Are You Prepared for Graduate School?

Transition Tips for Professionals, Undergrad or International Students

Earning a graduate degree takes 2-7 years of concentrated study. Therefore, potential students should clarify up front why they want to attend. Are they seeking better career opportunities, a higher salary, work in a specific field of study, and/or an academic position? Whatever their reason, aspiring graduate students should consider the time commitment, cost, and potential pressures involved.

The preparation process for graduate school typically begins at least six months before the application deadline, in order for students to research schools and programs, take (and possibly re-take) graduate entrance exams, and assemble and prepare application materials.

Are You Ready for Grad School?

A thorough examination of your motivation, goals, and interests may help you determine your readiness for graduate school. Use the signs listed below to inventory yourself. Are you ready now? Should you wait a few years? Should you go at all?

You're Itching to Apply: You feel excitement when reading about the application process and can't wait to get started on your personal essay and studying for the GRE.

You Can't Stop Thinking About Psychology (or Botany or…): The field you want to pursue occupies your mind, and you know exactly why you want to study it.

You're Not a Homebody: Grad school can take you anywhere, depending on the program you're interested in. You don't mind the idea of relocating.

You Love Learning: You thrived as an undergraduate and look forward to the challenge of grad school classes, research, and writing your thesis or dissertation.

You've Got the Money Figured Out: You've formulated a financial plan -- through a funded graduate program, financial assistance, and/or student loans -- and haven't woken up in a tuition-related panic.

You Are Easily Distracted: You sit down with your laptop intent on researching schools, scholarships, and application requirements but end up playing online Sudoku.

You Don't Really Need an MA or Ph.D: You work in an industry that values experience rather than education, and graduate school will not help you advance or get paid more.

You Feel Pressured: Whether it's your father who tells everyone you're going to be a lawyer (just like him) or you're telling yourself you "should" go, the decision doesn't feel like yours.

You Can't Decide on a Program -- and Want to Go to Iceland: Perhaps graduate school should wait if your interests span different fields and/or travel beckons.

You're Slightly Interested in Medical School: You imagine becoming a pediatrician but don't know much about the job. Consider volunteering at a children's hospital or working in a doctor's office first.

Choosing the Right Grad Program

You want to go to graduate school and now you need to choose a program. When faced with the daunting array of choices, certain factors can help narrow your decision, including the school or program's location, specific degree programs available, cost, time commitment, faculty, accreditation, online learning options, and on-campus resources.

Location: Consider location if you want proximity to the ocean to research marine mammals in the wild or need access to certain museums or facilities -- or if the climate does not work for you, e.g., allergies or seasonal affective disorder become debilitating.
Degree Programs: The more specifically you can narrow your field of study, the better. Graduate programs tend to focus on specialties and concentrations that align with particular educational and research goals.
Cost: Check a program's offerings of loans, scholarships, teaching or research assistantships, and work-study opportunities. Consider the cost -- especially for professional programs like law and medicine, which come with high price tags.
Time: Once you determine the time you can devote to graduate work, find programs tailored to your needs. For example, you can consider part-time study, evening classes, or online options. Also think about the number of years required to complete your target degree.
Faculty: A renowned authority in your area of research interest may sound great, but this advantage might disappear if they travel frequently. Reach out to professors and students in the program and ask questions.
Accreditation: Most employers only hire graduates of accredited programs -- regional accreditation is particularly important and signals more rigorous academic assessment standards than national accreditation.
Online Learning Components: Taking location and travel time/money out of the equation can expand your educational options -- especially if your responsibilities include a job or family commitments. You might also pay lower tuition rates.
Availability of On-campus Resources: Carefully consider the resources you may need, such as an extensive library, laboratory space, or advising and counseling, and ask around about their availability and quality.

After Acceptance: Preparing for Grad School

Starting grad school may feel intimidating and cause anxiety. You can alleviate much of the worry and nervousness by ensuring that you've submitted all required paperwork, that you understand your academic path, that you know what will happen in class, and that you've familiarized yourself with your classmates and professors.

