How to Succeed in Graduate School

Young male college student carrying an armful of books.

With the current economy making it tougher for college graduates to get jobs, some students are turning to graduate school as an alternative for a brighter future.

Dr. Donald C. Martin, author of A Road Map for Graduate Study: A Guide for Prospective Graduate Students, provided students at Sam Houston State University with tips on identifying, enrolling and succeeding in obtaining advanced degrees in higher education. Dr. Martin spent 28 years in admissions and enrollment management at such prestigious universities at Wheaton College (IL), Northwestern University (Medill School of Journalism), The University of Chicago (Graduate School of Business), and Columbia University (Teachers College).

“It’s a little tougher to find jobs right out of college,” said Dr. Martin at a March 5 program co-sponsored by the College of Criminal Justice and Graduate Studies. “The Master’s degree is becoming more of the minimum degree for many employers…Does it pay off? The answer is most likely ‘yes.’”

Dr. Martin said that Master degree holders earn about 24 percent more than those with a Bachelor’s degree, and doctoral students will receive 70 percent more compensation than those with an undergraduate degree.

The program, held during Criminal Justice Career Week, provided tips for students on getting into the graduate school of their choice. The most important part of the process is doing the research to identify the right program to meet the student’s individual needs.

“The major mistake that prospective graduate student make is not doing adequate research before they apply,” Dr. Martin said. ”There is no statistical difference between the prestige of a program and the success of the graduate.”

Dr. Martin used his own success story to illustrate that cost, grade point average and university prestige should not deter students from seeking an advanced degree. Dr. Martin grew up in a home that did not value education and graduated from a Pennsylvania Bible College with a 3.1 GPA. He worked in admissions at Wheaton College before pursuing his Master degree at the college and he completed his Ph.D. at Northwestern University. He was able to graduate from Wheaton with only $5,000 in debt and his loan for the doctoral program was only $10,000.

To find the right program, Dr. Martin said to identify criteria that are important to the student. These may include location, cost, financial aid, faculty-student ratios or other pertinent issues. Make a spreadsheet of the selections to find the best fit and then visit the institutions, talk to students and graduates and read what the media is saying about the program.

Dr. Martin provided seven tips to get noticed during the application process. His suggestions include:

  • adding a one-page cover letter to the application, citing specific reasons for wanting to go to that institution;
  • making sure your references know you well enough to fill out the recommendation letter
  • being creative in the application without being silly
  • Smiling during the interviewing process
  • Keeping your cool no matter what happens
  • Asking questions that demonstrate you did you homework
  • Doing whatever you can to convey that you want to attend the program

Dr. Martin also included seven “deadly sins” to avoid during the application process, including being rude, arrogant or dishonest; contacting the school too frequently; failing to follow directions; sending information before it is proofed thoroughly; leaving questions unanswered; and asking questions that you should be able to answer with minimal research.

Throughout the process, the two most important predictors of success are persistence and determination.

“Keep your cool no matter what happens," Dr. Martin said. “When things seem to go wrong, think instead ‘this is an opportunity.’ Don’t take it personally.”

For more information on Dr. Martin’s book, visit

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