Planning for Grad School

by Sheri_Oz

How to search for the best academic institution re your professional goals and interests, how to verify whether or not it is the place for you, and how to plan for the experience.

Grad school is an investment of at least two potentially money-earning years toward your future. Therefore, if you are going to spend another two years or more at university, it is worth the hours expended to find a place appropriate to your needs - after all, you could have spent those years in the job market and beginning to establish yourself financially and professionally. Some people use grad school to go easy on themselves and postpone the move into the labour market. However, one day you WILL have to find a job. How nice it would be if your graduate degree helps you get that job! That is where proper planning comes in.

In order to ensure you make the best of this period of your life, you should be highly discriminatory in your choice of institution, programme and supervisor. This article will give you the tools necessary to make better choices.


Everyone, sooner or later, finds out what grad school is all about, but often such knowledge comes later, after you are already in a programme.

By that time a year may have been jeopardized or you may find yourself in such a position that you are left no choice by to leave the department. Many students are lucky; their initial lack of awareness does not lead to misfortune. You, however, may not be among them. I was not.

I selected my first grad school (MSc in agriculture) by its reputation. I did not understand the importance of all that I am bringing to you here and after one and a-half semesters I discovered that that particular department had such problematic inter-personal politics that my ability to complete my research project was seriously threatened. When I could see there would be no remediation, I left the university and continued my studies elsewhere. I want to help you avoid that fate.

Where to learn?

Poll for the Prospective Grad Student

What do you think about my suggestion that you need to do some research before you decide where to do your post-grad degree?

Poll for the Current Grad Student (or looking back on grad school you already completed)

You are already in grad school. You now have the advantage of hindsight. What do you think of the idea that one should do some serious research before deciding where to so a masters or doctorate?

Poll for the Parent of the Grad Student

How do you feel about the choice of grad school that awaits your son or daughter?

How to Approach the Search for a Graduate Studies Programme

Before you accept employment, you ascertain how much you will be paid, what hours you will work and exactly what duties will be expected of you. Before beginning graduate studies, you have the same right to ask those questions of a prospective supervisor or department. You have the right to know what you are getting into.

You may not be aware of the kinds of questions you should be asking yourself and the department. Perhaps you are too shy and hope things will "just work out." Experiences of others show that no one will be looking out for your welfare except you. Supervisors have their own interests to safeguard, and their concern for you will be, at best, next in line and, at worst, not even make the list. To achieve success in graduate studies with a minimum of frustration, you need to know what you want for your time and effort, and you must be prepared for your new environment.

Pros and Cons of Moving

Faculty usually recommend that you attend a different institution from that in which you obtained your bachelor's degree. The change in environment enhances your own growth, personally and academically, and new students from other universities stimulate those departments to which they come.

Of course, it is often inconvenient to move to another city, but it may be to your advantage to transfer. If you are single, moving out on your own contributes enormously to the development of your attitude toward life and your ability to handle yourself responsibly in new situations. This independence increases the potential benefit which you can extract from the graduate experience. In leaving the comforts of home, you must learn quickly what you want to accomplish because, in everything you now do, you rely on yourself.

But there is a major problem involved in attending a different university - you do not have personal experience in the department on which to base your assessment of the professors and the facilities. Often, to the chagrin of many new arrivals, what appears in the calendar turns out in fact to be a glorification or misrepresentation of what you actually find:

(1) among the long list of graduate courses, many are not offered every year;

(2) you are not advised as to the quality of course-offerings and instructors;

(3) no list is given of professor's sabbatical leaves;

(4) departmental politics are not mentioned;

(5) research and library facilities are not adequately assessed.

If you get excited about a programme from the calendar description, think back to how you felt about your undergrad courses in September and how that excitement compared with the disappointment that often resulted from unfulfilled expectations.

Therefore, read on to see what to do to check out the potential grad school.

Speaking With Graduate Students at Your Present Institution

You want to know if you would enjoy the grad experience.

In acquiring sufficient information upon which to judge soundly a department's ability to meet your needs, the first step is to speak with students now enrolled in a graduate programme at your current institution. This is for two reasons: you want to see if you could get the training you desire where you are and in a place with which you are already familiar; and you want to get a sense of whether or not grad school is the right environment for you and will help you achieve your professional goals.

