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Graduate School:
a Different World

By Kelley Jacobs

If you decide on graduate school, how is it different?

Looking back over your undergraduate years you might remember your freshman year as one of learning how to live away from home, parties, making friends, confusion about what you want to major in, finding structure.

As a sophomore you felt more confident with yourself, learned some self-discipline and began getting an idea what of you want to do.

By your junior year you've learned the ropes of academia, settled in on a major, and have a circle of friends who will probably be friends for life.

And your senior year was one of panic—you faced graduation and going out into the world, leaving the circle of friends.

You had to determine if you were ready to leave academia and join the workforce, or continue on to pursue a master's degree.

Unlike undergraduate school, everyone in grad school really wants to be there. The application process can include extensive-interviews, essays, resumes, writing samples, and references before acceptance. Grad schools are looking for students who will be able to contribute to the field and represent the school well. Those who have their heart set on graduate school should closely review admission criteria and the number of applicants compared to the number of those accepted into the program. Being honest with yourself on where you stand as an applicant, and what you hope to accomplish by going to graduate school, will help you focus on potential schools that will be a good fit.

Once you've selected a program and have been accepted, the first thing you will likely notice at registration is that a "full load" isn't nearly as many courses as a "full load" in undergraduate school. Most full-time master's students take only three to four courses each semester compared to five or six as an undergraduate. Graduate students are expected to contribute to class discussions and professors expect their students to be engaged. Gone are the days of lecture halls with hundreds of students. Graduate school classes are usually made up of fewer than 20 students. Smaller class size provides the opportunity for a closer relationship with peers and instructors, and greater opportunity for individualized attention.

Since graduate school classes are very focused and are typically offered by a single department, graduate students spend a lot of their time in one area, with like-minded peers. Undergraduate coursework is typically generalized and offered by multiple departments as students work to complete general education requirements and electives. As a result, students attend classes all over campus and engage with a variety of different people in different departments and different areas of campus. Graduate students can feel isolated and less a part of an overall university and more a part of the department in their area of study. This allows students to be focused and engaged without the distractions faced by undergraduate students.

While an undergraduate, most of us received a syllabus with information on assignments and papers, along with due dates. Graduate courses typically don't provide that level of guidance. Students are not assessed as heavily on tasks and assignments. The focus has shifted to research, internships, practicum experience, and research papers. There will be courses where the only assignment is a final research paper or presentation.

Graduate students are expected to prioritize their coursework and make time to complete projects without the guidance of additional deadlines or period reviews of their work.

In undergraduate school, it's acceptable to earn a C in a course. After all, C means "average," right? In graduate school, "average" is simply not good enough. Graduate students are expected to excel in each and every class. Earning a C in graduate school is the equivalent of earning an F in college.

So how do you earn A's in graduate school? You study. A lot. Graduate students spend a considerable amount of time reading, studying, and applying their new found knowledge. Undergraduates juggle their time between classes, extracurricular activities, clubs, work, trips home, and friends. Graduate students spend most of their time in classes or working on projects or papers. Many graduate students elect not to work at a job, and instead treat their commitment to graduate school as their job. More time will be spent learning and applying knowledge and less time on extracurricular activities and campus events.

While the undergraduate years are filled with friendships and fun, time in graduate school is spent learning to be more independent. Time that was previously spent planning for an exciting weekend football game is now spent in a library or at home, reading or researching for that next big presentation. New friendships are made with likeminded individuals, usually from within the same department. These peer relationships will be beneficial later on when you need job references or letters of recommendation. Time is also spent with faculty working on projects or getting feedback.

While there are social clubs and organizations on campus that welcome graduate students, they don't play a huge role in the life of the graduate student. Graduate students who are involved in activities outside of their coursework typically join clubs or organizations closely related to their area of study to network and take advantage of professional development opportunities.

Graduate students are under a tremendous amount of pressure to do well and be successful during their time in graduate school. This can often result in feeling isolated and anxious. Competition with peers to stand out and be recognized can cause tension and strain relationships. Many graduate students also worry how they will cover expenses while in school, or how they will pay off student loan debt after they graduate.

For many graduate students, this is the first time they have had to be self-sufficient, responsible for their own housing, meals, transportation, and schooling expenses. This can increase the feeling of isolation when facing the pressures of graduate school. Since grades aren't as dependent on exams or group projects, graduate students don't have the opportunity to participate in study groups or other collaborative learning environments. The pressure is entirely on graduate students to do well in school, write their own papers, prepare for their own presentations, and manage their own schedules.

