Category Archives: What is Graduate School?

What Should Grad School Types Do Over the Summer?

Summer is upon us. Long, lazy days at the pool, barbeques, beers, suntans…. Um, no, not if you’re a graduate student or planning to be one. No, for you, young gra-(duate student)-sshopper, summer is for work.

Not for you.

What kind of work, you ask? That’s a good question. And there are several possible answers. Here are some, in no particular order:

Plan 1: Enroll in summer classes and get some credits out of the way.
Plan 2: Enroll in summer research/independent study credits and work on an independent research/writing project.
Plan 3: Work to save money for graduate school.
Plan 4: Get into an internship or summer research program off campus that provides hands-on training in a related field.

All of these are excellent options, and everyone will have a different set of personal circumstances (budget, family obligations, etc.) that will influence their choices.

But overall, Plan 1 may be relatively short term thinking, in terms of preparation for getting into and out of the best graduate school programs with the best funding package. To achieve that, you need to stand out with independent research experience and ideally, a published paper to your name. Plans 2 and 4 are your best bet to achieve that.

Similarly, Plan 3 is a commendable and responsible choice, and it is never wrong to save money. But by the same token, if you focus your energies on Plans 2 or 4, it MAY transpire that your graduate school years are completely funded by generous fellowships, leading ultimately to an excellent full-time job.

When I advise students, one of the primary points I try to drive home is that you should always EXPECT and AIM FOR and do everything possible to PREPARE FOR an abundantly-funded graduate school experience.

In other words, do NOT start out expecting and planning to painstakingly scrape through graduate school with a punishing cycle of part time work and loans.

This initial mindset may play a large role in which of the four summer plans above that you choose. While a summer job can definitely help you put a little money away, that money will not go far in covering graduate school expenses. A summer internship or research project, while possibly costing more up front, may well make you competitive for a top-tier funding package at your ideal graduate program.

None of these outcomes is guaranteed of course! There is always risk in every choice. But with careful advising, especially consulting with potential advisors and directors of graduate study at the programs you most want to enter, you can gather the information to make the best informed choice.


How is Graduate School Different from Undergraduate?

Undergraduate students considering graduate school are often confused about what exactly graduate school IS.

That is understandable. Graduate school is kind of mysterious, and if you haven’t had family and friends who have gone through it, it’s very difficult to discern from the outside what makes it different from undergraduate study.

In a nutshell, graduate school is advanced schooling that allows you to *specialize* in a particular field. Where undergraduate study is generally meant to be broad, graduate school is narrower and deeper. The Masters degree is somewhat specialized, and the Ph.D. degree is highly specialized.

In practice, in terms of what you actually DO once you enter a graduate program, the primary difference is where the main initiative for learning rests.

In undergraduate study, initiative substantially rests with the professor, department, and university.

The professor conceptualizes, creates and teaches the course. The department creates the major. The university sets the distribution requirements.

The student fulfills these pre-determined expectations, and gets credit toward a degree. While the student definitely brings dedication and hard work, the work is mainly fulfilling expectations set by others.

In graduate school, by contrast, the initiave for learning rests with the student above all. You are the engine of progress, and responsibility for conceptualizing goals, charting a course to meet those goals, and staying on track toward those goals, rests squarely on your shoulders.

Professors *advise* but they rarely direct your study.

Coursework itself plays a diminishing role after the first year, and more and more you’re expected to do independent research that you conceptualize and execute on your own.

Even in your classes, the interpretations, evaluations, questions, debates are initiated by the students. The onus is on you to:

read in depth
develop a critical analysis of the reading
SPEAK UP
ask questions
develop scholarly opinions
learn to support your own positions.

And on a larger career scale, in terms of what job you get after finishing, the onus is on you to observe trends in the field, to find and pursue conference opportunities, educate themselves about hiring, and to get yourself to departmental events, particularly job talks.

The advisor’s role is typically more reactive than active.

Too many new graduate students don’t understand this difference and waste valuable years floundering around waiting for some professor to tell them what to do and how to do it.

Remember, once you’re in graduate school YOU are the master of your fate! Take the reins and run!