Scholar or Student?

Making the Most of Graduate School

This essay reflects my own personal philosophy about graduate school, its role in our careers, and how we should approach graduate school.  It also reflects attitudes that I’ve seen in classes that I’ve taught and taken.

Success—the Degree?

What is success in graduate school?  Each of us has one obvious goal, and that’s getting a degree to evidence our skills in our chosen profession.  Beyond that, though, how should we conduct ourselves in graduate school to advance ourselves in our careers?

The simplest definition of success in graduate school is that it’s the degree.  It’s obvious that the degree is more professionally beneficial if it’s accompanied by a lot of A’s on the transcript, so another obvious goal is a high average.

So does that mean that the best path to success in graduate school is to get the desired degree by taking the fewest difficult courses, minimizing the amount of work we do in each course, trying to get the grade with the least effort?

This might be your goal.  It’s a valid approach to school, and it’s an approach that many use.  I call the people who do this “students”.


Another way to look at success in graduate school is to include the degree and the high average in the definition, but also, since we want to spend our adult lives in a profession, the desire to attain as much professional skill as possible during this time in school.  In pursuit of this goal, we would be willing to—even seek to—take difficult courses.  The goal of good grades would be met by studying for every class and working hard for every assignment, to extract as much learning as possible from each situation.

There are students who take this view.  In fact, they stand out in class.  They’re the people who are engaging on the important topics of the course, the people who work hard on assignments and other tasks.  These students are sought out by professors, who want to engage intellectually with students, not just shovel out information and grade homeworks and exams.  These students have no problems getting special treatment—because they are special because of the sincere interest they show, backed up with real effort.  These are the ones who get glowing letters of reference that open doors for them, the ones who find jobs through professors’ connections.

I call these people “scholars”.

The Consequences

Each of us must choose a path to follow.  None of us is purely one or the other, of course; we are part student, part scholar.   We all work harder when things are more interesting, and we work less when we are turned off by a course or a professor or when other attractive ways to spend time may beckon.  But the basic decision is there—scholar or student?  Which are you?  Which do you want to be?

When graduation arrives, what are the consequences of the approach that you’ve selected?  Aren’t the students ready to get jobs or go on in school?  After all, they have the degree, and they have the grades.  And they’ve had time to also have a very good time, to enjoy all that the Nation’s Capital has to offer people who are smart, young and curious.

What about the scholars, who’ve had far fewer great social experiences?  What rewards do they reap?

First, when it’s time for an interview, interviewers know that everyone gets good grades in graduate school.  They know that lower grades may reflect more difficult courses or more demanding professors, so they might not automatically hire based on grades.  Interviewers tend to look at the academic background and then ask technical questions about the subject matter of some course that the interviewee has taken that the interviewer knows about, to assess whether the interviewee has actual working knowledge of the subject.  Scholars tend to do well with such questions; they’ve learned a lot, and when they’re interviewed, they can talk at length about the topics of the courses they’ve taken.  Students don’t do as well!  In fact, they often don’t have a working knowledge of the courses they’ve taken. 

What about recommendations?  Some professors give unsolicited letters of recommendation to the people who perform best; and when they are asked for subsequent letters, take their time to write a careful, highly personal letter.  A professor might not be willing to write a letter for a student; or if the letter is written, it might be a standard letter that the professor sends out for everyone.  Understand that here, too, interviewers and admissions committees know that anyone can get a standard letter, and they know that professors don’t have time to write highly personalized letters for everyone.   My own policy is that I don’t provide recommendations for people who don’t get high “A” grades in a course.

The longest-lasting consequences that I see are in the career arena.  There’s a sharp difference on the job between the people who really worked—and learned—in graduate school and those who just sailed through.  The scholars have a working knowledge of a lot of concepts and can take hold and advance themselves; they become the knowledgeable people who advance at work, who are always called on when there’s an interesting, challenging problem to solve.  And they reap the rewards for this.  The students typically have less technical knowledge than one would expect from someone with a graduate degree and have more mediocre careers.

The scholars also have a sounder platform for lifelong learning.  All through our careers, things will change, and the issues we’re dealing with will be different from the ones we saw yesterday.  Here, too, the scholars have the advantage—they’ve learned not only a catalog of knowledge, but also, they’ve learned how to acquire knowledge.  Their ability to keep up and know the latest developments in their professions tends to make them the most valuable people at work.

There is also the benefit of acquiring good work habits!  The student who takes that same approach to professional work won’t advance and perhaps won’t even keep a job.  In the workplace, a professional is expected to complete the assigned task and deliver value beyond just the task that was assigned.  The scholars are in the habit of doing this, and their generous contributions to work efforts are appreciated and recognized.  The student’s approach in the workplace produces an employee who shirks responsibility and tries to hide a lack of contribution.  Such a person won’t advance and may have worse consequences when their lack of contribution is fully understood by their employer.

Finally, there’s the matter of personal satisfaction.  Do you want to really understand the things you study in school, and when you start your career, do you want to be working with concepts you really understand, or do you want to struggle for decades, working with concepts you didn’t bother to learn in graduate school?  A lengthy career spent learning and maturing–and succeeding–is much more satisfying than a career spent doing as little as possible and trying to avoid accountability.

copyright 2023, David C. Roberts, all rights reserved