Finish That Degree!

By University Staff

college grad with son

Congratulations! You’re enrolled in a graduate program and have high hopes about the benefits of obtaining an advanced degree. You may aspire to a better or different job in your field, more responsibility in your current organization, greater earning potential, a change in career or profession, or simply a penultimate achievement in your academic and professional career. Whatever your reason for pursuing a graduate degree, you are to be commended for tackling a challenging academic goal.

But, what will contribute to your success in your degree program? Many people start a master’s or doctoral degree program but only a portion of them actually complete their studies. Among a cohort that graduated with a bachelor’s degree in 1992-93, by 2003, statistics from the National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) suggested that completion rates for those who pursued a master’s program were 61%, while completion rates for individuals in traditional doctoral programs were 76% (Baum & Steele, 2017). While these statistics alone don’t indicate why some people succeed and others do not, studies have shown what contributes to success, and that is the focus of this article.

Factors that Influence Your Potential to Complete your Degree Program

Completion depends on many factors, some of which are fully within your control and others that are not. Perhaps the most important factors affecting your future success as a graduate student are your personal motivation and your innate personality characteristics.

Personal Motivation

Most students who begin a graduate degree program want to be successful, but those who eventually are successful tend to be the students who stay motivated and focused, even when the going gets tough. In fact, your personal drive and optimism about your own success is the primary factor that will help you persevere to completion. Additionally, your own sense of intellectual curiosity can help support you in achieving your goal. A meta-analysis conducted by von Stumm, Hell, and Chamorro-Premuzic (2011), showed that intellectual curiosity was a direct predictor of academic success. von Stumm et al. (2011) termed this “the hungry mind” (p. 574), indicating that those students who were intellectually curious were more successful than others who merely worked hard.

So, what’s your passion? What are you curious about? What do you want to learn more about? Here are some ways of exercising your intellectual curiosity:

Read, read, read! And don’t just read because you have to! Make it a habit to read all different kinds of material, both academic and non-academic. By seeking out new information and integrating new ideas into your way of thinking, you will be exercising intellectual curiosity, and that curiosity will help you in synthesizing and applying information in your graduate program.

Become a more critical thinker. Don’t take things at face value. Ask why, probe for more information, and be willing to argue both for and against a point. That’s a mark of a deep thinker; someone who isn’t satisfied with the easy answer or the obvious solution. Challenging yourself to dig deeper will help you exercise your intellectual curiosity.

Innate Personality Characteristics

Likewise, the personality trait of conscientiousness has been found to be connected to academic performance. Using the Five Factor Personality Model, researchers have shown that students high in conscientiousness tend to be more successful students (Poropat, 2009; Swaminathan, 2012). Conscientiousness is a personality trait defined as being responsible, being organized, practicing self-discipline, and planning ahead. These tendencies help conscientious people weather the ups and downs of life more effectively, and make them not only more successful students, but more successful professionals as well.

Not everyone is super-organized or always thinking ahead. But when you’re in graduate school, you need to be. Here are some ways of practicing conscientiousness:

Use time management techniques to organize your academic work. A common problem students face is managing all their responsibilities—job, family and social obligations, and academic work. To be successful as a graduate student, you need to set aside sufficient time to complete course readings and assignments. What’s the best time for you to complete your academic work? Before you leave for your job? After work? When the kids have gone to bed? Early on Saturday or Sunday morning? It really doesn’t matter when you do your work, but most students find that having a pattern is useful because that pattern becomes part of their daily and weekly routines.

Enlist members of your inner circle to help you stay on task and be self-disciplined. Sometimes it’s tough to stick to your plans when you are tempted by a close friend or family member to do something else. Instead of having to fight for the time to study, ask for support from these friends and family members to help you stay on target. The people who really care about you should be willing to help you by honoring your schedule and ensuring you don’t feel pressured to divert from your plans for their benefit.

If you slip up, get right back on the program. Just like any kind of personal initiative, such as an exercise regime or a diet plan, you will sometimes fall off the program. Don’t despair, and don’t beat yourself up. Learn from the experience and get back on track.

Additionally, students who believe that intelligence is malleable—those with what Dweck (2000) called a growth mindset—are more accepting of challenges because they believe they can learn and expand their intellect. These students are more likely to believe that hard work will pay off, and they often take extra steps to seek advice and mentoring from instructors, and work with classmates to support each other’s academic performance. Students with a growth mindset thrive in challenging situations and focus on their own achievements rather than comparing themselves to others, which can often be self-defeating for individuals with a competitive streak. 

Here are some ways to exercise a growth mindset:

Understand that this is your academic journey, so focus on your own success. Don’t allow other people’s achievements or failures to influence your personal goals and drive. Remember that you are a unique individual, and your journey will not be the same as anyone else’s. Choose your own path and stick to it. Let others encourage you and learn from their successes or failures, but don’t let them discourage you.

To advance your growth mindset, concentrate on personal learning and improvement. Understand that you can adapt to new circumstances with a bit of effort, and persevere, even when faced with difficulties. A growth mindset thrives in a challenging environment and those who are most successful express a desire to learn and explore new things.

Finally, a very basic element of success is the degree to which you feel connected to your institution, other students, and your instructors (Bain, Fedynich, & Knight, 2010; Hoskins & Goldberg, 2005). That sense of connectedness is important because it eliminates the perception that students are in it by themselves. As Hoskins and Goldberg (2005) pointed out, graduate school can be lonely, especially if you are pursuing your degree part-time or in an online environment. The feeling of connectedness can help overcome the sense of isolation that comes from working on your own.

In an online environment, though, feeling connected can be challenging. What can you do to improve your sense of connectiveness?

Get to know your fellow students. Engage in dialog with your peers. Capture email addresses of students with whom you interact and reach out to these classmates as you progress through your courses. The most successful students are those who reach out to and become involved with fellow students on the same journey. When you need to vent or share achievements, who better to understand your feeling than your classmates? Make some new friends and invest in each other’s success.

Importantly, reach out to your instructors. Most instructors welcome student contact, and they will be happy to talk with you about your major, your career interests, and your progress through your degree program. If you really connect with a particular instructor, ask him or her if you could stay in touch to talk about your progress in your degree program. Having a mentor or just someone you can call for advice can make the difference between success and giving up.

Earning your graduate degree is a journey, and a journey requires commitment, focus, and determination. Ultimately, your own motivation to achieve your goal will be the driving force to help you succeed. So, stay strong, ask for help when you need it, and don’t give up. The ultimate achievement of your degree will be a journey well-worth traveling.

Written by Peggy Sundstrom, Ph.D., Lead Faculty, Global Campus

Bain, S., Fedynich, L., & Knight, M. (2010). The successful graduate student: A review of the factors for success. Journal of Academic and Business Ethics, 3 (7), 1-9. Retrieved from
Baum, S., & Steele, P. (2017). Who goes to graduate school and who succeeds?. Retrieved from
Dweck, C. S. (2000). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. New York: Psychology Press.
Hoskins, C. M., & Goldberg, A. D. (2005). Doctoral student persistence in counselor education programs: Student-program match. Counselor Education & Supervision, 44, 175 - 188.
Poropat, A. E. (2009). A meta-analysis of the five-factor model of personality and academic performance. Psychological Bulletin, 135(2), 322–338.
Swaminathan, N. (2012). What predicts grad school success?. gradPsych Magazine, 10(3), 42. Retrieved from
von Stumm, S., Hell, B., & Chamorro-Premuzic, T. (2011). The hungry mind: Intellectual curiosity is the third pillar of academic performance. Perspectives on Psychological Science, 6(6), 574-588.

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