Get Organized

If you need to fill out and file forms -- for financial aid, scholarships, loans, or tuition payment accounts -- compile a checklist to ensure their completion.

Get Advised

Meeting with your academic advisor before the start of the term can help you understand program expectations, culture, and procedures. You can also learn about required and elective course options.

Get Acquainted

Find out about your classmates by accessing data on the departmental website, which may even post bios of current and incoming students. If you can obtain their contact information in advance, ask a couple of them to coffee.

Get Informed

If you can access textbooks or materials and syllabi, do so before the first day of class to become familiar with your course content. You can even get some of the reading done in advance.

Get the Scoop

Virtually all programs feature online faculty biographies, detailing their education, past teaching posts, research, publications, and sometimes hobbies. You can also look up student evaluations of professors and classes.

 

Grad School Prep for International Students

International students who are interested in pursuing a graduate degree in the U.S. may need to use different strategies to prepare for grad school. Check out this guide to learn more about the process of applying to a school and get information on academic and Visa requirements.

How to Study in the U.S.
as an International Student

 

Mental Health Preparation for Grad School

Graduate students experience external pressures on a daily basis, which can be exacerbated by self-imposed expectations. The resulting stress can cause mental health issues among some students. Fortunately, learners can arm themselves with strategies to stay grounded.

By the Numbers: Mental Health and Well-being in Grad School

  • Eighteen percentof graduate students experience moderate or severe symptoms of mental health issues like depression or anxiety. (Source)
  • Highly educated individuals and Ph.D. students are more likely to develop mental health problems. (Source)
  • Twenty-six percent of grad students who recently had suicidal thoughts assumed they were in a better mental state than the norm. (Source)

Preparation Tips to Balance Mental Health and Grad School

Practice Patience

You will likely feel overwhelmed at first, but give yourself time to settle in. This could take months or maybe a couple of years -- try not to despair.

Exercise

Staying physically active, whether by taking a yoga class or joining a sports club, can effectively improve mental health. If you can only get out for a short walk, do that between classes or study sessions.

Get Enough Sleep

Sleep deprivation contributes to a host of problems. The less sleep you get, the worse you become at coping with situations. Sacrificing sleep leads to compromised mental health.

Seek Out Support

Your fellow grad students no doubt feel as overwhelmed as you do. Socializing and talking things over with friends can keep you on an even mental keel.

Plan Your Week

Each Sunday, chart out the week ahead. Writing or typing out what you need to accomplish can help you feel in control, which can help quell anxiety.

Expert Advice: Grad School Prep for Adults and Working Professionals

Melissa Fruscione has been working in higher education enrollment management for several years at public and private graduate and professional schools. Her love for learning allows her to challenge herself to provide the highest level of service to her prospective and current students. She is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame, she earned her JD from the University at Buffalo, and she is admitted to the New York bar.
What are the most important things students consider while deciding if they should return to school for a graduate degree?

When considering whether or not you should return to graduate school, you should first really consider your motivation for the degree. Is it necessary for your career goals? Will it allow you more versatility for your future -- personally and professionally? Is this degree the best degree option for you to consider? What kinds of degrees do people working in my dream job have?

Investing in a graduate degree is a huge investment of time, energy, and money. You need to do your homework to determine if the degree is truly what you need and if it will advance your career. After you've determined the right kind of degree, then you need to think about the structure and quality of the programs you are considering. Will the program prepare you for your future in a learning method conducive to your learning style? And further, does the program have a proven track record of graduates going on to do the kind of work you hope to pursue?

There are other factors to consider, like fit, faculty, student composition, location, and cost, but start with:

  1. Defining your motivation for the degree.
  2. Finding a program that aligns with your learning style so you can excel.
  3. Evaluating the program's track record for employment.
What advice would you give to students beginning the application process? Anything they should consider to stand out?

