How to Win at Being a Grad Student, Part II

Below is part II in a series on the dos and don’ts of grad school as per NPSIA’s professors. Earlier in the month, I asked the faculty and staff to provide some advice on how to win at being a grad student. They were very helpful. The were also very candid…

The right frame of mind

Use this as an opportunity to learn:

Everyone’s objective at NPSIA is to ensure that students learn – that they complete the program with analytical skills and knowledge of the fundamentals of international affairs.   But we have certain standards that have to be met – when you graduate, your skills in the workplace will reflect on the quality of our program. Our courses are rigorous to build these skills and knowledge base, not to inflict suffering. Stop complaining and start learning. Take the program seriously. And use this as an opportunity to develop skills, such as the ability to work collaboratively.

Be ready to read-think-discuss-refine your thinking and then read some more.

Prioritize School:

When I was a student, we used to prioritize school over work. Now it seems like it’s the other way around – students fit in school when convenient and expect professors to accommodate their busy schedules. Of course, we realize that life is busy. But please, if you are working, talk to your employers about your academic obligations. Don’t always assume that your professor is the only one who can be flexible.

Collaborate with Colleagues:

For particularly challenging courses, or courses with lots of workload, one effective strategy is to form study groups with your peers. The study group approach is particularly fruitful for challenging but unambiguous material like Statistics and Economics. Opinion really does not enter into that: there is a defined set of things you have to know. Since there is a lot of variation across students in terms of their academic and professional backgrounds, other students can be in a position to be very helpful.

Marks are a reflection of your performance in a course, not a reflection of you as a person:

The mark that you receive in an assignment or a course reflects whether you have mastered the necessary material. It does not reflect whether your professor likes you, nor does it indicate your academic or professional potential.

Do the work, get the marks:

If you want a good mark, please do the work. If you are unhappy with mark, before you file an appeal or talk to the associate director about your unhappiness, the best approach is to speak to your prof and find out what you have to do to get a better mark. Better yet, before you submit an assignment, ensure you understand the expectations of the professor.

Take criticism constructively:

Feedback is not as an opening salvo against which you must defend your work. It is rare to find anybody IRL who is: willing to read your stuff; read it carefully; comment on it thoughtfully; and do so knowledgeably. So instead of going on the defensive, see what you can learn from the comments.

Any piece of work has room for improvement. If you doubt this, attend one of our research talks where the professors present their work and see what kinds of comments we give our colleagues. It’s usually 20% “this is great” and 80% critique (i.e. “that bit doesn’t make sense”), even for stuff that we think is great.

Know that there are no simple answers to complex and enduring problems in international affairs:

Do not expect to graduate knowing the answer to how to prevent terrorism / war / conflict / poverty / human rights abuses etc. Do expect to graduate with a better understanding of the debates surrounding these issues and the difficulties that exist in reconciling these divergent points of view and in improving the status quo.

Don’t underestimate how much time and effort assignments take:

Do be mindful of your weekly reading workload and of assignment due dates. The deadlines ambush you at the end of term.

(Part I in the series can be accessed here:


4 thoughts on “How to Win at Being a Grad Student, Part II

  1. Excellent! Fully agree with the content of the Post. All universities should advise their student populations accordingly.

    It is very unfortunate that learning and knowledge-building are no longer at the base of university studies! Students pass with degrees but do not become productive members of the society. And your Post is correct in stating that these graduates do not contribute to building the reputation of the universities they graduate from.

    Nipa Banerjee Ph.D.
    School of International Development & Global Studies &
    Associate- Graduate school of Public and International Affairs
    University of Ottawa Ontario, Canada. K1N 6N5.

    120 University Faculty of Social Sciences Building (Office #8012)
    Tel Numbers: (office) 1-613-562-5800×4531 (mobile) 1-613-697-9814
    Fax: 1-613-562-5817

    Sprott School of Business
    Carleton University
    MBA International Development Management Program
    Dunton Tower
    Colonel By Drive
    Ottawa, Ontario

    Mobile 613-697-9814

    …“You may be of different race, creed, color or religion, that has nothing to do with the business of the state”…

  2. Pingback: Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

  3. Pingback: How to Win at Being a Grad Student, Part III | Norman Paterson School of International Affairs

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