How to overcome the challenges of an online Master’s program


Online master’s programs make it much easier for non-traditional students to juggle the responsibilities of adulthood — full-time work, childcare, eldercare, housework, and so on — with the demands of an academic program. But if you’ve never taken courses online before, you’ll find that these programs can be challenging in a very different way than traditional courses in a brick-and-mortar classroom.

Fortunately, most adults who’ve made it far enough academically and professionally to get accepted into an online master’s program already have the skills they need to surmount the unique challenges these programs can present. For example, you probably already have a high level of digital literacy if you’re considering an online degree. You probably have some time management skills and you may even have some strategies for staying motivated while you work on a long project. Let’s take a look at some of the most common challenges you’ll face in an online master’s program, and how to overcome them.

Technical Issues and Digital Literacy

Technical issues are the bane of online learners and their professors alike. They can strike anyone at just about any time — equipment fails, connections go down, and glitches occur. You can’t always prevent technical issues and you can’t always resolve them right away. You should keep your professor in the loop when dealing with technical issues, and don’t be afraid to rely on your university’s tech support for online students.

Digital literacy is another matter. You probably already know not to use all caps or try to convey sarcasm without using the sarcasm font. Pay attention to your professor’s instructions regarding how and when to submit files, and adhere to student codes of conduct when participating in online discussions. If you’re not sure what the netiquette is for some situations, don’t be afraid to ask your more savvy classmates or even your professors.

Poor Time Management and Trouble Staying Motivated

Most adults who are going back to school for a master’s already have busy lives and careers, so they understand the importance of time management. You’re going to have to turn up your time management skills to an 11 to get through grad school, though.

Poor time management will sink your academic prospects faster than anything else, so be sure to tackle it head-on from the beginning. Schedule blocks of uninterrupted time that you can use to study. Most people in online masters programs choose to study when it’s quiet at home, usually late at night or early in the morning, but if you’re especially busy, you may want to look elsewhere in your schedule for times that could be dedicated to coursework. You might want to start spending your hour lunch breaks at work reviewing course materials and completing assignments, for example. Write down your study schedule and post it in a prominent location at home, where your family can see it and know when they shouldn’t interrupt it.

Staying motivated can also be a huge challenge, especially when you’re working towards a goal like a master’s degree that is difficult and takes a long time to achieve. It’s usually easier to stay motivated if you’re working towards your goal regularly. You’ll build up more momentum, and keep it going, if you work a couple hours every day instead of locking yourself in the attic all weekend every weekend. Not only do you have to pace yourself, so that your level of effort remains sustainable over the course of the whole program, but it’s also so much easier to find the willpower to get to work if you worked yesterday and you’re pretty sure you’ll work tomorrow, too.

Lack of Connection with Students and Professors

One of the biggest differences between online master’s programs and the traditional kind is the lack of physical proximity with your classmates and professors. This can lead some students to feel disconnected, as though they’re missing out on a bonding experience with classmates or even on expanding their professional network through those casual, friendly interactions with peers.

You have to put more effort into connecting with your classmates when you’re in an online program. Make it a point to reach out for virtual study groups, phone calls, and video chats. Exchange texts and email messages with your classmates. Your efforts could pay off in the form of lifelong friendships and lasting professional connections.

Online master’s programs have their challenges, but it’s nothing a smart, disciplined student can handle. Take advantage of distance learning to move forward in your career and take charge of your professional life. You’ll wonder why you waited so long.