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Grad School FAQs

Should I attend Graduate School?  

The decision to go to graduate school often is based on a long-term interest in a particular field, or on the requirements to enter a certain profession. Many students consider graduate school because they are not sure of their future career. If you are considering graduate school, ask yourself these questions for clarification about continuing in higher education: 
  • What are your career goals? Would you change your career goals if you were employed immediately after receiving your bachelor's degree?
  • Is it easier to attend graduate or professional school right after graduating in your field?
  • What are the costs of graduate or professional school (both in direct costs, such as tuition, and in indirect costs, like loss of possible earnings)?
  • Would graduate studies enhance your job and salary prospects?
  • Are there employers who would help in paying your costs for graduate school?
As you consider your choices, it is important to be clear on your ultimate personal and career goals. Consider all your options and seek others' input. Remember that work experience can help you to clarify your goals.

If any of the following are true, graduate school might be right for you: 
  • You want to work in a profession that requires a higher degree (doctor, lawyer, professor, etc.).
  • You want to develop more expertise in a field to increase your earning potential.
  • You have a deep interest in a particular subject, want to study it in-depth, and have the time and resources to devote to it.
If the following are true, graduate school might not be a good idea: 
  • You want to delay entry into the 'real world' outside academia.
  • You do not know what your career goals are.
  • You are not prepared to spend the time and energy to succeed in graduate school.
  • You want to 'wait out' a poor job market.
If you decide that graduate school is right for you, you then need to decide whether you want to take some time and work first, or go to graduate school immediately. You should work first if: 
  • You want 'real-world' experience before investing time and money in a graduate degree.
  • The graduate school you want to go to requires or prefers work experience.
  • You cannot afford graduate school, and have not yet applied for funding sources.
You should go to graduate school now if: 
  • You are absolutely sure you want a job in a profession that requires a higher degree.
  • You have been awarded funding.
  • You are concerned that once you start earning real money, you won't be willing to return to life as a student.
  • Your study habits and mental abilities are at their peak.
You also have the choice of going to graduate school full- or part-time. The benefits of going full-time are: 
  • It will be fewer years before you earn the degree.
  • You can commit totally to the graduate school experience.
  • You can make a dramatic career change.
The benefits of going part-time are: 
  • Work income can help pay for your education.
  • You reduce your course load.
  • You can juggle family responsibilities while working toward the degree.
  • You can work in the career of your choice while continuing your education.
  • Your employer might pay a portion of your education.
If you decide you want to pursue graduate study, you face the decision of what sort of degree to pursue. There are two main branches of degree: Academic and Professional. An academic degree focuses on research, while a professional degree focuses on practical application and knowledge. Know what degree you will need and how much you need to specialize to meet your career goals.

Do I want to go to Graduate School?

Your undergraduate education will not help you to decide whether to go to graduate school. The decision will take about a year to make. It is best to ask for advice over a long period. Start in the middle of your junior year, or earlier. Seek advice from professors, and anyone else you consider knowledgeable or wise. Actively explore graduate school, even if you think your chances of going are low.

Many people have problems asking such advice, particularly from professors, because they are embarrassed at their lack of knowledge. But you should understand that a large part of what professors do is give people advice. Professors also know quite a bit about graduate school. Professors who research in a given area will know a large proportion of the other people with the same research interests. On the other hand, professors have their own personal opinions (like everyone else), so you should expect to get different advice from different people.

Start by making a guess at the field or topic you might want to study in graduate school. Then pick a professor who seems approachable and might know something about the topic. Stop by during scheduled office hours and ask for advice about the field. Some common responses are: 
  • "I don't really know that area, but you could talk to..." (Go and talk to the professor recommended.)
  • "I think I'll need a better idea of your specific interests..." (Ask for help refining your interests.)
  • A list of all the good graduate programs in the field, with more description than you can possibly digest in one sitting.

What is Graduate School?

