What is Grad School Like?

Take Your College Education to the Next Level

Graduate Student
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You planned ahead and sought experiences to construct a solid graduate school application. You worked hard, got good grades, studied your brains out for the GRE, finagled recommendation letters, sweated through grad school interviews, and won admission to a  program. Congratulations! Your work isn't done, though. Prepare yourself for several years of intense research, studying and professional growth. What is grad school really like? Here are five things to expect as a graduate student. 

1.  Successful Graduate Students are Autonomous

Graduate school is less structured than college. It requires independent thinking and the initiative to figure things out on your own. You may have to choose your own advisor. It will be up to you, with a little guidance, to carve out an area of research and find a thesis or dissertation topic, as well as 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. For success in graduate school, be prepared to take control of your own education.

2.  Graduate School is Not Like Undergrad

Doctoral and master's programs are nothing like college. If you're considering graduate school because you're doing well in college and like school, be aware that grad school will likely be very different than the last 16 or more years of school you've experienced.  Graduate study, especially at the doctoral level, is apprenticeship. Instead of sitting in class for a couple of hours a day and then being free, 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.

3.  Research Rules in Graduate School

While college centered around classes, graduate school centers around research. Yes, you'll take courses, but the purpose of doctoral education is to learn to conduct research. The emphasis is on learning how to gather information and construct knowledge independently. 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. Grad school, especially doctoral education, is preparation for a career in research.

4.  Don't Expect to Finish Quickly: Doctoral Study Takes Time

Typically a doctoral program is a five- to eight-year commitment. Usually, the first year is the most structured year with classes and lots of reading. Most students are required to pass a set of comprehensive exams at various points in the program in order to continue.

5.  The Dissertation Determines Your Fate

The doctoral dissertation is the basis for earning a Ph.D. 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 five faculty members that you and your advisor have chosen based on their knowledge of the field), you're free to begin your research study. You'll plug away for months or often years until you've conducted your research, made some conclusions, and written it all up. Then comes your dissertation defense: you'll present your research to your dissertation committee, answer questions and defend 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.