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Pursuing a Master’s Degree: What It’s Like to Be a Graduate Student

A student studying her textbook as she pursues a master's degree with the text Advice for Graduate Students

If you’re looking to advance your career, a master’s degree may feel like the next logical step. A master’s degree is one of the gateways to specialization in a subject area that often leads to higher salaries and/or higher levels of responsibility within an occupation. Therefore, you may be considering or planning to attend graduate school for your master’s degree.

Not surprisingly, the experiences shared across “grad schools” are similar in many fields – whether you’re earning a Master of Science in Nursing (MSN), Master of Public Health (MPH), Master of Business Administration (MBA) or another master’s degree.

For instance, the MSN is valuable to both nurses and the healthcare system as it prepares nurses for leadership and advanced clinical practice. The MSN is the foundation of academic preparation for nurse practitioners, nurse midwives, clinical nurse leaders, nursing educators and many other nursing positions.

While working with students in the MSN program, it’s not uncommon to hear them say graduate school is challenging and time-consuming, yet it is also very rewarding.

If you’re transitioning from a bachelor’s level education to graduate school, you probably have some questions about the process.

What is the Difference Between Undergraduate and Graduate Work?

Over a lifetime, we build a progressive amount of knowledge that we use personally and professionally. In the academic setting, this knowledge becomes more and more complicated with each level of education achieved.

In straightforward terms, the difference between the work required for a bachelor’s degree and a master’s degree is related to the more complex knowledge presented at the master’s level. This higher complexity is mentally and physically challenging as well as time-consuming.

Many students would say that the biggest difference between undergraduate and graduate work is the volume of knowledge that must be integrated into their work, along with the demand to base your thoughts, observations and assertions on scholarly evidence. This means you will spend more time in the library, searching databases and gathering evidence to enhance and support the new knowledge you're gathering to help you become a master in your field.

How Do I Prepare for My First Day of Grad School?

It’s important to note that you won’t get started alone. Faculty members and student support staff help coach, mentor and encourage master’s students as they transition into graduate school.

Some ways to set yourself up for success from day one include:

  • Tour the online library – You will work with the university’s library often during your graduate studies. Learn where to find resources and how to get what you need. In many universities, librarians are also available 24/7 to help guide you and provide support.
  • Get to know your advisor – Advisors support students every step of the way through their academic journey. They are a trusted source of information and guidance.
  • Become familiar with the learning management system (LMS) – Start exploring the online learning platform used by your university. Southern New Hampshire University (SNHU), for example, uses a platform called “Brightspace,” and all course information is available at the start of each course. Online courses are organized similarly, and there is a predictable pattern of deadlines to help you remember when assignments are due. Aside from your discussions and assignments, here are a few important areas to find:
    • Announcements – Instructors will share important information about your course and assignments. This may be done in the form of announcements. If you want to excel in your work, be sure to read all course announcements, emails from your faculty and other messages and instructions about the course. This is the simplest first step to understanding what is expected.
    • Academic Support – Learn how to navigate your academic support center as they can provide a wide variety of resources such as 1:1 support, chats, videos, workshops, written guides and more.
    • IT Help Desk – We all need technical help from time to time. Reaching out early can help avoid wasting time trying to solve a technical problem that a professional may resolve quickly.

How Can a Graduate Student Be Successful?

There are many strategies for achieving academic success while working toward your master's degree. They start with knowing and using your resources, staying on top of deadlines and advancing your writing skills.

  • Take advantage of resources. Most universities provide a broad range of resources to support students. Learn about the institution’s resources and get the support you need for academics, health and wellness, accessibility, English as a second language and more.
  • Talk to your course instructors/professors. They can match you with the resources you need. Instructors are also great resources for questions unique to your specific courses. People who choose to teach at the graduate level do so because they enjoy working with students and are invested in their success. Reach out to them with questions and take advantage of the help they want to provide.
  • Keep up with your coursework. Do your best to stay on schedule with your due dates. Falling too far behind can make it difficult for students to complete a course.
  • Establish good writing skills. It’s important to remember that academic writing is much more formal than how we communicate in our daily lives. That can be stressful for some students, but many resources are available through academic writing centers and even libraries to support master’s level writing.