As graduate students near the end of their master's program, they also feel pressure to find sustainable employment. Often students are conducting their job search while working on their thesis or capstone project in order to secure an employment offer before graduation. The pressure to find a job can be a distraction from completing necessary obligations for graduation. Graduate students need to be able to effectively manage their time and competing priorities in order to complete their last semester of study.

Independence can be both liberating and frightening. Since graduate students spend less time in class and more time studying on their own, they tend to be more independent. In college, there were likely hundreds of students earning the same undergraduate degree with the same requirements. In graduate school, there are not nearly as many students in the program, and students are working in areas of their own individual interests. A Developmental Psychology program, for example, may accept a dozen graduate students, but those students will have different areas of focus including children, infants, geriatric development, or developmental disabilities. In college there was less diversity and fewer opportunities to specialize in any one specific area, so students could work in groups.

Graduate students tend to live off campus which can be a big change from the college years. This can be the first real experience living as an adult. This makes sense since most (not all) graduate students transition to the workforce after they complete their degree program. Graduate students learn to be more disciplined, accountable for the quality of their own work, and can take pride on an independent job done right. There is substantial reward in this autonomous experience!

There are several distinct differences between campus life as an undergraduate and as a graduate student. Undergraduate students may be involved in many different types of clubs or organizations, dabbling in a variety of different areas. Graduate students are typically involved in organizations or clubs (as time allows) that relate to their area of study or employment. Being an active participant in campus life becomes a more intentional effort with the increase in competing priorities.

There are still plenty of opportunities to get involved on campus as a graduate student. Schools encourage graduate students to take advantage of sporting events, professional organizations, mentoring opportunities, and professional development opportunities.

College student demographics are changing. Twenty years ago, a typical college student was a full time student under the age of 25. Today, there is no "typical" college student. Online programs, part-time programs, hybrid programs, and cohort programs are changing the landscape for what is deemed "normal." The same is true for graduate students. As a result, schools are rapidly updating amenities to include child care facilities, graduate student lounges, innovative housing options, virtual tech assistance, and online libraries and databases to accommodate a diverse student population.

Preparation Leads to Success

Here's how you can prepare for graduate school and succeed during those two or three high pressure years.

Graduate students may have:

  • recently earned their bachelor's degree

  • out of school for years

  • started a family

  • recently become empty nesters

  • joined the military

  • been discharged

  • decided it was time to change careers

The possibilities are endless, and graduate schools are prepared to work with students of all backgrounds to help them succeed.

To prepare yourself for the demands of graduate school, here are some things to consider:

Determine what you want to study.
Research programs, talk to individuals in the field, visit the school or arrange a phone conference. Figure out what you want to do after you earn your graduate degree and make sure it aligns with the degree program you select.
Make sure you are financially prepared for graduate school.
Be realistic about your plans to work (or not work) while going to school. If you are planning to change from full-time work to part-time work while going to school, make sure you have the financial resources to continue to pay your bills. If you have a spouse or significant other who will be working and supporting you while you pursue your degree, be open with them about your expectations for support.
Find a mentor.
Having a mentor is a great way to help cope with the demands of graduate school. Finding a professor, experienced professional, or another educator who knows what you are going through or who knows the field is a great asset. Mentors can provide feedback, serve as a sounding board, offer professional advice, and help provide connections when searching for a job.
Use a calendar.
Schedule everything. Block off time spent in class, time needed to study, and time needed for prep work for projects or papers. Break down large projects into smaller tasks and schedule those as well. This will help prevent procrastination and will leave you better prepared to handle an emergency or sudden change in schedule.

If you are a parent or caregiver, make sure you schedule time for family obligations…or even a much needed dinner with friends or a weekend trip with the family. Scheduling time for family and friends allows you to intentionally make them a priority and feel less isolated and stressed.

Tools for success.
You need to be prepared for your graduate program by having all the materials needed for success. Pay attention to technical requirements, software, internet speeds, and hardware that might be needed as part of the program or even an individual course. Have a backup plan in place in case your technology fails. Being prepared in advance allows you to hit the ground running and get off to a great start!

While there are distinct differences between college and graduate school, you can find success in both by knowing what to expect and preparing yourself. Graduate school is both professionally and personally rewarding. Being prepared and having realistic expectations will ensure that you survive and come out on top with the right master's degree to advance in your career or find the job of your dreams.

About the Author

Kelley Jacobs is passionate about education and helping others
navigate the higher education system. Kelley is an avid researcher
with experience in qualitative and quantitative research as
well as program evaluation.

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