If you were taught by teaching assistants, visit them in their offices or carrel spaces in the library. If you are considering a department from which you've never taken a course, don't be too shy to just knock on any grad's door or to ask for the president of the faculty's grad student association. Everyone likes to talk about his or her experiences, and grad students will likely be flattered to be approached for advice. But, as each grad will have a different viewpoint, speak to a few in the department in order to get a balanced perspective. What you

The following are questions you may want to ask of grad students:

1. Are you taking more courses than you had anticipated when you began the programme? How many additional courses do you have to do? Did you agree that you need all these courses?

2. In a good week, how many hours do you spend on research?

3. Do you get enough help from your supervisor? Does he or she hinder your progress?

4. If my area of research interest is "X", who in this department is it best to speak to?

5. Do you know of other universities that have a good department for my area of interest?

Discussion along these lines should help you analyze whether or not you would benefit from, and enjoy, the graduate experience.

After this, approach a faculty member in the department for advice on which universities have strong research programmes in your area of interest. As the prof what he or she knows of the quality of the various instructors at other universities.

Contacting Potential Departments

Before Internet days one would have to write snailmail to universities to request information that is now easily obtained from around the world 24/7. Google the university of your choice and you should see on the google search page a direct click to "graduate studies" or "graduate programmes" or "graduate degrees".

On the graduate studies web page you will have tabs that allow you to explore the various aspects of life as grad at this institute, including:

1. degrees, certificates and diplomas offered in the faculties and departments at the university;

2. fees and costs: tuition, books, laboratory, student union, and other incidental university fees;

3. financial support, loans available to students, student grants and awards given for achievement;

4. expected costs of living in the area, whether this is dormitory or off-campus housing;

5. information required by international students'

6. calendar: school year schedule and exam times.

Some information on admission requirements, courses that can or must be taken, faculty members and their research interests, departmental resources (specialty library, laboratories and research centers, etc.) will be found in the graduate studies page and some will be found on departmental pages. Check these out and compare for the institutes you may be interested in attending.

Somewhat harder to find are departmental and faculty regulations. Many graduate students never even know such formal regulations exist. Approved by the Faculty of Graduate Studies in many universities, these regulations help you know, in part, what you are getting yourself into. For example, the exams required and thesis stipulations for a degree. The department cannot in theory make unreasonable demands upon its students. Some departments have been known to deny to students the existence of such regulations. That is more difficult in today's world of Internet, but it can still happen. You want to know what protections are in place for students in the event of a dispute between the student and the department.

In addition, if financial support is essential to your ability to complete your studies, make sure you know what the university offers and how clear they are about having support available and under what conditions.

Contacting Potential Supervisors

At the master's level, it is a good idea to attend a university with several profs in your area of interest rather than to go to a department because of one particular prof. Unless you have worked for a few years, you are generally not familiar enough with the field to know in detail what you want to research. Give yourself a chance to make a choice after you will have been around the department for awhile.

At the PhD level, on the other hand, if you are confident of your own academic background, you are advised to go where there is an exceptional professor even if he or she is the only one there in your specialty.

If, at the MA level, you still prefer to base your choice of department upon an instructor with whom you may work, search the abstracts for researchers whose names you have come across through course-work or conversation. Try to find those doing work most closely related to what you had in mind. If you've heard Dr A was doing research on neural responses of rabbits to the smell of peanut butter, your checking the abstracts will show you if that is still Dr A's current interest. If he or she has not been working on that project for a few years, Dr A may no longer be interested in that line of research.

Begin corresponding directly with professors with whom you may want to work. For the sciences and professions, if you have a research project in mind, suggest it to them and ask if it can be incorporated into their research programmes. But in any faculty you need not have more than a general idea of your area of interest because most science profs will have on-going projects of which you do a part, while the Arts and Humanities departments give you time to work out a research study (and they generally do not have grant money that supports the research).

Many students, having discovered the crucial role a supervisor plays in their success, feel prospective advisers should fill out an application form to apply for the position with the student. The relationship is a mutual one and, if professors can ask certain questions of you to see if you are acceptable, you have every right to ask them appropriate questions to assess your possible compatibility. A poor student-supervisor relationship can make life miserable and in some departments switching supervisors is not allowed because of the bad feelings it causes among the faculty. Therefore, ask whatever questions you feel are pertinent. In your email, send a list of all your undergrad courses and corresponding grades. In addition to inquiring whether a prospective supervisor can take on another grad student. You should also check when the professor's next sabbatical is because you don't want to be left hanging in the middle of your degree programme with your thesis supervisor half-way around the world.