How Can I Manage Grad School While Working?

Graduate school is a challenge for anyone who is working while they attend school, but there are a couple of ways to make balancing the two feel manageable.

Create a Support Network

How you balance your responsibilities will shift while you are in graduate school. Having a support system in place can help with these responsibilities. A good support system will not only help you create time to focus on your course work but will also provide you with the encouragement and moral support that will help you succeed.

Some things your support network can do (if you ask them!):

  • Listen and encourage you to stay focused on your goals
  • Provide care for children so you can focus on your coursework
  • Share meals and meal preparation tasks to relieve your time
  • Offer to clean or complete chores in your home
  • Cover work shifts, if possible, to create time off to focus on coursework
  • Distract you with a night out or fun activity to help clear your mind and rejuvenate when you are feeling stressed

Many employers are more flexible than you might have anticipated prior to starting your master’s degree. Getting a master’s degree is helpful to many, if not most, employers. Therefore, many students are able to change their work schedules or request time off once their employer knows they are registered for school. Students often say they are surprised at the support they receive from their employers during grad school. You don’t know until you ask.

Make Time for Schoolwork

Most graduate programs will require about 15-16 hours of your time per week for a 10-week course. Find times that work best for you and plan ahead to protect that time. This may mean getting childcare or leaving a busy house to work at another location. However, plan for the unexpected. If something interrupts your planned time and you don’t have a backup time available, communicate with your course instructor about your options.

Ultimately, the decision is yours about if and when you attend grad school to complete your master’s degree. Regardless of your decision, it will be important to understand the commitment you have made and to investigate and use the resources available. These resources may exist as services or as other people.

Connect with the faculty in the program you are seeking, your employer, your colleagues and your peers to share experiences, discuss your goals, and understand and plan for the time commitment grad school requires.

But most of all, allow yourself to be excited. This is a major life decision that can have a major impact on you personally and professionally. What are you waiting for?

A degree can change your life. Find the SNHU master’s degree that can best help you meet your goals.

Dr. Kimberly GibbonsDr. Kimberly Gibbons, DNP, CNM, RN, CNL, CNE has been a nurse, nurse-midwife, nurse educator and clinical nurse leader for over 25 years. She has taught undergraduate and graduate nursing full time for over 15 years. Currently, she serves as team lead for graduate nursing faculty as well as subject matter expert for the development of population health related courses at Southern New Hampshire University. Additionally, Dr. Gibbons is the coordinator and instructor for the CNL track of the MSN program at SNHU and actively facilitates the CNL capstone experience with students and preceptors. Dr. Gibbons holds a Doctorate in Nursing Practice from the University of New Hampshire, a Master of Science in Nurse-Midwifery from the University of Minnesota, and multiple specialty certifications in nursing education as well as clinical practice in nursing.

Dr. Emily BombardDr. Emily Bombard, DNP, RN, CNL, CNE has been a nurse for over 17 years. She is experienced in higher education and clinical nursing practice with professional roles in education, leadership, quality improvement and bedside nursing. Dr. Bombard joined Southern New Hampshire University in 2020 as a graduate nursing clinical faculty member. She currently serves as course coordinator and instructor for the first nursing course in the graduate program and facilitates capstone experiences for the Nurse Educator (NED) track. She holds a Bachelor of Science in Biology, a Doctor of Nursing Practice degree, and certifications as a Clinical Nurse Leader (CNL), Certified Nurse Educator (CNE), and Six Sigma Green Belt.

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SNHU is a nonprofit, accredited university with a mission to make high-quality education more accessible and affordable for everyone.

Founded in 1932, and online since 1995, we’ve helped countless students reach their goals with flexible, career-focused programs. Our 300-acre campus in Manchester, NH is home to over 3,000 students, and we serve over 135,000 students online. Visit our about SNHU page to learn more about our mission, accreditations, leadership team, national recognitions and awards.