Applying to Graduate Programs in the Arts & Sciences
What is Graduate School?
Graduate school offers the opportunity for bright, motivated, and diligent students to pursue a specialized course of study in the humanities, sciences, and social sciences. Graduate work consists of highly-focused, concentrated study as well as conducting intensive research. The goal of graduate work, particularly at the doctoral level, is to contribute a piece of original research to the existing body of knowledge in one’s field. Many who pursue graduate degrees intend to work in academia as professors or researchers.
If you would like further information on pursuing a graduate degree in the arts or sciences, contact Dr. William Gould, Assistant Dean for Juniors (Keating 302, email@example.com, 718-817-4740).
How is graduate school different from professional programs?
Professional programs offer academic and professional preparation for a particular profession (e.g., Law, Social Work, Medicine, etc.). Graduate schools in the arts and sciences, on the other hand, offer academic degrees in particular disciplines, the goal of which is to prepare students to pursue careers in research or academia.
- If you would like further information on pursuing a health-related profession, contact Dr. Donna Heald, Associate Dean for Science Education and Director of Pre-Health Professions Advising (Keating 321, firstname.lastname@example.org, 718-817-4610).
- If you would like further information on pursuing a law-related profession, contact Ms. Erin Burke, Assistant Dean for Transfer Students and Director of Pre-Law Advising (Keating 207, email@example.com, 718-817-4712).
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Why Go to Graduate School
Is graduate school right for me?
The pursuit of a graduate degree necessarily entails a commitment to research. As a graduate student, the bulk of your time will be spent learning how to conduct different types of research; as a professor or researcher, you will be required to conduct intensive research as part of your professional obligations. If you enjoy conducting research, then the pursuit of a graduate degree is probably for you. If not, then you should seriously reconsider your motivation for attending graduate school.
The pursuit of a graduate degree also requires a significant commitment of time on your part. You will be in school for a number of years – a master’s degree typically takes 2 years to complete, and a doctorate can take anywhere from 5 to 8 years. During this time, your social life will most likely revolve around other people in your graduate program, you will have very little free time, and you will have very little extra money. All of your energies and life decisions will be structured by your role as a graduate student. Thus, you need to ask yourself: Do you need an advanced degree to attain your career goals? Do you need an advanced degree now? Can you afford to go to graduate school full time? Have you met the necessary academic prerequisites to pursue your desired course of study? If you have answered these questions in the affirmative, then you have probably made the correct decision to pursue a graduate degree.
For additional advice, you might read Phil Agre’s Advice for Undergraduates Considering Graduate School.
Should I pursue a masters or doctoral degree?
You should pursue a masters degree if you are uncertain about your career path, as a first step if you are changing fields, in preparation for a terminal degree, or as a means of advancing in your current field.
You should pursue a doctoral degree if you are certain that you intend to pursue a career in university-level teaching and/or advanced research. Be aware, however, that if you do not have a strong academic background, you may need to pursue a master’s degree first in order to prove that you are capable of doctoral-level work.
For further advice, you might read Questions to Ask When Thinking About Pursuing a Ph.D., in addition to perusing the results of the Survey on Doctoral Education and Career Preparation.
Additionally, the following books are also good resources:
- Goldsmith, John A., John Komlos, and Penny Schine Gold. 2001. Chicago Guide to Your Academic Career: A Portable Mentor for Scholars from Graduate School through Tenure. University of Chicago.
- Peters, Robert L. 1997. Getting What You Came For: The Smart Student’s Guide to Earning a Master’s or a Ph.D. Farrar, Straus, and Giroux.
When should I go to graduate school?
You should seriously consider going to graduate school directly after completing your undergraduate degree if you plan on entering a field that requires an advanced degree in order to obtain an entry-level position.
If, however, you plan to enter a field that values work experience as well as an advanced degree, then you should consider taking some time off after completing your undergraduate degree before applying to graduate school. In many instances, employers will want you to have some initial work experience, so make certain that you ask your major professors and others in your field to determine how and when they recommend furthering your education. Also, take into consideration how you intend to pay for graduate school. Some industries will pay or help defray the costs of graduate education for their employees. If this is the case in your intended field, then it might benefit you to take some time off of school and work for a few years before pursuing a graduate degree.
