Why Grad School Is Hard [+ solutions]

Many people find that graduate school is much harder than their undergraduate degree. Graduate school is the next step for a lot of professional qualifications and those who want to reach the heights of academia. However, there is a huge difference between undergraduate and graduate level courses and research that catches many people off guard.

Graduate school is difficult because it is nothing like undergraduate. There are many more readings and assignments, topics are designed to be tougher, academic English is much harder to understand, and you are often working alongside some very driven people.

All these reasons mean that many people have to go through an adjustment period when they first start their postgraduate qualification. This can lead to feelings of overwhelm and feeling like an imposter.

All these feelings are very common in grad school students but often pass once they are able to work on the foundations of their productivity and scheduling.

This article will go through everything you need to know about why grad school is hard and the things you can do to prepare yourself for entering postgraduate education.

eight reasons why grad school is hard

Unrealistic expectations going in

One of the first issues that new students encounter is that grad school does not live up to their expectations. Or, they have misjudged the level of work actually required to complete a graduate qualification.

Everyone makes assumptions about the future based on their experience in the past. Unfortunately, a graduate level course is nothing like undergraduate.

There are many different skills that need to be learned to successfully complete grad school that are not explicitly taught in undergraduate level courses.

Nonetheless, you can easily pick up the skills. Talk to currently enrolled students and ask them about which skills they wish they had built before entering the course.

Quite often, these are not about academia necessarily but include skills like academic reading, academic writing, time management, and communication skills.

A graduate level qualification will teach you these out of necessity but starting to build them before you start will help you immensely.

The topics are meant to be tough

Another reason grad school is difficult is that the courses have been designed to be much tougher than undergraduate.

Undergraduate topics are designed to give you a broad overview of a particular field. Graduate school level courses are designed to delve much deeper into a topic and often a specialisation within that field.

The grad school topics have been designed to be much more in-depth and often require an understanding of specialized skills and techniques.

Some university professors pride themselves on the failure rate of their course. Rightly, or wrongly, this means that they take pride in making their course as difficult as possible.

There is often a sense of “if I have to do it, you have to do it too” from professors. The courses are designed to cause some level of mental anguish because that is what the professor experienced when they were students.

All of this makes grad school much harder than undergraduate.

So different to undergraduate

Grad school is so very different to anything you have experienced in your undergraduate qualification.

Here are all the typical activities in undergraduate and graduate school.

Undergraduate involvesGraduate school involves
Attending lecturesAttending lectures
Learning course contentMany readings
Passing examsLearning outside of the lectures
Short research papersFormulating a research question
AssignmentsPerforming novel research
 Writing a Masters thesis or PhD dissertation
 Presenting research work to peers
 Writing or contributing to peer-reviewed papers
 Managing your own timetable during research component

You’ll see that graduate school actually involves many more types of activities and therefore skills required for completion.

An undergraduate qualification involves getting good at learning information and passing exams. Sure, there may be some research component but it is not in as much detail as grad school.

I think that it is primarily the research component of the grad school course that catches people off guard.

Undergraduate degrees don’t prepare you for independent research component of grad school. Your principal supervisor should help you get up to speed quickly, but this isn’t always the case.

Getting efficient and comfortable performing research takes practice. Focusing on one task at a time and the core elements of research (hypothesising, collecting results, analysing results) will help you get results as quickly as possible and move forward.

The research component can be very frustrating because you will fail more times than you succeed. However, learning to deal with failures and learn from them is the primary thing that will help you succeed.

Not spoon-fed information

In grad school, it is likely that you will not be spoon-fed information like you were in your undergraduate.

You will need to learn independently much more.

Undergraduate lectures are specifically formatted for the transfer of information from the lecturer to the student.

However, in graduate school, this may not necessarily be the case. During my masters I was taking courses which covered the specific research areas of the professor.

This means that they were much more in-depth and required me to go away and learn some background information to further deepen my understanding of the material.

Learning how you learn will be the key to absorbing as much learning material as possible.

Take responsibility for obtaining more information if you do not understand a topic. This one skill alone is invaluable for helping you pass your grad school courses.

So many readings and assignments

During grad school you will be required to read a lot of literature. The literature will revolve around the courses you are taking and, you will be expected to read up on any gaps in your knowledge that you identify.

Because this is a graduate level course, there are many different types of readings including:

  • Textbooks
  • peer-reviewed papers
  • literature reviews
  • theses
  • dissertations
  • technical reports
  • standard operating procedures
  • and many more

Making sure that you set aside some dedicated time for your readings will be very important.

Keeping a calendar with the due date of your assignments and working backwards to the time that you need to start your assignment will keep you on track.

Falling behind in the early stages of your graduate school studies will mean that you will struggle to catch up. Enter your graduate school subject with a good grasp of the time commitments required to complete your assignments and a good understanding of the assistance required to keep on going throughout your course.

Academic English is difficult

Another surprising aspect of grad school is the requirement to read peer-reviewed papers and other academic outputs.