Contacting Grads at Prospective Institutions

As a last step in gathering information on the various possible departments and professors, I would suggest corresponding with the executive of the Graduate Students' Associations at the respective universities. Names and addresses should be available from the Association at which you are doing your undergraduate degree or on the Internet. Ask the Association in your target institution to contact a grad student in the department or, more specifically, one working with the supervisor you are considering. If a student in the department is willing to discuss the matter anonymously, you may get valuable information concerning the atmosphere in the department, whether or not a given professor is good to work with, advice on how to best approach him or her, and a realistic appraisal of lab and library facilities.

Visiting Potential Departments

When, by elimination, you have brought the number of possible institutions down to 2 or 3, students recommend a visit to those universities before a final decision is made. An expenditure of money at this point may save you from a disastrous decision: one student to whom I spoke remarked wryly that the departmental description of the lab facilities gave the impression of greatness but, when he arrived, he discovered his share of those facilities amounted to less than what he had in a high-school chemistry class.

Pay Attention to Gossip

In general, it is a good idea to accumulate as much gossip about departments across the country as possible; get a feel of the internal departmental politics. Within some departments you may find that, if you are the student of the wrong professor, the other faculty members may be reluctant to help you in any way. There is politics involved in appealing injustices, and the innocent student may get abused merely by association.

Young professors will work more closely with their students than will older, established faculty. The former are still working their way up and, because they still have a reputation to make, they tend to keep up more with current developments in the field. One problem with younger advisers, though, is that, having recently received their doctorates, they may find it difficult to distinguish between master's and PhD expectations and master's students may find themselves pushed quite hard or PhD students may find themselves serving as lab assistants rather than as independent researchers.

Established professors may be difficult to work with when you catch them between conferences, they may not have the patience to teach you basic techniques or they may not readily expose you to that vast store of knowledge accumulated over the years. Of course, you may find just the opposite - an older professor who loves to teach and enthusiastically shares information with those interested enough to ask.


Graduate level courses form an integral part of the programme. Additional undergraduate courses may be included if the student's background is deficient in that area. Often such a deficiency is agreed upon by everyone except the student and so he or she may be saddled with a heavier course load than anticipated.

Generally, graduate students are expected to lead seminars in which they present material on a given topic and answer questions afterward. The frequency of seminars depends on the department; some departments require only one seminar throughout the entire grad programme; others require one per term and still others only one per year. Credit for this may or may not be given, again depending on the department.

How I Knew I Was in the Right Field

I had a way to compare my experience of studying a topic that I enjoyed and that was important to me versus studying something I was passionate about. My first MSc was in agriculture and I found it fascinating. I enjoyed the labwork and was gratified by the idea that I was doing something important. My study involved examining the impact on soil properties of drip irrigating fields using sewage water.

Suddenly, a chance experience led me to study for a second MSc, this time in Family and Marital Therapy. Surprisingly, I would find myself sitting for hours on the floor among the stacks of books in the library. While looking for a particular article, I would come across so many others that drew me in. I just couldn't get enough of it.

Therefore, I tell people to follow their passion when they are trying to figure out what to study. Your studies will never go to waste. Even though I worked only 5 years in agriculture before moving on, the scientific training has stood me in good stead and I believe that I am a better therapist because of the way my mind was trained to work as a library

The Research Paper

The Masters Thesis

Masters level students must show the examiners that they have learned to search the literature thoroughly and are able to draw together information from many sources into a well-organized, intelligent discussion. If experimentation comprises a part of the research, masters students carry out the appropriate work with some direction from the supervisor. They should be able to draw conclusions from their observations and see where their work falls within the broader areas of their field.

At this level, you most likely will not make any earthshaking discoveries. Most students I spoke with commented that, instead of aiming to overwhelm everyone with your genius, you should endeavor to gain a firm grounding in technical skills, and you should acquire an extensive understanding of the literature in the field in general and an intensive knowledge of your particular specialty.

Research in any field is not easy; it takes endurance as well as intelligence, for it is inevitable that at times you will be seriously deflated. There will be days - perhaps weeks - when nothing seems to go right. In the Arts, you may reach an impasse, when all contradictory information appears equally valid and you go in circles trying to make some sense of it all. And in every scientific experiment, there will be times when nothing works with no reasonable explanation about why.

The PhD Thesis

The PhD thesis is generally much longer than that expected of a master's candidate and originality must be demonstrated. While the master's student carries out research under supervision and guidance, the PhD student is expected to work independently and to show the ability to oversee a research programme. The PhD thesis must include publishable material.

Supporting Yourself in Grad School

Research in the various Arts programmes are not generally as well supported by grants as are projects in science and technology. Therefore, Arts grads support themselves as teaching assistants in undergrad courses and grad courses in which they have attained a degree of proficiency, and they may also have to find paying jobs on or off campus.

