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One difference between being an undergraduate and a graduate student can be the focus on grades. The goal of graduate school is to acquire the knowledge, skills, experience and community that will help you succeed as a professional. Notice that I did not say grades.

Yes, grades in graduate school are an indication of how well you have mastered the material and can help you earn scholarships or other opportunities. You also need to pass your courses and avoid low passing or failing grades. The difference is that in most graduate schools, earning the equivalent of an “A” can be rare, as is earning an F. The large majority of students in many graduate courses earn a passing grade.

Adapting to this change in focus on GPA is one of the early steps graduate students take towards being an effective professional. At some point in your graduate student career, you will have to prioritize your courses and coursework and become more comfortable not doing your best when their is a meaningful tradeoff somewhere else (i.e., something else you want to accomplish that is more worthwhile, like impressing a particular faculty mentor in another course). Being able to prioritize tasks and admit (to yourself and occasionally to others) that you can’t accomplish everything at the same level, is a critical and yes, sometimes uncomfortable, aspect of being a successful professional.

That said, you do want to be careful and STRATEGIC about your priorities and when you choose to give different levels of effort for different tasks or responsibilities. If you can give 100% effort to all of your graduate work, hurray!! When you can’t, here are some things to think about as you set your priorities:

  • Earning a passing grade does NOT mean ignoring assignments or not working hard. You have will have to do a lot of work to pass your courses, and you need to learn from each course to succeed. You also do NOT want a reputation for being a poor team member in your courses. You should complete all assignments to the best of your ability under the circumstances.
  • If you anticipate that you cannot complete an assignment or do as well as you are capable, please tell collaborators/teammates/professors/employers ASAP, preferably before deadlines. If you give people a chance, they may help you and may not mind doing so…if you do not make a habit of it. People are less likely to give you the benefit of the doubt if you miss something and do not communicate about it as soon as you can.
  • It can be beneficial to try to earn the equivalent of an A in a graduate level course when, for example, 1) You want to start establishing expertise in an area. E.g., If you are interested in eradicating HIV/AIDS, you should try to do well in related courses; 2) You want to impress a faculty member who might have funding or could be a mentor; and 3) The material comes easy to you or you enjoy the class.
  • When I taught graduate school courses and had students making barely passing grades, I had to figure out whether they were struggling with the material or had made a choice about their focus. You might consider having a conversation with a professor later in a course to let them know your choice. This can be tricky, so only do this if you have a good connection with the professor or if the professor asks you directly. I was the rare professor who would talk about this choice with all of my students in class. Some faculty members may not be happy about the concept that their course is not your top priority.
  • Some professional schools may have more of a focus on grades and GPAs (grade point averages). Be sure to understand the culture and expectations in your field and school as you may these types of choices.

Please note that I am NOT in any way advocating that you take it easy in graduate school or that you not work as hard as you can on every assignment or project. This topic is something to consider when you are in circumstances in which you can’t see how to manage everything. Prioritizing courses or course assignments is one way to help manage and balance school, family/friend, work, health and other life demands.