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What is Graduate School Like? What to Expect in Grad School


group-work-Saad-Faruque.jpg Saad Faruque / Flickr

You worked hard, got good grades, studied your brains out for the GRE, finagled recommendation letters, sweated through interviews, and won admission to a doctoral program. Congratulations! Your work isn't done, though. Prepare yourself for several years of intense research, studying, and professional growth.

What's graduate school really like? It's generally less structured than college. You'll have to figure out a way to get along and work with your advisor, carve out an area of research and find a thesis or dissertation topic, and make the professional contacts that are essential to advancing in your field and getting a job after graduation. All too often new grad students wait for someone to tell them what to do. The longer they wait without answers or direction, the more fearful they become about their futures. Needless to say, stress and fear aren't conducive to studying! Conquer your fears by learning about graduate school now, while you've got time to prepare.

It's Not Like Undergrad
Doctoral programs are not like undergrad programs. If you're considering graduate school because you're doing well in college and like school, be aware that grad school is essentially an apprenticeship. Instead of sitting in class for a couple of hours a day and then being free to play, grad school is more like a job that occupies all of your time. You'll spend a great deal of your time working on research in your advisor or mentor's lab.

Research Rules
While college centered around classes, graduate school centers around research. Yes, you'll take courses, but the purpose of graduate school is to learn to do research. The emphasis is on learning how to gather information and construct knowledge independently. For example, often instead of taking courses in a given subject, you'll go to the library, research it, and read about it on your own. That's preparation for research. As a researcher or professor, much of your job will consist of gathering materials, reading it, thinking about it, and designing studies to test your ideas about it. Grad school is preparation for a career in research.

Don't Expect to Finish Quickly
Typically a doctoral program is a five to eight year commitment. Usually the first year is the most structured year, entailing classes and lots of reading. Typically students must pass a set of comprehensive exams at various points in the program to continue. For example, in my graduate program, students took a set of comprehensive exams at the end of the first year to receive their master's degrees and then another set after completing all coursework (at the end of the third year) to progress to doctoral candidate status. There is often a great deal of stress associated with these exams.

As you progress in grad school, you'll become more involved in research and often also in teaching, serving as a teaching assistant, and later, as a course instructor. You'll spend a great deal of time searching for a thesis topic and advisor, and then reading up on your topic to prepare your dissertation proposal. Once the proposal is accepted by your dissertation committee (typically composed of 5 faculty that you and your advisor have chosen based o n their knowledge of the field), you're free to begin your research study. You'll plug away for months or even years in some cases until you've conducted your research, made some conclusions, and written it all up. Then comes your defense: you'll present your research to your dissertation committee, answering questions, and supporting the validity of your work. If all goes well, you'll walk away with a new title and some funky letters behind your name: Ph.D.

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