Beginner’s Guide to Graduate School

What is graduate school?

Graduate school is a component of higher education following undergraduate study. In graduate school, students focus on a specific subject within an academic discipline or field. There are two mains types of degrees you can obtain in graduate school: a master’s and a doctorate of philosophy (Ph.D.) degree. You can pursue a master’s degree program in a variety of disciplines that usually lasts between 1-2 years and may involve a producing a creative or scholarly project. A doctoral program can take anywhere from 4-7 years of study. A doctoral program involves coursework and producing an original scholarly contribution to your field under the guidance of a faculty mentor. For information on more specific types of graduate programs, see the Intro to Grad School Glossary.

How do I know if it’s right for me?

While you’re an undergraduate, get involved with conducting research, find opportunities to teach, attend academic conferences, develop your academic interests, write a thesis, listen to your peers present their theses, and talk to your mentors and professors. Make sure that you take the time to reflect on why you want a graduate degree. Why pursue a graduate degree in one subject over another? How will a graduate degree help you in your long-term career aspirations? The more you know yourself and your goals, the more you will be able to speak to the commitments you are willing to make.

What does a graduate application consist of?

A typical graduate school application has seven standard materials. These include:

  1. Statement of purpose
  2. GRE scores
  3. Official transcripts
  4. 3-4 letters of recommendation
  5. Personal Statement
  6. Additional document (CV, Resume)
  7. Writing Sample

A statement of purpose explains what type of research you want to pursue. This statement should be specific and articulate the research questions you have in mind for pursuing. Within this statement, you should describe your methodological leanings and scholars you hope to draw from or build on. You should include explanations of why you have chosen this specific research and how it builds on research you have already done. Mention professors you want to work with, highlighting their current research and your research intersects, differs, highlights synergistic relations. You should also drive home why you would be a good fit for the program given your strengths, and why the program is a good fit for you given its key elements, program structure, or resources. A good statement of purpose will also be able to imagine the implications of your research on broader societal issues. You should also be thinking about the trajectory of your research following graduate school. Statements are typically no longer than two pages.

For more information on the Graduate Records Examination (GRE), visit this post, What is the GRE and how do you prepare for it?

Official transcripts take time to order. Usually, graduate schools require you send transcripts from your entire undergraduate studies, which includes transcripts if you studied abroad or if you transferred colleges. Make sure you do research on how much these transcripts will cost to send and how long they might take to arrive.

Graduate programs can ask for 3-4 letters of recommendation. These letters may come from your academic advisor, your thesis director and readers, or a professor you’ve taken a class with or multiple classes with that can speak to your growth over the years. Letters can also come from the director of a fellowship program you may have been a part of, and a faculty member or job manager you have worked with on an academic or other project. A general rule of thumb is that you ask at least three faculty members to write these letters for you. The more seniority the person has the better. Even though the graduate programs you are applying to may only ask for 3 letters of recommendation, you might want to ask 4-5 total people to write one for you. Decide who might be best suited to send a letter to a particular school based on their academic background or relationship to the school.

If you’re taking at least a year off in between undergraduate and graduate school, in the spring semester of your senior year, approach professors you think could be able to provide you with letter. Tell them that you are planning to attend graduate school and talk to them about your academic interests. When you later send them a formal email requesting a letter, they can remember back to that conversation. In the email, ask them if they might be able to provide you with a strong letter of recommendation. Phrasing it in this way gives professors an out if they honestly feel they might not be able to write a strong letter.

A personal statement describes elements of your non-academic life that occured during college that you learned and grew from. These non-academic elements can be from a campus job, an internship, a student group you had a leadership role in or time you spent abroad. You should be able to tie back these experiences to your broader academic interests and pursuits but they say more about yourself beyond academics themselves. This statement should be shorter than your statement of purpose. Ask your professors to read over your statement and provide multiple rounds of feedback.

Typically, universities ask for an additional document, such as a curriculum vitae (CV) or a resume. CVs are documents that detail your education and achievements, including your degree, research interests, publications, conference presentations, awards, and honors. CVs can be two or more pages. A resume is a one page document that summarizes the skills and experiences you want to highlight for the particular opportunity you are applying to. The CareerLAB has Peer Advisors who hold open hours and are specifically trained to provide feedback on these two documents.

A writing sample is meant to provide the graduate admissions committee with a sense of your writing. This sample can be from a midterm or final paper you wrote, a chapter of your thesis, or a published piece of writing. Writing samples are typically 15-20 pages or 20-25 pages in length. Take time to think about your writing sample and potential papers you might revise or write in the future. Start revising early! If you want to revise a paper you wrote for a class, ask the professor who assigned you the paper to read it over and provide feedback. The Writing Center also employs graduate students who can provide helpful insights and feedback on your writing sample, personal statement, and statement of purpose. When you book an appointment, simply ask to be paired with a graduate student.

What’s the timeline for applying to graduate school?

Applying to graduate school can be a lengthy process. Before you begin, make sure to organize yourself by starting a Google folder or creating a physical binder that will house all the materials you will be preparing for your application. You can also start a Google Sheets document or print out a spreadsheet where you can keep track of which materials are required, which items you need to work on, and which items you have finished or submitted for each program.

Below is a timeline that can guide you through the process of applying to graduate school.

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There’s a lot to consider when making a decision to attend a particular graduate program. Visit this Graduate School Guide for more in-depth insights on applying to graduate school, including finding and choosing a graduate program, creating a strong application, and funding a graduate education.


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