Tips for Success in an Online Graduate Program

by Ray Ostman Ray Ostman | Apr 26, 2017

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Are you considering your options to pursue an online graduate degree?

Selecting an online graduate program demands a well thought out plan. The factors in determining whether a specific degree program is better suited for you over another depends on your needs. What do you want to do with your degree? How will this degree make your career goals possible? Create a goal, and then work backward – this will help you select the right program for you. Each area of study and each program is unique, so do your research about the field. Identify a list of ideal qualities you would like in a program, and compare programs. Investigate the program’s website, looking for key information including: courses offered, program requirements (credit hours, required courses, thesis or project, etc.), and cost. Find out who you can talk to about the program, like recruiters and academic advisers, and come with questions about the program and about the field.

If you are a prospective a graduate degree, there are a few important factors to keep in mind as you weigh your program options. The first and most important step you can take is to check the school’s accreditation. Accreditation is a routine process all universities must go through to ensure they are providing their students a quality education and curriculum. You can search the U.S. Department of Education Database of Accredited Postsecondary Institutions and Programs of accredited higher education institutions.

Other considerations:

  • What are the admission requirements?
  • Are there specializations, certificates, or tracks available within the program?
  • Are job placement statistics available?
  • What kind of student support and advising is available to you?
  • What does the orientation to the program look like? Orientation helps you to start on the right foot, gain familiarity with the program, policies and procedures, technology, key staff, faculty and instructors, and other students. A solid orientation is crucial, especially for online graduate programs.
  • Ask if you can speak with a current or recently graduated student. Many programs will be glad to make the connection happen.
  • Are there ways to academically engage with the broader field, at conferences (if applicable).

Online Graduate Student Study Habits

Graduate study coursework is more intense and demanding than undergrad and will require more time and commitment. Set up a schedule of study and coursework time. Think about where and when you study best, and where you study worst. Perhaps studying at home is a distraction. Instead, try doing coursework at the library or coffee shop. Perhaps you have a friend who is also completing an online course, or is working on an online project. If you have a gym buddy, you should consider getting a study buddy too. Having someone else whose presence will hold you accountable to stay on task creates an ideal study environment. Any study habit or system you come up with should be monitored so you know when it is or is not working for you, and in need of fine tuning.

Each instructor sets up and designs their course differently, presenting the syllabus and course information in a unique way. Consider getting into the course site early to poke around. Be able to answer the following questions after looking around:

  • How is the semester broken up? How is each section organized?
  • What are the assignments and how am I being evaluated?
  • Where can I find the required material (readings and lectures)?
  • Where/what are the communication channels, to the instructor and to peers?

Participation and Engagement

Most online courses require you to engage with peers in discussing the material, usually by posting to a discussion board. This peer-to-peer engagement is critical to engaging with the material. At the start of the semester, make strong connections with your fellow students. This is crucial for that specific class, but it is also beneficial to make relationships with your peers in the event that you end up taking another class together in a later semester.

Unlike undergrad, online Master’s programs have cohorts, where people start a specific program at the same time. Fend off the social isolation of online Master’s programs by engaging with peers in and outside of class. Your friends, partner, and family will likely not understand the unique challenges of completing an online master’s degree. Making friends with your peers help in these variety of ways. Get to know your cohort! See if there are students that live in your area.

In-Residence Student Completing an Online Graduate Course

Even if you are an on-campus/resident student attending a face-to-face graduate program, you may at some point take an online graduate course. Traditional graduate programs are developing online versions of their graduate degrees at a rising rate, and “32% of all students enrolled in post-secondary education were taking at least one online course” (Allen and Seamen cited in Newberry and DeLuca). Taking an online course is good experience that will expose you to a different and perhaps new learning environment.

Degree Completion, and Staying On-track

Completing the degree is both the main goal and a source of challenge for students. Set yourself up for success in reaching degree completion by starting early in understanding the big picture of what is required of you.

Map out your course work by creating a spreadsheet or some sort of document of required courses, desired courses, courses that must be completed in sequence, and courses you would like to eventually take but have pre-requisites. Keep in mind that not all courses in the catalog will be offered every semester. And while you won’t know what will be offered semesters in advance, you can look at previous fall and spring semesters to gain a sense of the regularity with which courses are offered, as many courses are regularly offered in the fall or spring. Peruse the course catalog, or ask an academic advisor or instructor if you can see a syllabus or course site of a previous offering.

Track your degree completion and remaining courses and credit hours. Schedule regular semester meetings with an academic advisor to discuss your progress. Understand if there are flex-credit hours: the same course offered for 2 or 4 (or some other number) hours. Understand the difference in required work. Sometimes it’s a 30-page paper, sometimes it’s a short presentation. The 4 credit-hour version of the course rarely requires double the work of the 2 credit-hour version, since you’re already completing the readings and lectures, and other assignments. Weigh your options!

What suggestion or question do you have about pursuing an online graduate degree?

Works Cited
Newberry, Ruth; and DeLuca, Catherine. “Building a Foundation for Success Through Student Services for Online Learners.” Journal of Asynchronous Learning Networks, vol. 17, no. 4, 2013.

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