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. Through hard work, good grades, a solid GRE score, stellar letters of recommendation, and countless grad school interviews, you won admission to a program. Prepare yourself for what's next including 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. You will also want to network and make professional contacts which will be essential to advancing in your field and getting a job after graduation. New grad students often 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 enjoy 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 like an 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. Graduate School Means Research

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, thinking about what you've read, and designing studies to test your ideas. Grad school, especially doctoral education, is often preparation for a career in research.

4. Doctoral Study Takes Time

A doctoral program is typically 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 their program in order to continue.

5. The Dissertation Determines Your Final Outcome

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. After you've finished, you'll prepare your dissertation defense: a presentation of your research to your dissertation committee where you'll answer questions and defend the validity of your work. If all goes well, you'll walk away with a new title and some special letters behind your name: Ph.D.