Graduate school often separates students from scholars and requires much more planning and resilience than many believe. (Courtesy photo)
Graduate school often separates students from scholars and requires much more planning and resilience than many believe. (Courtesy photo)

Matriculation from an undergraduate to graduate education requires serious thought. It is not for everyone. The aim of this article is not to scare potential graduate students, but to ensure readers prepare for the journey beyond the Bachelors. Some professional degrees require up to twelve years of coursework, research, dissertation (book) writing, both oral and written comprehensive examinations, and residencies – before completion. Choosing wisely saves time, energy and tears, and sets up the well-prepared for an exceptional world of advanced learning.

Is a graduate degree necessary? Do not enter graduate school as a means to “command a higher wage.” This is not totally accurate. Practical experience may be more vital to career advancement than education.

Do I possess all the admission requirements? Each school may have different requirements. For example, some schools require applicants secure a mentor before applying to the graduate program.

What’s the timeline for admissions? Graduate applications are simple but require a lot of time and documents from different sources.

Do I like research or the process of discovery? The vast majority of graduate programs involve research. For these programs, completing a research project is a large percentage of the requirements necessary to obtain the degree.

Have you identified a field of interest? Grad school is not the time for academic exploration. The topic area chosen should keep your interest and be researchable.

Still Considering Graduate School? Here are some additional tips and reflections from post-graduate students.

How to choose a school Undergrads considering graduate school should apply for programs based on the professors’ reputations, rather than the schools. Many people know the names of Ivy League schools, but professionals are identified by their mentors. The best person in a particular field may not be at a prestigious school.

Picking the right principal investigator (mentor) Choosing the right mentor is not about the short-term gain of a right fit for you. The best mentor may not make you feel good. Choosing a mentor is about the long-term access your mentor provides. Mentors are a tool. Carmen Lopez dropped out of her doctoral program and now conducts research for a major pharmaceutical company. She warned the next generation to learn from her mistake. Lopez conducted lab interviews of various mentors and lab members. She asked about the support provided, lab culture, mentor’s management style, and how long it took graduate students to graduate on average. “While these questions were good, I did not heed the advice of the lab members concerning the advisor. I regret choosing my mentor for several reasons, including my mentor’s inability to help with job placement,” Lopez said.

Research Look for a lab to join that aligns with your research interests as soon as you start the program. The longer it takes to find a lab to conduct research, the longer it will take to graduate. Dr. Gray Williams holds a doctorate degree in environmental microbiology and currently teaches introductory undergraduate science courses. She remembered a statement from her graduate advisor that graduate students’ research must add to the current information known about their chosen subject area. Thus, research what information is already known in that field of study before wasting time on a project that cannot be utilized towards graduating. “Since written communications about your research are requirements for graduation, publish early,” Lopez added.

As a side note, Williams urged future grad students to recall that everyone’s project progresses at a different pace. So, don’t compare your works to someone else.

Teaching Style Many undergraduate professors talk to students through PowerPoint lectures that assist with the connection between different concepts. If students do not read required material for class, it would not necessarily hamper their ability to participate in any in-class assignments. Graduate school, however, consists of self-policing. The class structure is not about lecturing over material that should have been read. Rather, classes are discussion-based. The weight of the discussion is how the answer was derived and not the answer itself. All assigned reading materials are critical in graduate school. While reading, you should conduct a critical analysis of what was read to prepare for class. Ask yourself questions such as: What other alternatives could the author have explored? Why were other alternatives not explored? Does the information presented lead you to the same conclusion; why or why not? Reading is no longer optional and there is much to read.

Make Connections Networking is a term emphasized in many settings. It will continue to be an important term for the rest of your life. The adage of it is not what you know but who you know still holds true. So, make time to meet with teachers and mentors. Attend guest lecturers, department events, and conferences. Create business cards and take them everywhere along with your prepared elevator speech. For those who want to remain in academia, becoming an editor for a journal is a good way to obtain name recognition.

Mental Health and Support Everyone interviewed for this article expressed a moment when they wanted to give up. You will feel incompetent due to the editing and correcting process you are experiencing. Many isolate themselves at this time which is not helpful. Remember, graduate school is about teaching people how to think. Having colleagues in the program along with access to family members will help you continue to take strides towards graduation. A former support service employee in the California education system declares that support systems remind graduate students how their abilities have value. Although graduate school is not a social extension of undergrad, engaging in non-academic activities helps provide perspective and allows you to recognize non-traditional career paths.

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WI Guest Author

This correspondent is a guest contributor to The Washington Informer.

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