Lessons Learned from Grad School

I just finished my Master of Special Education degree from the University of Idaho. I finished the degree program in three semesters, capping the degree off with a Webfolio and oral defense instead of a thesis. There were many lessons learned during my time earning this degree; some of which I wish I knew at the beginning instead of the end. In this post I will share the lessons I learned for any professional looking at pursuing graduate degrees in the future.

Lesson #1: Know whether the program offers a thesis or non-thesis route.

You get the same quality of education whether you do a thesis or a Webfolio. Doctoral programs automatically have dissertations attached to the program requirements. Master’s programs differ among universities in offering thesis and non-thesis paths. Writing a thesis has only one advantage; you get published. To some, not getting published is not a major concern. I did not mind the fact that my degree path was non-thesis, since I plan to pursue a PhD. However, you should consider a degree path that includes a thesis if a PhD. is not for you or if it is several years down the road.

Lesson #2: Know what your degree qualifies you to do before selecting it.

Degree titles can be misleading at times. I struggled to know what I would be qualified to do as a professional my first two semesters. I finally figured out what my areas of expertise would be and how my degree prepared me for a future career; however, had I known more about my degree path and what it would give me, I might have chosen a different route.

Lesson #3: Know what certifications you can earn along with your degree.

Some certifications may be able to earned whether or not expressly stated in the degree program. For example, had I known about certification requirements for BCBA at the start of my program, I would have tried to earn a BCBA along with my M.Ed. You may be able to earn certifications relevant to your degree even if none are expressly available in your offered degree path. Universities will usually allow you to earn certifications from other programs that relate to your degree path through elective courses and permissions from professors and department leaders.

Lesson #4: Develop connections with your professors.

I did not communicate well or often with professors during my undergraduate studies. I changed that with my graduate studies. I emailed professors with questions from my reading and assignments. I communicated supplemental information I found relevant to my courses to my professors. I participated in optional class meetings and logged on early to class meetings to engage in friendly conversation. I built a good rapport among my professors and earned great letters of recommendation from each of them. Not only was I able to improve relationships with professors, but I was able to earn better grades by learning what professors expected from me and adjusting my work to meet those expectations.

Lesson #5: Always do more than is required.

There is a line between going the extra mile and missing the point. If an assignment calls for a paper to be between six and eight pages long, writing ten pages is not going the extra mile; it is missing the point entirely. However, if an paper requires two to three sources, it would be beneficial for you to include the most sources you can find on the subject in which you writing instead of the minimum. Do not settle for the quality of work that professors expect from a typical student taking their course. Strive to produce final products that will impress both professors and professionals out in the field. When you produce top quality work–better than what might be expected–you gain respect from professors and begin to be viewed as a colleague instead of a student, which will help you in further educational and career goals.


I could speak more on other lessons I learned, such as writing professional emails, conducting presentations, reading assignments, buying additional books to supplement classes, etc. However, these were the main lessons I learned. There are some things I wish I knew before I started my degree program. There are some things I would have done differently and questions I wish I had asked. However, there are also some things I did right, and, regardless of missed opportunities, I am grateful for the lessons I learned.

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