Skip to Main Content
It looks like you're using Internet Explorer 11 or older. This website works best with modern browsers such as the latest versions of Chrome, Firefox, Safari, and Edge. If you continue with this browser, you may see unexpected results.

CamGuides: Becoming a Graduate Student

What does 'self-directed' mean?

Graduate students really need to be self-motivated, do the work on time, and plan it ourselves.

- MPhil Economics and Finance student, 2017-18


A fork in the path

Nearly every graduate course in Cambridge requires you to be a self-directed, independent learner, capable of taking responsibility for your own learning, taking charge of it, and understanding the genuine impact that you have on your own learning.

This might include:

  • making motivated choices about what, and how, you learn
  • being motivated to study without immediate deadlines
  • feeling confident in the choices you're making about your learning
  • being able to reflect on what works and what doesn't work in your learning
  • identifying and recognising when you need to take a break from learning


This includes organising your time and setting your own deadlines, understanding when you learn best, and what study environment you need to learn effectively. It's not about efficiency or productivity, but the process by which you learn, the decisions you make about learning, and how you make use of opportunities for feedback.

It would be great if, during the course of your graduate studies, you had the time and space to learn everything at your own pace and at a very deep level, but this simply isn't realistic. At times, you may feel you have to take a surface approach, skimming material and doing just enough to get by, as you concentrate more on another project or piece of work. Self-directed learning manifests in how you set these priorities, how you assess them, and your understanding of the implications of them.

tick box

Ask yourself the following questions:

  • What kind of environment do I work best in? 
  • What makes me feel that I've been productive?
  • At what point do I feel that I know something?
  • What motivates me to study well?
  • When I'm studying, what is most important to me?

There are no right or wrong answers here, and you may find that your answers depend on the type of work you're doing, or the other pressures you're facing. But even just thinking through your answers can be beneficial as you begin your course.

Image credits

CC0 by Jens Leslie via Unsplash