You should also consider taking some time off after completing your undergraduate degree if you feel burnt out after college or if you are unsure of your career goals. In this case, it may be best to take some time and reflect on your goals before making such a significant commitment.
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Preparing for Graduate School
If you think you might be interested in pursuing a graduate degree, then there are several steps you can take while an undergraduate to make yourself a stronger candidate.
Work ethic and study habits
Perhaps the most important step to take while an undergraduate to prepare for graduate school is to focus on developing good study habits, time management, and organizational skills. While graduate schools will give you the tools to conduct research and develop a research agenda, you are unlikely to be able to see any of your projects through successfully unless you have developed the necessary work habits. On a basic level, this means being responsible to those working with you – showing up on time to meetings, meeting deadlines, and being careful and thoughtful in your work. On another level, however, it also means deciding on a system to collect and organize information in a manner that is efficient, effective, and reflects your preferred means of working. Give some serious thought to how you learn and communicate with others and take steps to clarify these processes for yourself so that when you arrive at graduate school, you already have a system in place for managing you, your time, and your research.
Information on scholarly organization can be found from a variety of sources. You might find the following books helpful:
- Allen, David. 2002. Getting Things Done: The Art of Stress-Free Productivity. Penguin.
- Covey, Stephen R. 2004. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. Free Press.
As the pursuit of a graduate degree necessitates a commitment to research, becoming involved in research while an undergraduate can help you 1) decide whether graduate school is indeed right for you; 2) narrow your research interests; 3) begin to learn about professional opportunities that are available to those conducting intensive research; and 4) establish working relationships with other researchers. If you think you might be interested in pursing a graduate degree, you ought to consult with your major advisor and/or major professors to see what opportunities might be available.
Independent Study and Tutorials
Taking a tutorial (or independent study) as part of your undergraduate experience can be beneficial. Generally, tutorials take one of two forms – either you work on your own independent research project or you work in conjunction with a professor on his or her research project. Either way, such experience can provide you with skills and specialized knowledge you normally would not obtain through your regular classes. In addition, tutorials can also be a vehicle through which you produce a writing sample, narrow your interests, or develop a project upon which to base fellowship and grant applications.
Professional associations are a great resource for students considering graduate study and fellowships because they serve as a hub for information. Such information can include: fellowship and grant competitions, job openings, conference announcements, publication opportunities, etc. While you do not need to become a member of a professional association, memberships for students are relatively inexpensive and often provide a variety of benefits. For further information about the professional associations that serve your academic discipline, consult with your major advisor and/or major professors.
Conferences and Publishing
Attending conferences and attempting to publish in a peer-reviewed venue are significant ways that you can demonstrate to selection committees that you are a diligent and committed scholar. If you are interested in either of these options, you should seriously consider enrolling in a tutorial and discuss this possibility with your major advisor.
Research the Requirements
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, if you are considering applying for graduate school, you need to be aware of the minimum academic prerequisites for entrance into the programs. Begin by researching some of the programs at schools or in geographic locations you might be interested in attending. Evaluate whether you have met the minimum course requirement, minimum GPA requirement, and whether you are prepared or can be prepared to take the required standardized test(s) for admission. If not, you may need to consider taking the necessary (graduate or undergraduate) courses as a non-matriculated student in order to bolster your academic background as well as to prove that you are capable of succeeding in the discipline.
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Choosing a Department
Often, the most valuable sources of advice regarding graduate programs are professors, staff, and graduate students in those programs. Make certain to get recommendations from the appropriate people, but also make certain to weigh their advice against your own interests.
Assessing What You Want
Attending graduate school is a big decision, and chances are that you will be there for a significant number of years. Thus, it is important that you take into account scholarly and professional considerations as well as lifestyle factors when narrowing your list of potential graduate schools to apply to. As you begin to research graduate programs, be aware of what you want, and perhaps more importantly, of what you do not want. As you start to research programs, some of the factors that you should be taking into account are: your career goals, admission requirements, financial aid packages, and geographic location.
The Importance of Rankings
As you begin to research graduate programs, do so with an open mind. Know that when it comes to graduate school, a good university may not house an equally good graduate program. You may find that the best program in your field is located within a less prestigious university.
