08/09/2010 12:44 pm ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

A Blueprint for Graduate School Success

"Don't let schooling interfere with your education"
- Mark Twain

Graduate school is an experiment in hope. It's also a risky investment, an expensive program in which we entrust time in our lives to school for both a new identity and a ticket to the outside world. We come to graduate programs with the expectation that this will automatically be done for us. We expect to be made acceptable, valuable and, finally, highly employable leading to guaranteed future success.

I've counseled countless people who had faith in this magic--many of whom were disappointed when the expected alchemy never took place. They discovered, years later, that it doesn't just happen. We have got to reverse profound conditioning to wait for things to happen to us, instead of making things happen. If you think you've escaped this conditioning, think back to your early schooling. Most of us learned that we would excel, at the least pass, if we did the work assigned by our teachers. And that's exactly what occurred. We would find out whether a certain test covered all or part of chapter five, whether the assigned paper was ten or fifteen pages long, whether extra credit was two or three book reports by the same author. Remember? We were unconsciously learning to: (1) find out only what was expected of us, and (2) wait for a response. And we were always responded to specifically in the form of a grade. When all our grades were averaged, we were passed and promoted automatically--from first grade to second, first year college to second, first year graduate school to second. What did we really learn about the context of schooling? Caught in the "good student trap," we learned SYSTEM DEPENDENCE! We also learned that the one with the greatest numbers of "right" answers or best grades was rewarded by being the best.

Nothing is like this in real life. Yet too many of us never recognize it: We are the same passive students at twenty-four or thirty-six as we were at fourteen, continuing the same student-teacher dichotomy at work, which we automatically transfer to the employer-employee relationship, waiting for our bosses to praise and direct us. And we found that although studying history or art or even business might have been interesting, it alone didn't lead us to much else--like exploring new experiences, contacts, or even a job. Grave disappointment has resulted in this misuse of college--graduate and undergraduate. We can approach education in the same positive, productive, active, even experimen¬tal way that successful people approach life. We can make these programs a laboratory to develop both technical and interpersonal skills as well as link ourselves to new interests and contacts.

I've found that achievers in business act differently from those caught in the good student trap. Achievers do more than the work required; they generate ideas. They learn the value of positive self-presentation in order to get the recognition, which breeds credibility, which in turn leads to opportunity. They are open to new situations and experiences. They understand the importance of forming connections and building alliances that result in the healthy exchange of ideas and sharing of experi-ences, vital to our changing workplaces.

SEVEN STRATEGIES to develop skills for achievement:

I. Don't depend on your professors to discover your hidden talents and point you in the right direction. They can't and won't if you are invisible to them. Get to know them and be known in return. Read and ask about their research and career; then you can ask for advice about yours. Ask to attend professional confer¬ences offering to help in return for meeting significant people in the field. Also, consider working as a research assistant despite time/financial restraints to connect yourself with ideas and people -- other professors, business leaders and organiza-tions. Later, when you've proved yourself, you can ask those professors for introductions and letters of recommendation to their networks. They expect you to ask.

2. Turn assigned papers into your own campaign to interview businessmen and women about their projects, company or career and gain a real chance to talk with top managers. Try publishing your paper in a professional or student journal for a lot more than just a grade.

3. Choose only projects that you are interested in. Even when it's a group effort. Get consensus that it will advance someone's interest, let alone career. Don't settle for something on the list that seems simple. Quick + dirty will bore you, give you a lesser grade, and teach you nothing.

4. Ask questions. Use your "student" label, for it will be harder after graduation to get the same free attention. Prepare your questions as a good talk show host does -- ask how they got started, what pleases or surprises them, what kind of projects they work on, what help they got along the way, what they wish they had done, what advice they can give you. And. if you want to try out their field, ask for a chance, even as an intern (paid or not).

5. Get involved with professional activities and chair committees, run for office despite heavy academic schedules. Many employers are looking for aggressive, creative, entrepreneurial future lead¬ers. Leadership in activities proves that you can do more than follow directions and becomes another kind of track record to demonstrate your initiative, drive, and ability to work with people, deal with conflict and solve problems.

5. Use the Career Center for for¬mation and advice. Sign up for any workshops offered, such as interviewing on videotape. Don't be passive even in these workshops; partici¬pate even if it's uncomfortable for you to start practicing what they preach.

6. If you don't know what to choose after graduation, don't despair: most of us don't or didn't. Choose several. Find leads from the placement office or through alumni records. You can't know now what you'll do later. You'll probably have four or five different careers. So follow your heart and your chances and start.

7. When you are interviewing for a job, don't play passive student answering just the questions asked. Take every chance to explain what you've learned in class and outside that will help you contribute as a great employee. While you can't pretend to know everything, you do have to show enthusiasm and preparation. And, ask for the job. If they say they arc interviewing others, ask about your chances and any concerns they have about you so you can improve your odds. Start with your B list to develop your presentation or sales skills: then tackle the A list. Thank everyone. Call back.

Don't rely on the prestige of your school to launch you. Learn to combine hustle with theory. Success calls for active connecting skills. That is, making your interests, abilities, and markets coverage. It also calls for you to develop ways to act for yourself, not just fulfill assignments given. Life, after all, will never again be a smooth progression from one grade or class to the next. Instead, it will be as uncharted as any real exploration and adventure. Mapping is promise of higher education's preparation for life.

Make your luck happen!

Dr. Adele, Author of Skills For Success and Launch Your Career in College