Six Skills You'll Need to Survive Your Online Master’s Degree Program

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Online education is making the master's degree more accessible and popular than ever before. But that doesn't mean grad school is getting any easier. Online master’s degree programs come with the same rigorous education and high expectations as do traditional graduate degree programs. In fact, you may face the added challenge of adjusting to online education for the very first time. Lucky for you, we're shining a spotlight on the essential skills you'll need to survive, and even thrive in, your online master’s degree program.

More students than ever before are earning online master's degrees. According to Inside Higher Ed, 31% of all graduate students pursued their master's degree fully online in 2016. Another 21% indicated that they had taken at least one online course during that time. These robust online enrollment rates even exceed the significant and ongoing rise in online bachelor's degree enrollments (which were 12% fully online and 31% partially online in 2016). Adult learners and non-traditional students in particular have been attracted to online graduate degree programs by their convenience and affordability.

Students earning their master’s degrees are often already steeped in work, career, family, and home life. While advancing an education may be important, even essential, for achieving certain career goals, few working adults can afford a disruption to these other critical priorities. Online master’s degrees have helped to change the outlook for so many working professionals, offering a pathway that can instead be shaped around these priorities. But for many graduate students, this may be a first foray into online education. Or it may simply represent a new level of academic rigor. Either way, you’ve got your work cut out for you.

Fortunately, we've got tips to help you succeed. More specifically, we've outlined the six skill sets that will best serve you as you adjust both to online education and to your master's degree program. The best part is that these skills will be of incredible value to you, not just in graduate school, but in work and life. Master these skills, and you'll truly earn the title of…well…master.

If you're still shopping for the right online graduate degree program, check out our extensive rankings of The Best Online Master’s Degrees in an enormous and constantly growing set of subjects.

Otherwise, read on for a look at Six Skills You'll Need to Survive Your Online Master’s Degree Program.

1. Organization Skills

Whether you're preparing for your first day of grad school, your first day of online education, or both, you need to get organized. At this point in your education, it is expected that you have the tools to balance your life and workload, that you can keep track of your own deadlines, that you can stay on top of assignments, exams, and everything else without a teacher breathing down your neck. This expectation is doubly true if you're in an online master's program. It's entirely up to you to keep it all together.

This means that you need to develop some organizational strategies that work for you. This may include creating a quiet, tidy, and stimulating workspace where you can focus; building a calendar that incorporates important appointments, deadlines, exam dates, and personal commitments; maintaining daily "to-do lists" that keep you on task; using the alarm function on your smart-phone for important reminders; and, if you find it helps, wall-papering your office with loosely color-coded Post-it notes. Most importantly, develop a system that works for you. We all learn, study, and organize differently. Create a strategy that helps you keep things in order. Naturally, there are apps for all the things we've mentioned above, even Post-it notes.

If you've already got the whole organization thing down and you're looking for something to challenge your skills, maybe earn two master's degrees at once. Consider embarking on one of The Best Online Dual Master's Degree Programs.

2. Tech Skills

Graduate school is challenging enough. You don't want to compound that challenge by learning how to use your computer on the fly. The truth is, whether you're studying on campus or attending online, you really need to become fluid with the technology. If you're in an online program, failure to do so will make your life pretty miserable. You should have a basic mastery of your own laptop or desktop computer; you should be able to troubleshoot connectivity issues with your wireless network; you'll need to understand the software, cloud-sharing, and Learning Management System (LMS) applications that your university employs; you'll want a basic understanding of cyber-security and how you can be protected from attacks; and you'll need to know how to use a smartphone or tablet, usually in a way that is compatible with your computer and other education applications. As we noted above, it also helps to get a handle on a few useful calendar and "to-do list" apps.

We're not telling you all of this to scare you, but to prepare you in advance. Find out more about your school's preferred software, LMS, and education apps before the first day of class. Get some practice in. The good news is that once you get set up (and it's ok to ask your neighbor’s tech-savvy kid for help), you'll more or less be good to go. But you should still know how to navigate your own computer, and you should have some strategies up your sleeve in case something goes wrong. If you've avoided technology up to this point in your life, it's time to plug in.

For a closer look at some of the equipment, software, and savvy you'll need to succeed, check out our Adult Education Gear Guide: Essential Supplies for Online Degrees.