Graduate program rankings are perhaps most important for those seeking a career in academia. Those students who graduate from the top programs often have more career opportunities than those who graduate from lower-ranked schools. This fact becomes even more salient when taking into account competition in your discipline. If a response to a job posting regularly exceeds more than one hundred applications and it is well-known among those in the discipline that there is an excess of Ph.D.s on the job market, then it becomes even more important that you attend the best graduate program that you can get into to help ensure yourchances of gainful employment upon graduation.
Most graduate programs offer some type of financial package to their students. Financial aid in the form of tuition waivers/reimbursement, stipends for teaching/research, and university-supported fellowships are more common in Ph.D. programs than M.A. programs. Generally, it is possible for strong students to obtain a graduate degree without having to pay tuition or take out loans. Students who need or expect this level of support ought to check with the programs in which they are interested in order to ascertain the level of support offered by the university.
The Importance of Research
Also, you ought to consider the type of training you hope to receive, as it is this training that will best prepare you for obtaining the position you want following graduation. In general, you should consider: the rank of the department, the area of specialization that you are interested in, and potential faculty with whom you might want to work/collaborate. You should know that different programs are known for different areas; a good graduate school or good graduate program may not be “known” for its work in a certain field.
You should also look into alumni placement – what kinds of jobs do graduates of that program obtain? If those positions look like positions that you would like to compete for, then the graduate program is probably a good fit. If you are disappointed or apprehensive about the job placements, then you probably ought to consider other graduate programs.
Campus Visits and Interviews
As you begin to narrow your list of potential schools to which you might want to apply, you should consider visiting the school and scheduling informal meetings or interviews with some of the faculty and graduate students. Campus visits and interviews can help you decide whether the area is one in which you would like to live, and whether the people in the department are those you would like to work with. It can also provide the selection committee with more information about you and your potential fit with the department.
Keep in mind, though, that not all departments are receptive to campus visits prior to when admissions decisions are made, so your best strategy may be to forgo the “college tour” model and visit only one or two programs about which you feel very strongly. On the other hand, once admissions decisions have been made, many schools encourage campus visits and interviews, although generally, neither are required.
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Preparing an Application
The graduate school application process can be a daunting one. It can also be expensive, both in terms of time and money. If you are well-prepared and start early however (see, for example, the Application Timeline and Checklist), it can be accomplished with few headaches. Here are a few things you ought to be aware of:
The Graduate Record Exam (GRE)
Most graduate programs and fellowships require the applicant to take the Graduate Record Exam (GRE), a standardized test similar to the SAT.
These scores are particularly important since, for better or worse, they are the first factor selection committees take into account when “weeding out” applicants. They also happen to be the best predictor of how well a student will fare in graduate school. So, start preparing early. Take a class. Take practice exams. And study.
For further information about the GRE, visit the ETS website.
All graduate programs and fellowships require letters of reference. Graduate programs usually require two to three letters of recommendation. The letters should be written by professors, and you should have at least one from a professor in your major. If you are changing fields, it is imperative that you also have a letter from someone who is teaching in that department. It is wise to start thinking early about which professors to ask to write these letters. When thinking about whom to ask as a reference, consider how well the professor you have in mind knows you. If you took only one class with him or her, he/she probably will not be able to speak about your abilities and experience very well. On the other hand, you ought to be strategic; a professor with whom you took an elective course for one semester may not have much to say about your ability to write and conduct research.
When approaching a potential reference, you should do so early. Many professors and other references are very busy; giving them ample time to reflect on your application and write your letter will yield a more compelling letter than one that is done hastily. You should also be considerate and bring with you a package that contains the following:
- Personal statement
- Unofficial transcript
- Current resume
These are items that will help your reference flesh out your letter. Also include the following information in a memo (if providing hard copies) or in the body of the email message to your professors (if providing e-copies):
- The purpose of the letter – admission, fellowship, or employment
- Who the audience will be (other academics, prospective employers, etc.)
- Deadlines for each letter
- Any additional paperwork they might need (to sign)
- Statement or any relevant information that they might need to know in order to write you a supportive letter
The Personal Statement
All graduate programs and fellowships will require you to write a personal statement and provide some record of your experiences and skills (usually a resume). Personal statements can vary, but generally they want to know why you want to pursue a graduate degree, why you want to pursue a graduate degree at their institution, and what it is that you are interested in and how your interests fit in with their program. It is best to get feedback on drafts of your personal statement and resume early on; your major advisor or other professor can provide you with models to peruse.