Students in the sciences, however, may benefit from research grants awarded to their supervisors. The purpose of these grants is to cover expenses for equipment and materials, and may include a provision for salaries for students to a degree or covering of some expenses, such as tuition. Sciences grads also seek positions as teaching assistants to supplement their incomes.

Foreign students may not be able to legally earn money in any way, unless it is through grants and/or scholarships and they should be prepared to pay for their education and living expenses.

Excellence, as measured by grades, and sometime by community service, may be honoured with special grants or scholarships. Usually, however, these sources of income are not sufficiently substantial and can not be counted upon for covering living costs.

Some Lighter Reading When You Need a Break:

Oxford Student Pranks: A History of Mischief & Mayhem

Now famous people played pranks on others when they were students at Oxford. I wasn't a student at Oxford and maybe that's why my pranks were kind of minor compared to some of these. (I'm also not famous.)

View on Amazon

Plato and a Platypus Walk into a Bar . . .: Understanding Philosophy Through Jokes

Philosophy major or not, these jokes will have you rolling on the floor.

View on Amazon


This is a great bathroom book - even if English is your first language, the jokes are cute. If you are still learning English, take a translator in with you and consider it studying.

View on Amazon

Applying for Admission to Graduate Studies

Generally the most important criteria for acceptance or rejection is whether or not a faculty member in the department wants you to be his or her student. Then, even if you do not have the highest qualifications of all applicants, he or she will make the case for your admission to the programme. This is even more certain if that particular faculty member brings funds into the department in the form of research grants or has a high political standing within the department or university.

Here are some important points regarding applying for admission to graduate programmes.

  1. You can apply to several institutions at the same time in order to save time if you are not accepted at your first choice; however, do not let the institutions know that. You are not obligated to accept if you are admitted - you do have the option of reconsidering your application.
  2. Submit your application well before the deadline date. That allows you enough time to perfect your application letter before submitting it, as well as tying up loose ends if you forget to submit certain documents.
  3. Make sure there are no grammar or spelling errors on your application letter or forms. This strongly affects the impression you make.
  4. Before confirming invitations to potential referees, verify that they do think highly enough of you to write a balanced and supportive reference. You don't want a "perfect" reference because nobody is perfect. It is quite fine for them to make note of areas in which you need to improve, as long as these are not fundamental character flaws that would prevent others from wanting you around. It is quite legitimate for you to provide more information to referees that will round out their knowledge of you. The referee should know you personally and not just have been the instructor in a large anonymous class in which you got high grades.
  5. Grades are going to determine whether or not your application will even be examined. That includes grades on entrance exams.However, if you completed your previous degree several years earlier and have worked for a time in the field, building up a good reputation at work, then you do stand a good chance of being seriously considered for admission.If you did relatively poorly in your undergraduate degree, but have matured and are sure you can succeed now, the you would be advised to take a summer or evening course in the department in order to demonstrate that you can get good grades and that your poor record is due more to lack of motivation or immaturity than to lack of capability.
  6. If you are not accepted and feel you were unfairly assessed, you do have recourse to turn to the Board of Graduate Studies at the university and request re-evaluation of your application. However, if it was the faculty in which you want to study that rejected your application and not the university in general, then you may not want to force your way in. You may be better off trying other institutions and find the one that wants what you have to offer.

All images here are in the public domain and downloaded from:

Updated: 01/29/2015, Sheri_Oz
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katiem2 on 06/14/2017

My daughter, a senior this fall at O.S.U, just met with advisor regarding her grad school selection and application process. She is working in a research lab to help her get into the school of her choice. She is unsure which schools she will narrow it down to and yet is still on the research process. This article is timely and helpful. I especially like your guidelines and advice as it reflects my own. Thanks, katiem2

Sheri_Oz on 02/05/2015

You are right, MBC - it can be (is) a very political process and I hope I made that clear while not overstating the case above. But isn't any place of work (and doing a doctorate is work in all senses of the word) essentially political when there are more than 2 people present? It is well known that academic establishments can be VERY political. Good idea to stand back and watch for a while before opening one's mouth.

MBC on 02/04/2015

Great advice! Wishing everyone well in grad school. Be forewarned it can be a POLITICAL process.

Sheri_Oz on 01/30/2015

Thanks, @sheilamarie.

sheilamarie on 01/30/2015

This article will be very helpful to someone considering grad school. You've laid out lots of things to consider when making a choice.

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