3. Research Skills

Now that you know how to use your technology, you must also learn to use the internet. We don't mean this in a patronizing way. It's just that the web is an abyss of content — some of it valuable and nutritious — but so so much of it, empty, worthless, frivolous, or simply untrue. But how can you tell the difference? How can you differentiate current events from fake news, scholarly research from clickbait, policy analysis from political propaganda? You must be prepared to do real research.

This means that you must be able to evaluate sources of information for credibility, accuracy, and bias; that you must learn how to develop, explore, and defend an experimental hypothesis; and that you should develop an understanding of how to synthesize existing research to draw out your own ideas. Of course, there's far more to research than web use, but as an online grad student, this will usually be your very first stop on the path to experimental discovery. It can also help you to develop applicable real-world research skills, including the ability to develop an experimental framework, control external variables, adhere to the principles of ethical experimentation, and yield meaningful findings.

For our ever-growing set of testing tips, homework hacks, and study starters, visit (and bookmark) the always-lively Study Lounge at The Quad.

4. Writing Skills

If you haven't written a ton in your lifetime, prepare for a new chapter. As a graduate student, you will be required to write. A master's program will typically offer you the opportunity to explore ideas with greater qualitative freedom than you might have experienced at the college or high school level. Freedom may sound exciting, but it also means that you need the compositional and rhetorical skills to enjoy that freedom. In other words, you must be able to write as a way of elaborating on ideas, sharing findings, and completing your assignments in graduate school.

From research assignments and essay tests to the capstone project or thesis that you will likely need to complete at the end of your program, your writing ability could be a make-or-break skill in graduate school. This is only magnified for online master's students, who must use writing as their primary means of communication and engagement with professors, classmates, research subjects, and prospective mentors. Your ability to use the written word effectively, perhaps even eloquently, will make a big difference in your online master's experience, and likely in your academic outcomes as well.

If writing must become a part of your everyday life in graduate school, make us a part of your everyday life as well. Get tips and support at our Writing Lab.

5. Social Skills

What? Social skills? I thought the whole point of online education was so that I didn't have to talk to anybody.

Well, that is an option. You can certainly avoid conversation or personal engagement if that's your preference. As we always say around here, you do you. But, the truth is, online students who find ways of building personal connections with professors and classmates typically report much better experiences. Online education can be isolating if you don't take steps to put yourself out there.

Channel your social skills into this new medium. Reach out to classmates and make friends. Or find some classmates in your area — research says that two-thirds of all online students attend a school within 50 miles of their homes — and meet for group study, test-cramming, or just coffee and commiseration. And get to know your professors. Reach out before classes start to introduce yourself. Give them a chance to know you over the duration of a course. Engage in class discussion — whether it takes place through video-conference, live-chat, or otherwise. Share ideas with your professors, and don't be afraid to seek constructive advice on assignments or research. But always keep it professional. Write emails and contribute to class as if you're communicating with your boss, not your bud. The reality is, the more you engage, the more you'll be engaged, and the more you'll be enriched.

Find out why real students in online programs are reporting that Online Colleges Offer Better Professor Engagement.

6. Coping Skills

Graduate school is hard, whether you're taking your classes online or on campus. In fact, research suggests that graduate students are especially vulnerable to stress, anxiety, and burnout. That's why it's so important that you develop skills for dealing with the stressors inherent to grad school. For online master's degree students, these stressors may be compounded by feelings of isolation.

Work on strategies for enhancing your calm in the face of stress, talking yourself down when you feel wound up, and connecting with others when you feel lonely. And do not be afraid to seek support or help, either from a loved one or from a mental health professional. Whether you're studying on campus or online, your university should offer access to both academic and mental health counselors. Take advantage of these resources.

If you're facing stress, anxiety, or you’re just feeling overwhelmed and you need somebody to talk to, check out these important Mental Health Resources for Online College Students.

These skills are important, but you won't perfect them overnight. Many of these skills require patience, practice, and a little help from those around us. The good news is that the more you do these things —write, research, use your computer, etc. — the better you'll get at them. And your online master's degree program will give you no shortage of opportunities to do exactly that.

So don't sweat it if you suddenly feel like you've got a lot to learn. That's natural. We just wanted to give you a chance to prepare. And like we said, these are skills that you'll find valuable in all aspects of your life and career.

Speaking of which, if you're attending online graduate school as a way to advance or shift your career trajectory, but you're not sure how to get started, check out our Tips for Making a Career Change.

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