The Writing Sample
Most graduate programs and fellowships require a writing sample. The writing sample is a means by which the selection committee attempts to gauge your interests, your level of preparation in terms of research, and your writing ability. So, be strategic. If you have a term paper that was well-received in one of your classes, work on revising it early. If you do not have an adequate writing sample, consider taking an independent study or course that requires a term paper by your first semester of your senior year. Most importantly, make sure you have your major advisor or another trusted professor read over the work that you intend to submit at the beginning of the fall semester so that you have ample time to make revisions, if necessary.
You will need to submit an official transcript with each graduate school application. If you have attended more than one post-secondary institution, you will need to contact the registrar of that school and make arrangements to have a copy of that transcript forwarded to your prospective schools.
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Financing Graduate School
Most Ph.D. programs will provide some type of financial support for their students. However, this support is not always guaranteed for the duration of your participation in the program, and sometimes it is competitive – that is, based on how well you perform as compared to your peers. Thus, it is prudent to seek out alternative forms of financial support. Having external sources of support can also help broaden your options – if you get into a “good school” but are not offered support, you will still be able to attend without taking out loans or getting an outside job. Also, programs will sometimes not admit applicants if they do not have enough funding; having your own funding may tip the scales in your favor.
There are different types of fellowships/scholarships/grants. There are those that support you, the applicant, and those that support your research. Generally, in the beginning stages of your graduate career, the types of funding that will be available to you will be the former. Thus, they will be looking at your skills, your preparedness, your GPA, and your GRE scores. At the same time, they will want to know that you have a specialized area of interest or project in mind, which you will convey in the form of a proposal. Thus, it is in your best interest to work on such a proposal early. This could be a pared-down version of a writing sample, or an extension of your personal statement.
A diligent student will seek advice early on about external funding from both the Office of Prestigious Fellowships and his or her major advisor. Note also that deadlines for fellowships often fall much earlier than the deadlines for graduate school admission, so it is prudent to start formulating your proposals the summer before your senior year. If you are interested in applying for external funding, note that your major advisors and other professors may have copies of “successful” applications for you to peruse. Note, too, that funding agencies also sometimes provide models to potential applicants.
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M.A. (Master of Arts) degree: A postgraduate academic degree awarded in a specific branch of the humanities or social sciences.
M.S. (Master of Science) degree: A postgraduate academic degree awarded in a specific branch of the sciences or social sciences.
M.B.A. (Master of Business Administration) degree: A postgraduate professional degree awarded for studies in areas related to business administration.
M.Ed. (Master of Education) degree: A postgraduate professional degree awarded for studies in areas related to education.
M.F.A. (Master of Fine Arts) degree: A postgraduate degree awarded for studies in areas related to the arts. Typically considered a terminal degree.
M.P.A. (Master of Public Administration) degree: A postgraduate professional degree awarded for studies in areas related to public affairs/public policy.
M.P.H. (Master of Public Health) degree: A postgraduate professional degree awarded for studies in areas related to public health.
M.S.W. (Master of Social Work) degree: A postgraduate professional degree awarded for studies in areas related to clinical and community social work.
J.D. (Juris Doctor) degree: A postgraduate professional terminal degree awarded for studies in areas related to law.
M.D. (Doctor of Medicine) degree: A postgraduate professional terminal degree awarded for studies in areas related to medicine.
D.Ed. (Doctor of Education) degree: A postgraduate professional terminal degree awarded for studies in areas related to education.
Ph.D. (Doctor of Philosophy) degree: A postgraduate academic terminal degree awarded for studies in areas of the humanities, sciences, and social sciences.
Thesis: A document that presents the author’s research and research findings. Submitted in support of candidacy for an advanced degree.
Dissertation: A document that presents the author’s original research and research findings. Submitted in support of candidacy for a terminal degree.
Fellowship: Typically awarded to an individual student for the purpose of furthering his or her research; usually provides stipend to cover tuition and living expenses.
Scholarship: Typically awarded to an individual student for the purpose of furthering his or her education.
Grant: Typically awarded to an individual student in small amounts to fund or partially fund a specific research project.
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