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.
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?
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.
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.
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.