Graduate school is not a continuation of undergraduate learning, but an apprenticeship in research. It is for people who love research, scholarship and teaching for their own sake. It is not for people who want more undergraduate courses. It is not for those in a hurry to get a real job. Many graduate students aim to get a job as a college professor, or an industrial or government researcher. Some in technical subjects become entrepreneurs. Many just do it for the love of learning.

In the US, graduate school can last up to eight years of study and research organized by a department or program of a university, possibly culminating in a doctoral degree (usually PhD). Though a research-oriented university will normally grant doctorates in dozens of fields, some individual departments in a university may not have graduate programs, so it is important to check into whether there is a program in your area at the universities you are considering. There is a common misconception that you cannot apply to a PhD program without a completed master's degree. Usually, this is not the case. You'll need a Bachelor's degree, but you can apply to the PhD program before your undergraduate work is done. Typically, a university offering a PhD program will offer a master's degree en-route to the doctorate.

Doctoral study takes up to eight years. That's a long time. The first year often is the worst. It usually consists of an overwhelming amount of structured reading, designed to give you a generalized background in the basic texts of the particular field. The exact format of the first years of graduate study varies between programs. One must usually pass a set of exams to continue in the program at a certain point. The workload and possibility of failure often cause a great deal of anxiety. Once this period passes, it is usually followed by more interesting periods. The next few years of study are usually focused on finding a topic and advisor for one's dissertation, along with coursework and teaching assistantships. The climax is the presentation of your research in public, with the dissertation and defense.

Graduate study is different from undergraduate study. It is longer and requires more focused and sustained work. It involves more intense relationships with faculty and other students, and makes greater demands on your personal identity. You can get through your undergraduate education without asking yourself who you are, or what your goals are. In graduate school, your identity will almost certainly change. In particular, you will become known as the person who did a particular specialized research. The process can give great satisfaction but it is not for everyone.

How do I choose a Graduate Program?

Selecting a graduate or professional school program is a personal process. It is the first step in your commitment to pursue graduate studies. Getting accepted by the graduate program of your choice is the first, and often most important, step to meeting your personal and career goals. There are four steps that make the application process smoother and garner the most success: selection, application, interview, and matching. Students usually pursue graduate study in fields related to their undergraduate majors, though they sometimes choose a different area of interest.

Look on-line, call, or write to prospective departments about their graduate programs. Ask for a brochure describing their program. Learn about each program's requirements and opportunities. Look beyond what the department tells you. Ask faculty members at your institution and elsewhere about the program.

Consider the faculty. In choosing a graduate program, it is critical that you focus on the reputation of the faculty in your department of interest. Learn about the faculty at the institutions you are considering. Do a literature search and find where the faculty you want to work with work. Once you have an idea of a few people you would like to work with, contact them to discus your interest.

Look at how many of the faculty share your interests. Be sure that you will be entering a community of researchers. There is no guarantee that the person you came to work with won't leave during your first year. More importantly, being part of a community exposes you to a range of views on the same subjects.

Consider production. Does the faculty regularly produce articles and books? What is the quality of the journals they publish in? How long does it take for students to achieve the degree? What is their graduation rate?

Take students into consideration. Are there enough graduate students to create a learning community? Are there enough resources for the students? Is the faculty over-committed as advisors? Where have the students gone on to work?

Look into the administrative side. Consider the requirements, which vary widely from program to program. Be sure that you will have some input into the process. Consider financial aid. Stipends, paid tuition and health care are all factors to weigh. Weigh your obligations, such as teaching or research assistantships. How far will your money go in your new community?

How do I apply to Graduate School?

The process of applying to graduate school is more interactive than applying for undergraduate study. The number of applications to graduate school will be lower. Your admissions committee will be composed of researchers in your field, rather than administrators. The researchers who look at your application will be looking for people who will succeed as professionals, and will look beyond previous grades or results of standardized tests.

The admissions committee will see a variety of materials from your application. Your application will probably include: a formal application, your essay or personal statement, a writing sample, your transcript, your standardized test scores, and letters of application. If at all possible, you should arrange for a visit as well, and meet with people in the department.

