The Starting Point: Why Graduate School?

The first question is “Why do I want to go to graduate school?” You need a clear idea of what you intend to accomplish to guide your search. Your answers to this question will also be incorporated in your application(s) once you begin the process.

People have various reasons for pursuing graduate study, but I divide those reasons into two categories:

  • Intellectual curiosity…when people find a field of study that interests them greatly.
  • Professional advancement/development…when additional study in a field is necessary to advance within one’s career, or for a career change.

Your own reasons may fall into either category, or may include a mixture of the two.

What Is Graduate School Like?

Once you’ve chosen to go on to graduate school, it’s helpful to understand what you are getting yourself into.

Graduate study is radically different from undergraduate study.

It takes a great deal of self-discipline to pursue a graduate degree. Graduate study is more focused, more intense, and more expensive than undergraduate studies are. As a graduate student, you are expected to take charge of your education much more than undergraduate students are.

Another difference is that you will have to deal with issues more on your own. At the undergraduate level, you frequently have to deal with one campus office at a time. At the graduate level, you will often have to coordinate with multiple offices on a regular basis. At most universities, there is a central graduate school administrative office, along with your graduate program office to deal with, plus other campus offices (registrar, bursar, financial aid, housing).

Graduate study is, in many fields, more highly individualized. At the undergraduate level, your program of study is usually laid out for you in great detail; you have some choice in terms of elective coursework, but for the most part courses are prescribed for you to take. While the “professional” graduate programs (e.g. Nursing, Architecture, Business) often have fairly specific requirements, many programs in the academic disciplines have only very general requirements in terms of the total number of course credits required. You are expected to work out a detailed program of study with your academic advisor (who is usually a member of the faculty) and then follow that program yourself, making choices about the sequence in which you will take the courses in that program of study.

Admission to a graduate program is much more selective, and standards are higher than for undergraduate admissions. In applying to a graduate program, you are often competing against the “best of the best” for admission to your intended program. Many programs limit the number of new students they will admit for a given term.

For some helpful advice on what being a graduate student is like, click here. The information at this site (located at the Computer Science department at Indiana University) deals specifically with graduate study in computer science, but the information is generally useful. Of particular interest is Marie Des Jardin’s paper “How to be a Good Graduate Student.”

What Kind of Graduate School Am I Looking for?

There are many possible criteria for selecting a graduate school. Here (in no particular order) is a list of some of them:

  • fields (and subfields) of study offered,
  • teaching philosophy,
  • reputation of the school and/or the participating faculty,
  • job placement (or placement in doctoral programs for masters programs),
  • geographic location,
  • tuition and availability of financial support,
  • availability of support services and infrastructure (libraries, lab space, etc.)
  • time required to complete degree (which includes how often courses and when courses are offered, options for online attendance),
  • environment (the size of the institution, cultural/recreational opportunities, work and/or internship opportunities, weather, etc.),
  • your personal circumstances (job and family considerations, etc.).

Several of the items listed above are dealt with in more detail at a website called PhDs.Org, designed primarily for doctoral students in mathematics, the sciences and engineering. But even if you are in a different field, it might be helpful to check the site out,  especially the resoursces section of the site, simply as a way of organizing your thoughts as you consider what aspects of the graduate experience are most important in deciding which schools to apply to or to attend.

Even the likelihood of your admission can be a basis for choosing to apply, or not to apply, to any particular school. Given the time and expense involved, who wants to apply to a school that you won’t get into?

Once you have decided which characteristics of a program are most important to you, you can start looking.