6 Skills That Are Necessary for Grad School

See also: Self-Motivation

Not everyone is cut out for graduate-level education. Whether because they are not up to the rigours of the program or they are unable to sufficiently leverage and combine the necessary soft skills required for graduate success, many students try and fail to continue their studies following their undergraduate degree.

Once you have successfully studied for and passed the GRE test, the real challenges of grad school begin. With that in mind, below are six skills that are necessary for grad school.


One of the most notable changes that people observe when they enter a graduate program is the amount of self-direction required. This varies from program to program but, generally speaking, graduate students are expected to take much more control over their education, including decisions about what they will study, what they will specialize in and the kinds of academic questions they will pursue.

As a graduate student, you must be capable of creating and following an annual plan while you study. Such a plan includes keeping track of all of your program requirements, scheduling necessary meetings with your supervisor and/or committee, attending conferences and presentations, applying for scholarships, grants and fellowships, and building a professional development plan.


One of the make-or-break abilities that many college students struggle with is time management and task prioritization. In many ways, graduate school select for those students who are able to manage their time well because there is a low chance that students without these skills would have made it to the graduate level in the first place. With the amount of hand-holding that goes on at many institutions nowadays, however, many smart students with poor time management skills still end up in graduate programs.

Every graduate student has different time pressures. An older student with a family or a student with a job is going to have to make difficult decisions about work, family and study that students without financial and family concerns don’t have to worry about. That said, there will always be times when you need to decide where to focus your time and attention and being able to make the right decision will have a tremendous impact on your success in a graduate program.


Self-advocacy can be hard for many students because it often involves some degree of conflict or confrontation. This is not to say conflict or confrontation is necessarily a bad thing, but negotiating on behalf of yourself, asserting your rights or trying to influence a situation so that your needs or concerns are given priority can be stressful and difficult to approach. Self-advocacy is important during a graduate education for many reasons. You might need to speak to an administrator or a professor about deadline extensions because of extenuating circumstances.

You might feel that a test score or essay evaluation was unfair or inconsistently applied the marking rubric and have to make your case. You will likely have to advocate for your ideas when working in groups and collaborating with fellow students and staff. All of this requires an ability to diplomatically and convincingly demonstrate that you are deserving of consideration and perhaps even special consideration in some circumstances.

Stress Management

It is often said that it is not stress that makes our lives difficult--even miserable sometimes--but how we react to that stress. Stress management refers to not only your ability to avoid stress but to handle it when it comes. Graduate school, especially if it is one of several important things in your life, will impose stress on you. There will be times when you feel like there is simply not enough time in the day to attend to all of your many responsibilities. There will be times when you feel like expectations of you are unfair or that the stakes are dangerously high and you run the risk of perhaps life-altering failure. The stressfulness of these situations can have a serious negative impact on your life and even hurt your chances of academic success.

Being able to handle the stress when it comes is largely a function of being able to manage negative emotions. If you can keep emotions like fear and anxiety under control, and avoid catastrophizing situations, then you stand a much better chance of handling everything a graduate-level education will throw at you. Stress management is also dependent on your inner dialogue with yourself. If you are able to control how you speak to yourself about the difficult situations you are facing, you increase the odds that you will overcome and persevere.

Relationship Building

The relationships you enter into during your graduate school education will be some of the most important of your adult life and it is of the utmost importance that you build positive working relationships with your supervisor and faculty members. There are many ways to make sure you remain in good stead and present in the minds of key decision-makers during graduate school.

Make sure you schedule regular meetings with your supervisory committee (at least once per year) and ensure that there is a clear purpose every time you meet, ideally giving your supervisor and/or committee a meeting agenda prior to the meeting. Show an interest in your fellow graduate students and their work and be giving of your time and expertise.


Make an effort to constantly improve your writing and written communication. The writing requirements for a graduate program are going to be much higher than they were during your undergraduate education. You are expected to be able to express your ideas and expound on themes and concepts in a much more sophisticated manner than you were during your undergraduate-level education. A good way to stay constantly improving upon your writing skills is to always be reading. Good writers are good readers and to stand out in grad school, you need to be among the top writers in the program.

Further Reading from Skills You Need

The Skills You Need Guide to Life

The Skills You Need Guide to Life

This two-part guide is an easy-to-read summary of the essential skills you need for a healthy mind and body.

The first eBook, Looking After Yourself, covers some of our most popular content and will help you to live a happier, healthier and more productive life.

The second eBook, Living Well, Living Ethically, considers how you can live your best life all the time. It helps you to answer the question: how can I avoid having too many regrets about my life?


The jump in expectations and pressure when you move from an undergraduate to a graduate program takes some getting used to. The self-direction expected of you, the ability to prioritize, self-advocate and manage stress, the necessity of good relationship building and the need to take your writing seriously can catch many new grad students by surprise.

However, if you enter grad school with the above already in mind, you will make the transition much easier on yourself and increase the odds that you turn a graduate-level education into a personal and professional springboard that will set you up for the rest of your life.

About the Author

Lindsay Sheppard is a freelance writer who has been writing about the education and education prep spaces for over 5 years. When she is not researching and writing she is probably out hiking and camping with her two dogs.