Applications are typically due in December or January. You should begin research as soon as you can, and request applications in September before you hope to attend. Some departments may have web-only application forms, so look on-line before contacting the departments directly.

You should expect to apply to five or more programs. Try to select a range of programs, from highly selective to less selective. However, you should have a good reason for each application. Applying for a program if you have no intention of attending wastes your time, their time, and your application fee.

You should complete the application forms with great care. Your application is your best chance to present yourself to the selection committee. You should keep the following in mind: 
  • Pay close attention to the instructions.
  • Note deadlines, and be ready for them
  • Be open and honest about all information.
  • Have at least two people proofread your work.
  • Prioritize quality over quantity.
  • Tailor your application for each program.
The Essay or Personal Statement
The essay or personal statement is often the most important item in the application packet. This is your opportunity to tell the committee about yourself, your research interests and why you are interested in this particular program. Share your hopes and career goals, and how the program fits with those goals. You need to prepare this essay carefully and professionally. Be concise, avoid using slang, and tailor your response to the particular program.

Be prepared to take this essay through several drafts. Take a draft to professors who are advising you on your search and ask for their comments. If they make only minor suggestions, ask them how you might re-write it from scratch.

In discussing research, be prepared to show that you know what research is, and that you have some ideas for topics of research. You will probably not be held to the topic you propose in your statement, though in some cases you may be. Try to be as concrete as you can, while holding out the possibility that your interests may change.

Your writing will make a difference. It should show that you've read the background literature. Try to avoid jargon and cliche. Make it as concise as possible. Avoid adverbs, the words 'interesting' and 'important', anything that does not relate to your research, and anything that is obvious about your research interests. Read your essay as though you were on the committee. Remember that they will have hundreds of applications, and that they will only re-read the ones that stand out.

You should tailor your statement to fit each specific program. You might write a general statement, and edit in passages particular to each department. If there is one particular department that stands out above the rest for you, you should write a customized statement for that department. In that case, you should try to find someone who knows the department and ask their advice.

Research samples
Make sure your graduate application includes a sample of your work. This will give the admissions committee a better idea of your work than your transcript will. Include research papers, manuscripts, reports or term papers for a class. If there is something that would strengthen your application that has not been requested, submit it anyway. If you are concerned about submitting too much, you might submit a list of items that are available upon request. You should compile your samples before writing your personal statement or essay, and try and make a connection between the papers you submit and the research you envision.

Many people are concerned that their GPA will keep them out of graduate school. As important as grades are, they can be measured in different ways. Many universities calculate GPA without freshman classes, or for upper-division classes only, or only for courses in your major. If any of those is significantly better than your full GPA, you should try to mention it somewhere in your application. Remember, the admissions committee will also be looking at the classes you took. It is better to focus your efforts in one or two areas, indicating that you are committed to the field. The committee will also weigh the difficulty of the classes you take, so take the hardest classes you can, and do well in them. Remember that graduate schools require official copies of transcripts, so be sure to request them in a timely manner.

Graduate Entrance Examinations
Most graduate programs will require an entrance exam, like the GRE, MCAT, and LSAT. They are generally screening exams. You often need to apply to take the exams over a year before you apply for graduate study, particularly if you want to avoid taking a general and a subject GRE on the same day. You can get details of what exams are needed from the programs or the course catalog. This is one more reason to get the brochure ahead of time, particularly as it might save you from taking an unnecessary subject GRE.

Practice can make a huge difference. There is an industry catering to people who are taking standardized tests. Taking one of the varieties of practice exam can improve your scores. At the very least, they can make you familiar with the format of the exams.

Letters of Recommendation
Strong letters of recommendation will be an essential element of your application. Most of these letters should come from professors in the department where you got your undergraduate degree. It may be helpful to give them a copy of your personal statement.

In choosing professors to ask for letters of recommendation, you have to account for how well the professor knows you and your work and balance that with the professor's seniority. All things being equal, it is better to get a good reference from a senior professor and researcher than from a junior one. However, a reference from a senior professor will not be a good one if they do not know your research.

