Month: June 2011

How Does Grad School Differ From Undergraduate Studies?

Too many students apply to graduate school without really understanding how it differs from undergraduate studies (even though they might think they actually have a good understanding). This lack of insight can be costly. It can foil an application to graduate school in many different ways, and it can keep deserving students from getting in, altogether. In today’s blog, I discuss some of the main differences between undergraduate and graduate school.

Admission requirements

Many students mistakenly believe that admission to graduate school depends mainly on surpassing some minimum grade-point requirement and getting high scores on standardized entrance exams. This idea makes a lot of sense – after all, good academic achievement is one of the main qualifications for admission to an undergraduate program at most colleges or universities. The truth is, however, that getting into any graduate school depends on a lot more than just indicators of academic ability.

Admission committees and graduate supervisors (the ones making the decisions about who gets in and who doesn’t) are looking at more than just your grades and standardized test scores. They are also looking at other indicators that you will be productive and successful once in grad school. Students who don’t know what things will be like in grad school often flounder during their first months because they are unable to adjust to a completely different set of conditions for learning, performance, and evaluation than what they are used to. Admission committees want to avoid this at all cost, and will try and determine whether you really have a clear idea of what graduate school is like and what your expectations are once you are accepted.


Many college students assume that graduate students take courses that are significantly more difficult than undergraduate courses. This is not generally true. The greatest difference between undergraduate and graduate-level courses in some disciplines is in the format of the class, and the types of knowledge that one acquires. At large colleges or universities in which even senior-level undergraduate class sizes typically exceed 30 students, nearly all classes will be based on lectures and textbooks, whereas in many graduate programs the classes are small and nearly all of them are seminars.

Along with coursework and class size, another fundamental difference between undergraduate and graduate school is the research thesis. Graduate students, especially at the doctoral level are required to contribute an original piece of research that adds to the existing knowledge in a particular area of interest. The research you undertake is supervised by at least one faculty member (the same is true for master’s programs in some fields). At the undergraduate level, you may have the opportunity to participate in some research, but the scope of the project tends to be limited and does not necessarily involve making a real contribution to the existing body of knowledge, as much as it is to help introduce you to research fundamentals and basic experimental design.

The nature of interpersonal relationships

One of the major differences between undergraduate and graduate school is the nature of the interpersonal and work relationships that students have with faculty members, university staff and with student peers. In graduate school, you will likely work closely with others over the course of several years. In many cases, your overall success in grad school will depend on how good you are at working with others and being part of a team.

As a graduate student, you will be highly visible much of the time, unlike most undergraduate students who may feel more or less anonymous among the crowd, without ever having significant contact with any of their professors. In graduate school, certain professors and other graduate students might get to know you rather well, and they will develop opinions about your personality and character based on the kinds of interactions they have with you. It is difficult to blend into the background when you are a graduate student, so the social environment of graduate school favors people who are fair and reasonable, and who get along with most other people in most situations. Keep in mind that admissions committees and graduate program faculty members want to fill their graduate programs with students who fit this bill.

For more information on differences between undergraduate and graduate school, check out this informative blog post:

Applying To Grad School? Are You Doing It For The Right Reasons

I thought I would write something for all the newbies to this blog and especially to those who are only still in those first few weeks of considering grad school and have come across this blog, somehow, to find out more about grad school and what’s involved in getting in.

Why do you want to go to graduate school?

It is a simple question, but one that deserves a lot of thought. I see too many students with poorly justified motivations for wanting to go to graduate school.

Regardless of whether or not you have an excellent GPA and outstanding standardized test scores, if you don’t have a clear reason for going to graduate school, you will probably not be able to convince anyone on the graduate selection committee or your potential graduate supervisor that you are the person they should choose for their program.

The purpose behind graduate studies in most fields is to turn promising students into skilled specialists who are well suited to a specific range of careers. Therefore, it is really important to consider whether an online Ph.D. degree or some other advanced degree will really help you achieve your long-term goals.

Many students expect that they will figure out what they want to do either during or after graduate school, but that’s really not the ideal way to approach it. You really need to work this out BEFORE  you apply to graduate school, because the success of your applications will depend partly on your ability to explain in your personal statement, cover letter and even pre-selection interviews, why a particular advanced degree is needed for your specific career aspirations.

Picking a graduate program that matches your objectives (career objectives or the type of training you want) determines how much success you have in getting into a graduate or professional program. Don’t underestimate the importance of this match.

Consider each potential graduate program and determine whether completing that program will actually help get you from point A (the here and now) to point B (eventual career). To be able to answer that, you had better figure out what you want. Read more on clarifying your expectations of graduate school before you begin.

If you do not have the least bit of an idea of what you want to do with your life, you may want to considering getting some career counselling or life coaching. Or, perhaps some reflection and a relevant book on the topic might be enough to draw up a reasonable career plan for yourself over the next 5 to 10 years.

Whatever you do to figure out your future career, do not just assume that graduate school is the obvious option or for that matter, the only option.

Also, check out this related article I wrote for on choosing the right graduate program.

Improve your Graduate School Prospects with Relevant Experience

Applying to graduate school is, in many respects, like applying for a job. Anyone who has ever applied for a job knows the importance of having relevant experience in the same or at least a similar kind of work. It is not impossible to get a job without previous experience — it’s just much harder to do so. All other things being equal, most jobs will go to applicants with experience. It can be like that when a graduate-admissions committee considers which applicants to accept into their programs, too… though not for all the same reasons.

Most students are generally aware that it can be helpful to get experience in research or fieldwork prior to applying to graduate school. But many underestimate just how important one’s experience can sometimes be when it comes to being accepted. For some programs, having the right experience is virtually a requirement!

To understand why, prospective graduate students should be aware that acceptance decisions are based primarily on risk management. There is usually an upper limit on the number of new students that can be accepted into a graduate program, and virtually all programs have more applicants than they can accept.  The goal of the admissions committee is to accept only applicants who are going to succeed in the program without running into any problems along the way. (Contrary to the way some people think it should be, selections are not based on who “deserves” it the most).

From the point of view of an admissions committee, the student who has sought out relevant work or volunteer experience has demonstrated the kind of initiative and interest in the field that is needed for success in graduate school. The applicant with experience is more likely to already be dedicated to a particular career path, and therefore, less likely to be discouraged by some of the challenges of graduate school.

From the point of view of a prospective graduate advisor, applicants with relevant experience have a lower risk of failure than the ‘inexperienced’ by virtue of having already shown they can do things that will be required in graduate school. This can include many things, for example, professional skills like writing, public speaking, creative expression, or critical analysis. The similarity to job-seeking is once again apparent — just as the main advantage to the employer is that the experienced job applicant will require less training than a naive one, thus saving the employer time and money, most prospective graduate advisors will evaluate new applicants in much the same way.  Students who have already demonstrated some aptitude will probably have a relatively easier time finishing, without causing any grief for the faculty members who supervise and mentor them. It’s all about risk management. Read this post about the Right and Wrong ways to find a volunteer position.

Getting relevant experience is also essential to lining up the best letters of recommendation for graduate school. This is especially true if that experience includes helping a professor with his or her research, because the most influential letters of recommendation usually come from academic people who know what they are talking about when they attest to a student’s suitability for graduate studies.

Stay tuned for our next blog post where I will discuss why not all experience is created equal.