4 Things I Wish I Knew When Applying to Graduate School

While the path to college is pretty well defined, the path to graduate school is…less so. I decided that I wanted to attend William & Mary when I was about 5 years old, but when it came time to decide where (and if!) to go to grad school, I was absolutely lost.

That’s because the decision to continue to an advanced degree is a BIG one. It’s one that shouldn’t be taken lightly—you are likely giving up potential income in the work force, moving to a new city, and maybe even taking on debt (although you don’t have to—see below). It can be difficult to find someone to talk you through it, especially if you’re diving into a field that is different from those of your family and peers.

Well fellow members of the Tribe, I am here to help! I have been through the graduate school search process twice, once for my Masters and once for my PhD, and there is plenty I learned along the way. Just to qualify: everyone’s experience is different, so it’s best to talk to as many folks as you can. Also, I am in the sciences (MS in Ecology, and PhD in Biology), which is a different landscape than a graduate degree in, say, business. But here are five things I wish I knew when applying to graduate school:

You can (and should!) get paid

This primarily applies to research-based degrees, which means you have to both take classes AND produce a thesis or dissertation of original work. In contrast, a non-research degree, like an MBA is primarily based on classes. You can get paid in a research-based degree! During both my MS and PhD, I get a tuition waiver (meaning I don’t have to pay tuition), health care, AND a stipend. In exchange, I teach 1-2 classes a semester as a teaching assistant (think of your chem lab TAs or discussion group leaders). Now, the stipend isn’t glamorous by any means, but it means I am making at least some money during my degree. Some students are funded by graduate assistantships, too, meaning they make money with research and other services instead of teaching. When interviewing, don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions about funding and scholarships!

The author on graduation day with her MS

Grad school isn’t easy, but it’s worth it!

You don’t have to know exactly what you want to study

No one expects you to come into graduate school with a fully fleshed-out research question. In fact, being interested in a lot of things and feeling flexible about your question can be a great thing! You should have a general idea of what you want to study, so you can tell if you’ll be a good fit for the lab. For example, “I want to study oysters” or “I want to study how we manage fisheries” is better than “I want to study the ocean” (the ocean is a very big topic, friends). Most likely, you’ll spend the first year or so of your degree reading and toying around with different ideas until you find the best fit for your interests and resources.

You should put yourself out there

If you are pursuing a research-based degree, you need an advisor. That means someone who is willing to “take you on” as a student and help you graduate. Many, many programs will not accept you unless you already have an advisor! The first time I applied for Masters programs, I did not know this. I just applied like I applied for undergrad (I did not get in, surprise).

A year to eight months before you want to start your degree, email potential advisors and introduce yourself. If they have space in their labs, they might invite you to interview over Skype or in person. Fair warning: you might get a lot of rejections, or even never hear back from folks. I only heard back from about 25% of the folks I emailed for my PhD. I then interviewed with about five potential labs before finding the right fit.

Make sure to ask lots of questions

Again, graduate school is a big commitment. You are looking at two to six years of your life! Gather all the information you can from your potential advisor and their current students. Learn about his or her mentoring style – are they hands-on and provide lots of feedback? Or are they more hands-off and expect you to work independently? Is there funding available to support research costs? How long does it take students to finish their degrees, on average? Do you like the city/town? The more you know, the more confident you will be that you’re making the right choice. Remember, it’s OK to make your decision on a lot of factors, including the research (of course), but also your potential happiness.

At the end of the day, the search is different for everyone. We all have different reasons we go to graduate school, and therefore have different needs from programs! But the more you know, (hopefully) the easier the process will be before you find your perfect fit.

Categories: Alumni Blogs, Careers, Research Tags: , , ,
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