Prospective students often ask me how to stand out in the application process. Over my 15+ years in admissions, those who "stand out" often do so in not so positive ways. Rather than standing out, I highly recommend a two-pronged approach to the application: be yourself and demonstrate your strengths.

Applying to a graduate program is like starting a relationship; it is important to be yourself and to be honest about your expectations. This is the best way to have mutual success. Don't try to use the application to create a persona you think the program is looking for; rather, be honest about who you are, your motivation for the degree, and your skills and experiences that make you suited for the degree and the particular program.

Applicants who can describe in specific detail why they are a good fit for a program are the most successful. The strongest applications take this further to demonstrate their motivation and strengths rather than merely listing them. Your honest approach and strong writing skills will make you memorable in a good way.

What resources are there for nontraditional students who are beginning the graduate school application process?

There are myriad books, articles, blogs, and discussion boards dedicated to the application process and graduate school. I would suggest starting with reputable, nonprofit, program-specific resources. One good starting point is the common application software provider for the program. Often, the application software service offers the ability to research programs or even register for communications from schools who offer your program. If you do sign up for such services, I recommend creating a new email address just for the application process; this will keep things organized and as simple as possible.

What challenges do nontraditional students (e.g., adults who took a break from school and working professionals who are returning to school) face while they are in grad school?

Nontraditional students are more likely to face work/life balance issues than students continuing their education straight through from kindergarten through college. Nontraditional students often have to balance taking care of a family, running a house, and working with the demands of graduate school. Now more than ever, I am also seeing nontraditional students caring for aging parents.

Nontraditional students also face the challenge of being out of the study/test mode that students without a gap in their education do not face. It is important for nontraditional students to balance these demands and not let themselves burn out by trying to prepare too hard before classes even start. You would not have been admitted if the admissions committee did not believe you could be successful.

How can students better prepare themselves for these obstacles?

Nontraditional students have to be careful not to let obstacles derail them. The best way to prepare is to be organized and focused. Make "school time" school time, "home time" home time, and "work time" work time. Compartmentalizing your to-do list can help, but don't compartmentalize so much that you are not allowing synergistic opportunities to present themselves, as they often do. If it has been years since you have been in a classroom, consider brushing up on foundational skills (especially for programs with prerequisite courses). Don't worry so much about reading substantive materials in preparation. Rather, just read for enjoyment to help improve your reading speed and comprehension.

What are strategies graduate students returning to school after a break can use to stay motivated?

Students returning back to school after a long break can help stay focused and motivated by keeping in mind why it is they want to earn this degree. You don't need a vision board necessarily, but maybe the image of your child going to college, a picture of your family on vacation (something you can do more often once you've advanced your career), or a visual that reminds you of the difference you can make in the world with this degree could be motivation enough to keep going.

Stay connected with your professor and classmates. This will help you pick others up when they struggle and they will do the same for you. Designate specific time to focus on your family, work, hobbies, or whatever it is that makes you happy. And, if possible, find ways to maximize your efficiency. I had one student who had a 90-minute commute each way. She would listen to lecture recordings or study aids to help her learn her material. You can even record your own notes into a podcast to personalize the material. Use those opportunities to make the most of your study time so that you can later maximize your relaxing time.

What resources do you suggest graduate students utilize while they are earning their degree?

Graduate students need to remember that they are just as much a part of the college or university as undergraduate students. Graduate students should be visiting career services offices, writing centers, academic resource offices, and their faculty's office hours. The library staff is an often overlooked treasure trove of knowledge that can help with research projects. If the school has a strong and active alumni network, graduate students should start networking as soon as they make an enrollment decision. Colleges and universities are staffed to help students succeed. Graduate students should take full advantage of these resources.

Additional Resources for Grad Students

The links below lead to online resources to help you get accepted to graduate school and find funding. They contain strategies to highlight your strengths -- rather than your GPA -- along with lists of available scholarships.