The Grad School Guide
Masters or PhD?
Before you start your main dive into the process, understand the differences between the two, as well as where your values and priorities lie. You have three main options when looking at grad school programs: Professional Masters, Research Masters, or PhD (doctor of philosophy)
Each path has it's specific focus. If you want a more professional focused program, a professional masters is probably best. Professional masters provide the opportunity to learn and practice skills focused on a particular profession. An example of this is an MBA (masters of business) or a law degree. If you are interested in a career in research, a research masters or PhD is probably a better choice. Now your decision relies on a few different factors such as time, finances, and values. A masters, on average, is two years, whereas a PhD takes anywhere from five to seven years. Time is extremely important, and so choosing your path becomes a conversation regarding opportunity cost.
- The Run Down. Opportunity Cost refers to "the loss of potential gain from other alternatives when one alternative is chosen." (CITE) So, you have to weigh the pros and cons of a two year versus five year program. Everyone is at different paces in life, and so the cost may be more or less depending on a variety of personal factors.
A Research Masters takes on average two years. This is a research focused degree, and so you will be required to write a thesis or something similar to complete the degree. If you're looking to gain expertise in a more focused area and possibly gain teaching experience, this is the path for you.
This just leaves getting a PhD. This is the most time-intensive path, but it may also be the cheapest. PhD's take an average of five to seven years, with the first two years (usually) being focused on taking classes rather than research. It is possible to go right from undergrad to your PhD (which is what I did), and the first two years usually constitute obtaining your Masters degree anyway.
- Life Hack. If you are looking to do a research masters, try applying to some PhD programs as well. Most PhD programs will let you "master out", meaning you can leave after two years with a Masters degree. This is essentially a way to get your Masters funded and tuition covered.
Finding The Right Fit
Finding the right fit is the most important aspect of the grad school process. This means it also takes time, and you should start looking at schools six months prior to applying. This lands you right around June. I know, talk about starting early!
- Life Hack. Although starting in June may seem intense or way too early, starting then allows you to focus your Summer on the application process, rather than spreading yourself too thin during the school year.
The question you may be asking yourself is, "How do I even start?" Looking for grad programs is quite the white whale. That's why Get Grad Schooled is here to help. Feel free to peruse the Programs page to help look for programs that meet your needs and wants. Feel free to use whatever resources you find necessary and helpful, not just GGS. When you start looking for programs, try to aim for a list of 15-20 schools. You don't need to apply to all of them, but have a list on hand that you can break down into a smaller and smaller list as time goes on. At minimum, you should be applying to two schools. At maximum, apply to however many your heart desires and your wallet requires.
- Life Hack. I definitely recommend applying to your undergraduate institution for graduate school (if it offers your desired program) as you could already have connections and many schools offer smooth transitions from undergrad to grad school
When looking for potential grad schools, first ask yourself "What are my priorities? What are my values?" Location may be a larger factor for some rather than others. Price as well may play a role. Whether you want hands-on experience, or even specific skills or knowledge can affect your choice of grad school. Try to make a list of priorities, and find schools that match or support those same priorities or values. Try to talk with mentors as well. If you are involved in undergraduate research, talk with your research mentor(s) and graduate student group members. These individuals, and specifically any professor you had a professional relationship with, are potential references.
If you're able to get in contact with graduate students who are currently enrolled in the school or program you're looking at applying to, try asking them what an average day looks like for them. This can be extremely beneficial in understanding what you can expect and what is expected of you. Try to reach out to the admissions of the schools or programs of interest as well. They can be a wealth of information, and may even give you average test standardized test scores or more information on applying to programs of interest.
- The Run Down. Be aware that some schools require you to apply directly to the program of interest rather than to the graduate school as a whole. For example, I had to apply directly to the chemistry department for certain schools instead of applying to the school generally speaking. This means there might be a different application process from what is posted on the website.
How Do I Know if I Can Get In?
Ah, the age old question. The answer is not so simple. When I was applying to undergrad, I had a plethora of different options that helped me understand which schools I would be able to get into and which were more out of my reach. Grad school is not that simple. The best resource that I have found is The Grad Cafe. Be aware that this resource is only as good as the people who contribute to it, and so it only provides part of a larger picture. Use this as a good starting point, but don't take the results you see as an ultimatum, or that you will face similar results. There are so many parts that go into a graduate school application, it is not determined solely by test scores, grades, or anything else but instead taken as a whole.