If you want a good letter of recommendation, the best thing to do is to get involved in research, whether as a formal independent study or otherwise. If you do that, the professor who supervises your research will be in a good position to write a strong recommendation for you.

The other approach to getting good recommendations it to get to know the professors who teach the classes you're particularly interested in. Doing good work in the classes helps, but it doesn't necessarily mean that the professor knows you and your work. You can get to know the professor better by visiting during office hours to discuss the ideas that come up in class. If you are truly interested in the course, you should not find it to difficult to come up with topics and questions that go beyond the scope of the syllabus. Do not be afraid to ask the questions. Simply ask the questions and take an interest in the ensuing discussion. The quality of letters of recommendation should not be a concern.

Timeliness could still be an issue, however. It is your responsibility as the applicant to ensure that the letter gets sent in a timely manner. Be sure that you tell your professor when the letter is due, and suggest that you will follow up a week before the due date if they don't mind. Then check back. Professors tend to be busy, and usually appreciate this kind of reminder. Besides, if a reminder is coming, it is less likely to be needed.

The Interview Process
Many graduate and professional schools require an interview. You can use this as an opportunity to learn more about the program. The committee will learn more about you in the process as well. Remember to stress your unique points, and show the committee that you are knowledgeable in your field. You can learn more about the program by reading the faculty's published research. It might be helpful to arrange for practice interviews before the visit to clarify how you present yourself. Be sure that you have a chance to discuss research you have been involved in. Be prepared to answer questions about any low grades or leaves of absence.

While you are visiting, be sure to act and dress professionally. Be prompt for all of your appointments. Remember that your behavior will be noticed the committee, postdoctoral fellows, or graduate students. After your return home, be sure to write thank you notes to your hosts and the people you met with, thanking them for their time and hospitality.

This is also your chance to see if you think the program is a good fit for you. You can take this opportunity to see the facilities and explore the community. You should arrange to meet with current graduate students and ask them about their experience with the program. Have as full and frank a discussion with them as you can. Remember that choosing a graduate school is a significant commitment of time and money, and that it is ultimately your decision.

Financial Aid
You need not wait until you have been accepted somewhere to apply for funding. Deadlines for funding can fall as early as November. Ask someone in your department what the major funding sources are. There is often someone who keeps a list of obscure graduate fellowships, perhaps called the Office of Research Development. You also might find funding bodies mentioned in the acknowledgements of papers written by junior researchers in the field. Get advice about which grants are worth applying for.

You will probably have a financial aid application in your application package. This may include the federal form as well as the school's form. It is common in many fields to receive a graduate assistantship (teaching or research). These are good, and can provide experience in teaching as well as a further background in research. However, a graduate fellowship can provide funding for research that you had planned to do anyway.

How should I decide to accept or reject a program?

Letters of acceptance and rejection are usually mailed in March or April. If you are accepted, you should take up to a week to make the decision. In making your decision, consider the following: 
  • What attracted you to the program.
  • What of your personal criteria the program meets.
  • Which program best meets your needs.
One of your major concerns will be how well you can get graduate school to pay for itself. Teaching and research assistantships are common. It is better to get a fellowship. Even if you have not been awarded a fellowship yourself, the department that accepts you might be able to provide you with some fellowship money. If you have an offer from another school, you can let them know that you're comparing the whole package - the program, as well as funding.

This is an opportunity to seek out more advice. The faculty in your department will celebrate your acceptance, and will be open to sharing more of their knowledge with you. Ask them about reputations and rumors. Find out if there are alumni at the same university, in related departments. If there are, then contact them and ask questions. Find out how well the university accommodates graduate students. If you can talk with current graduate students, do. They may not have all the information, but they will have some pretty strong opinions.

After you have resolved all this, and made your decision, accept an offer. Then let any programs that you decline know that you have accepted an offer elsewhere. Don't go into detail. Thank them for their interest and their offer. Be prompt about this, and try to make your decision in a timely manner.


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