Academic English is very technical and dense. It takes a while for new grad students to fully understand and navigate academic papers full of academic English. Research papers are not made for easy reading. They are written to convey information as accurately as possible.

Here is my YouTube video on how to read a peer-reviewed paper. I also include all of the tools that you need to know in order to supercharge your efficiency when reading academic English.

Burn out

Let’s not forget that in order to get to grad school you need to have completed many years of undergraduate study.

It is common for grad school students to go straight from there undergraduate into their graduate course. This could lead to burnout and mental fatigue if you have not prepared yourself adequately for grad school.

I have produced a video on how to deal with burnout during your PhD and the free tools that you can use to counteract the feelings of burnout.

Importantly, managing your stress is of upmost importance throughout your graduate studies.

If you need to, you should take a bit of a rest between your undergraduate and your masters so that you’re able to tackle it head on. Otherwise, you could find that this is the thing that pushes you over the edge to burnout.

Learn some simple tools and techniques about managing time, stress, and failure and you’ll be able to keep burnout away.

This is a marathon and not a sprint. Therefore, all nighters and the cramming sessions often seen in undergraduate courses may not work anymore.

You are (often) working alongside the best of the best

Lastly, grad school is hard because you are often comparing yourselves to a very educated cohort.

The grad school cohort is often quite diverse and contains people with a wide and diverse background.

This means that there are often many people who have achieved a lot of things before their graduate studies. They are clever, educated, and motivated enough to continue their studies.

Being in a graduate school course means being surrounded by very clever people.

Nonetheless, graduate school is not just about being clever. It is about being persistent, productive, and rigourous with your timetabling.

Stop comparing yourselves to the others in your course and focus on what allows you to work at your best.

How to stay sane during grad school

Staying sane in grad school and making it as easy as possible means focusing on a couple of key elements of your course.

I outline all of these in my YouTube video, below, and will give a summary after. Importantly, focusing on one task at a time and setting aside some energizing hobby time will be the number one way of ensuring you can complete your course without losing your mind.

1.      Focus on one task at a time

Focusing on one task at a time will stop you feeling overwhelmed during your grad studies.

We often feel like we need to do lots of things in a day but, focusing on one task will allow you to be more productive with your time. I like to only do one or two major tasks a day. Doing this consistently will allow you to build up momentum and results.

Ensure that you are only ever focused on one task by minimising other distractions.

For example, I like to turn off my phone and all notifications on my computer and other gadgets.

Set yourself a time for one hour and do not look at these other distractions until it has run down to 0.

2.      Look for an energizing hobby

Finding an energising hobby is very important in balancing out the hard-core academic activities you do throughout the day.

I like to have a hobby that is away from my computer and allows me to be a little bit creative stop I have found that watercolor, charcoal painting, knitting, sewing, playing percussion and running have been a hobby that energizes me.

Find a hobby that will allow you to turn your focus away from grad school.

3.      Set aside time for deep work

Set aside time for deep work. Deep work is a professional activity performed in a distraction free concentration that pushes your cognitive capabilities to their maximum.

It helps you feel more fulfilled, meet deadlines, and improve the quality of your work.

Deep work was popularised by Carl Newport in his book of the same title.

Ensuring that you have at least two deep work sessions a day focused on the most important academic tasks will help you keep on moving forward with your degree.

4.      Remember this is a marathon not a sprint

Remember that this is a marathon and not a sprint. If you are feeling burnt out or exhausted consider taking a little bit of a break.

Manage your timetable so that you have got some downtime spaced as regularly as needs be for you to work at your best.

5.      Learning to cope with rejections

Grad school can be very hard because of rejections and failures.

Learning to cope with rejection and failure is all part of succeeding in academia.

Never take failure or rejection personally. It is something that happens to everyone and, we tend to take it on as a personal failure. Failure is not final unless you give up. The academic journey that you are about to embark on is full of ups and downs and, it will never be a smooth journey.

Ensuring that your mental health is as good as possible by looking after your physical and mental health will help you deal with the inevitable failures and rejections that happen in academia.

6. Take care of yourself

Finally, take care of yourself by looking after your:

  • physical health
  • mental health
  • sleep
  • diet

Will help you bring your best self to your grad course every day. Going back to the foundations of health has always helped me when I feel overwhelmed or burnt out.

Wrapping up

This article is covered everything you need to know about why grad school is hard.

There are many changes that happen from undergraduate to postgraduate education that we are often not prepared for.

However, learning to adapt and learn new skills will help you navigate grad school more efficiently. It will feel overwhelming at first but, after a lot of practice, it will start to feel like second nature and you will start to feel much more in control of your academic journey.

The Author

Dr Andrew Stapleton has a Masters and PhD in Chemistry from the UK and Australia. He has many years of research experience and has worked as a Postdoctoral Fellow and Associate at a number of Universities. Although having secured funding for his own research, he left academia to help others with his YouTube channel all about the inner workings of academia and how to make it work for you.