References and Research Experience
References, or Letters of Recommendation, are important both for getting jobs and getting grad schooled. Try to ask professors with whom you have a close relationship to (such as research professors if you are involved in research), research mentors, bosses from internships or on-campus jobs, or anyone else who could speak on your character and work ethic. Personally, I had two research professors and my boss from my on-campus job write my letters of recommendation for me.
Research Experience is not required for all programs, but it is an unofficial requirement for PhD programs. Often, you may even be asked to submit a research experience document separate from your statement of purporse. As for a research masters, they are much more flexible with research experience and may not require a written document on research experience.
- The Run Down. Most individuals graduate their research masters then go on to their PhD, but this is not always a necessary step. Because of this, a research masters is more flexible when looking at research experience.
Lastly, a professional masters does not require research experience. Of course, the more experience the merrier, but remember the focus on the program is professional development and gaining skills for industry rather than research focused.
Writing Your Statement of Purpose
Try to spend a decent amount of time on your statement of purpose. This is a great opportunity to shine in the eyes of whoever is reading it. A statement of purpose is usually between 500 - 1,000 words, which for some can be very hard to write concisely within the word count. Plan on making at least a few drafts, and plan on personalizing your statement of purpose to each school you are applying to. Start by writing down main ideas, the meat and potatoes if you will, then start filling in the blanks. Each school will have a different word count, so make sure you are able to get your message across regardless of the word count presented. Usually schools will ask for a statement of purpose but will not specify any themes or questions to be answered by your statement of purpose. Therefore, you have a decent amount of freedom to write about whatever you want to. Here are some ideas to help get your thoughts flowing:
- And arguably the most important question,
You also want to make sure you have an attention grabbing hook. I talked about how the TV show Mythbusters inspired my love of research and experimentation. Present an idea of yourself which you feel is honest. It's okay to put some personality into your statement of purpose, especially since it's the only opportunity you'll get to in your application! Lastly, make sure you proofread and edit your statement of purpose. Try having a friend or mentor edit your statement of purpose for you, or even reading it out loud can help. Whew, I said Statement of Purpose a LOT!
Writing your resume for graduate school is a bit different compared to writing one for a job. When writing for grad school, try to focus on your academic backgroud as well as any relevant internships. This means putting your education towards the top of you resume, and any work experiences at the bottom, if you want to include any.
- The Run Down. If you have very limited or no work experience, no worries! Graduate schools are more interested in your academics than if you worked in an unrelated field. Try focusing on your class history, relevant projects, and more academic-oriented categories.
Some sections or information to consider including are:
When applying to PhD or research masters programs, be sure to include a section regarding relevant research experiences! For professional masters try to focus more on internships and job experiences. Regardless of what progam you are applying to, feel free to include any clubs or organizations you were apart of, and indicate any possible leaderhsip positions or opportunities, from clubs to greek life to awards. Even write about any projects you did in your undergraduate career, where you feel relevant. Maybe you had to write a research paper as a final, or did a presentation. Don't discount the things you have done, as you may find yourself with ample examples to put on your resume. For more resume help, click here for a resource by Harvard University that discusses important topics such as action verbs, templates, and more.
Standardized tests are a mixed bag. Some schools will require them, some won't, some programs put more emphasis on standardized tests, and others don't. Many programs have either the option or the requirement to take the GRE. Check with your schools to see if it is required.
- Life Hack. Many schools have made their standardized test requirements optional due to COVID. Check with the schools you're applying to to see if they still require test scores. Not only that, but you now have the option to take the GRE at home, which makes the test more accessible.
Business programs will often ask for your GRE scores, and law programs will ask for LSAT scores. Regardless of which you have to take, make sure you budget at least $200 to take one exam one time. If you decide to take a standardized test, plan on taking it at the end of Summer, right before the Fall semester. This will give you ample time to retake the test or send out test scores.
- The Run Down. Standardized tests are EXPENSIVE. Spend the Summer before you take the exam to study, that way you don't spread yourself too thin. Also note it may cost money to send your exam results to schools, so make sure to budget extra for this.