Independence and Self-Learning

Key Facets to Being a Successful Online Master’s Student

By Scott Hibbard, August 2015

In my first blog entry, I wrote about my impressions of transitioning from undergraduate to graduate student. Much of that content was about changing roles and ways of thinking about oneself in context to academia, higher-level studies, and external expectations of graduates as they become grad students and eventual leaders within their discipline.

Two keys to those higher expectations are independence and self-learning.


Independence can mean a variety of things but in academia, it means that the grad student is expected by instructors and peers to be an investigator.

You're going to be doing a lot of reading, research, and writing in any graduate program. Some of this work will obviously focus on assignment deliverables but the other portion of the work may be prompted by personal curiosity derived from reading, research, or response to peer or instructor questions—as in forum assignments, for example.

Whatever the particular situation, the grad student is learning to develop and to become self-reliant in their academic habits. Clarifying the requirements of the assignment with the instructor is one thing but no one is going to give you answers, if in fact, there are any answers to give.

Assignments may deliberately lack clear answers for the express purpose of getting grad students thinking about how to argue and defend their response to their peers and to the instructor, or, to evaluate how grad students apply theory in their chosen discipline.

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Self-learning, a result of independence, is perhaps the ultimate prize. Self-learning can be external and internal. On the surface grad school appears to be a very externally focused experience because there is always a deliverable on the horizon and a due date to be met.

Yet it is through the combination of rising to seemingly innumerable challenges, interacting with peers and instructors and their ideas, and balancing work and private lives among many other variables that grad students will likely learn about themselves.

Adversity is its own education and sometimes it does not occur in ways that are so easily anticipated.

A Powerful Combination

The combination of independence and self-learning suggests a way of engaging the world that is only partly bounded by your academic degree achievement(s). The degree may define the nature and area of your expertise but it also suggests critical thinking skills vitally needed in an increasingly globalized world.

That increasing complexity may touch on a variety of related fields or topics that affect grad students in ways not previously seen, which may require not so much academic mastery than independent self-learning as a coping skill.

The ubiquity of technology is one example; however, the greatest potential impacts may be how individuals cope with the effects of technology or of policy decisions that have global effects and with which our generation and successive generations will likely have to engage.

Best of luck in your future studies!

About the Author

Scott Hibbard is a second-year Utica College ECM Grad Student (ABT). He is scheduled to submit his ECM thesis by December 2015.