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
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!