in several areas such as clinical, social, experimental, and developmental psychology. Each of these courses is a separate discipline in psychology. Although you learn a lot about your major field, in reality, your undergraduate education emphasizes breath over depth. Graduate study entails specializing and becoming an expert in your a much narrow field of study. This switch from learning a little bit about everything to becoming a professional/expert in one area requires a different approach.

Memorization vs. Analysis

Undergraduates spend a great deal of time memorizing facts, definitions, lists, and formulas. In graduate school, however, your emphasis will change from simply recalling information to applying it. You’ll be asked to apply what you know and analyze problems. You’ll take fewer exams in graduate school and the assessments you do take will emphasize your ability to synthesize what you read and learn in class and critically analyze it in light of your own experience and perspective. Writing and research are the major tools of learning in graduate school. It’s no longer as important to remember a specific fact as it is to know how to find it and apply it.

Reporting vs. Analyzing and Arguing

College students often moan and groan about writing papers. Guess what? You’ll write many many papers in graduate school. Moreover, the days of simple book reports and 3-5 page papers on a general topic are gone. The purpose of papers in graduate school is not simply to show the professor that you’ve read or paid attention. Rather than simply reporting a bunch of facts, graduate school papers require you to analyze problems by applying the literature and constructing arguments that are supported by the literature. You’ll move from regurgitating information to integrating into an original argument. You will have a great deal of freedom in what you study but you will also have the difficult job of constructing clear, well-supported arguments. Make your papers work double duty by taking advantage of class paper assignment to consider dissertation ideas. Many graduate students actually use their course papers as pre-writing for their dissertations, collecting each of their professors’ feedback along the way.

Reading it All vs. Copious Skimming and Selective Reading

Any student will tell you that graduate school entails a lot of reading – more than they ever imagined. Your courses will have lots of required readings and your professors will usually add quite a bit of “recommended” readings as well. Recommended readings lists can run for pages. Must you read it all? Even required reading can be overwhelming with hundreds of pages each week in some programs. If you have the time to do all of the readings, then you certainly should. But, if you are like most grad students, you have a lot going on such as research projects, proposals, publications that you’re trying to submit to journals, etc., so you will sometimes have to make concessions. No matter what, you will read more in graduate school than you ever have in your life. But you don’t have to read everything, or at least not in full. As a rule, you should first carefully skim all assigned required readings. Then, go back and read in full the parts you determine to be the most essential. Read as much as you can, but read smartly. Get an idea of the overall theme of a reading assignments and then use targeted reading and note-taking to fill in your knowledge.

All of these differences between undergraduate and graduate study are radical. Students who don’t quickly catch on to the new expectations will find themselves at a loss in graduate school.

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Kyle Massey

Kyle is a current PhD student at the University of Texas at Austin in the College of Education.

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